Old Railroad Station Once City's Busiest Spot
Reprinted from The Buffalo Times, October 25, 1931.
Down on Exchange street, the New York Central station sprawls in the October sun like a tired old man waiting for death. The dusty, weather-worn windows have that weary, lusterless expression of angel eyes. The dry-rotted wooden platform sags inward like bloodless lips over toothless gums.
It is quiet down there now, for the railroad rails beyond the platform are rusted a dull orange color. But less than two years ago here was one of the busiest places in Buffalo - the roar of incoming and departing trains, the platform and waiting room jammed with hurrying humanity. Kisses of farewell. Kisses of greeting. Tears of joy. Tears of grief. Cries of newsboys. Shouts of trainmen. Raucous voices of cab-drivers seeking fares. The mellifluous baritone of the announcer. "Rochester...Syracuse...Utica...Schenectady...Albany...All points east...Allll 'B-o-a-r-d!"
But it is quiet now. Traffic over the Michigan avenue viaduct is but a dull rumble. Pigeons in the eves mutter about the wind that is turning more chilly day by day. They flutter around and a couple of white feathers drift down to lie on the platform beside an old umbrella. The umbrella is pulled the wrong side out, and some spider has wrought a delicate piece of artistry between the twisted ribs.
Inside the waiting room is dust and echoing silence. And that strange brand of rubbish which rats drag out into their undisturbed runways.
Streaks of sunlight through the almost opaque windows adding to the ghostliness of the interior. Ghosts of memories.
The fancy writers would drag out ghosts of the great who have walked the now crumbling boards of that waiting room and platform. But the great ones have had so many high moments. It is likely that the shade of Sarah Bernhardt would return to the Exchange street station because incidentally her talented toes touched there on the way to thrill Buffalo theatre-goers? Her greatest triumphs, her most poignant sorrows were set in other scenes. Would then the Divine Sarah's shade stalk austerely around the paint-flecked pillars of the Exchange street station?
Rather, turn back the calendar to the early 1850's. There is a sweet-faced girl in crinoline and a thin-hipped, broad shouldered youth with the gleam of an adventurer in his eyes.
"It won't be long now, Ann" he says. "Maybe a year or two years. But the gold there is in a man's for the picking up."
Outside stands the old-fashioned swogan-stacked locomotive hissing to itself in anxiousness to get away. Away through Ashtabula to Chicago, the outpost of civilization. And from there, the almost limitless wastes of plain and mountain by wagon train to the fabled land of California.
The girl clings to him desperately. "Farewell, my sweet." she sobs. "I will wait for you forever!" Can that nebulous bit of color in that far shadow be this girl of long ago? Can she still be here in the "depot" waiting for the boy who failed to come back?
There was a time when the thump of long-barreled drums, and the shrill of fifes resounded through the station. Boys of Erie County and Western New York, excited with patriotism, garbed with ill-fitted and ridiculous caps, fingered their awkward Springfields nervously.
On to preserve the Union! The gaunt man in the White House had called! Slavery must be abolished! "Harriet Beecher Stowe is the author. And they tell me that there's a Simon Legree on every plantation. Well, we'll show 'em!"
So, at bloody Manassas, and at Shiloe, there are dying visions of the old station's brown painted doors as frames to pretty young faces or wrinkled and motherly faces.
And at the station, the telegraph instruments click, and burr, and click the news of battle. "Splendid success here!" Strategic retreat there!" "Herman Schmidt, and George Brown, and Theodore Barclay of Buffalo killed on the field of battle."
Perchance, do these hungry-eyed heros search now through the quiet halls of the Exchange street station for those who would have met them there?
True, the lean Lincoln was no stranger there. On this floor, his monstrous feet have scuffed more than once. His grotesque shadow flitted along the walk. But if the emancipator's shade now returns to earthly scenes, it is more likely to stroll through leafy Illinois glades with the fair-haired Ann Rutledge, than to visit casual scenes as the Buffalo railway station.
Still, as one peers through the murk, it is easy to imagine him, sad-faced, and six-feet four, standing in the half-light over there near the old news stand.
"When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah, hurrah.
We'll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home!"
And the old station - not so old then - ringing with cheers and echoing with the blare of martial music. And the shrilling steam locomotive whistles. And the clipity-clop of horse hooves on the cobblestone of Exchange street. And the thump of a wooden leg on board sidewalks. And the shuffling walk of men whose frames were sickened by fever in Southern swamps. But most of all the rejoicing. The candle no longer lit all night in the front window. Calm, unworried sleep once more after so many years.
The war to end war was over. And business thriving on Exchange street.
An untouched empire lying fallow in the West. Emigrant trains. Wooden benches in box cars for the poorer. Packed coaches for those with more money.
"Go West, young man! Go West!"
Scandinavians, Germans, Irish - all the races of North Europe seeking homesteads. Free farms for the asking. Discouraged farmers from the rocky hill land of New England with their families and huge baskets of food. Fried chicken and doughnuts in quantity to last them at least until St. Joseph, MO where they must take the steam train to Nebraska City, Nebraska. The stage or wagon into the mysterious realms yet farther West.
Lost children crying in the Exchange street station. "Papa and Mama gone to Colorady after gold. And they left me - baaaw!"
Those crying children now grandparents in the west. Perhaps in the poor house. Perhaps thriving cities named for them. Perhaps their children's children making touchdowns for Harvard or dancing with princes.
Wonder if grandpa ever remembers the brown walls of the Exchange street station and devestating woe of being lost.
My own father, pink cheeked and sixteen, sitting in the wating room with a bulging telescope, valise of clothing and a basket of lunch. Waiting for the train to take him West. Listening to the clattering of telegraph instruments and wheezing switch engines. Dreaming of herds of Buffalo and red Indians and mountains of gold. In his old age to gaze upon forbidding rocky mountains and dream of his native New York hills.
Maple sugar for sale in the railway station. And hot roasted chestnuts. Then pop corn and peanuts. And a strange yellow fruit called a bananna.
And the oil lights are changed to gas. And then the gas lights become sputtering, blue electric arc lamps which attract myriads of bugs during the sultry summer months.
A bushy haired young man, who speaks with drawling endearment to his frail and pretty wife enters the waiting room. Already, he has a portion of fame from his "Innocence Abroad". In the future, he will write "Huckleberry Finn", and "Life on the Mississippi", and become more famous under the pseudonym of Mark Twain.
More presidents and senitors and cabinet members and princes of the blood.
And a young women comely in a continental Europe peasent fashion sitting in the waiting room crying.
A matron speaks to to her in English, but the young woman raises her tear-stained moon face and shakes her head woefully.
"Sprechen Sie Deutch?"
Again, she shakes her head. She is the picture of life adrift, forsaken by God, spurned by man, abandoned of hope.
The matron calls a swarthy brakeman who speaks to her in his native tongue. "Parlez vous Francais?"
She shakes her head.
A Cuban porter inquires, "Habla Espagnol?"
The tears burst forth anew, but between compulsive sobs, the young woman shakes her head.
Reinforcements are called in and she is addressed successively in Polish, Swedish, Italian, Rumanian, and Yiddish, but she understands none of them.
The matron now shakes her head. "Lands sakes." she says. "I don't know what to make of her. She sure don't look like a Chinaman, but you can't never tell. Joe, you go down the block and get Lee Yeung out of his laundry and see if maybe he can talk to her."
But then, a motherly old soul carrying a bird cage and carbet bag is attracted to the scene, and in an instant comprehends the situation.
"For pity's sake!" says she and wiggles a handful of fingers at the sobbing girl. The young woman smiles all over her round face and gesticulates maddly. "Why," says the motherly old woman, "the poor thing is just deaf and dumb and nearly starved to clean to death. She want to know can I show her to a restaurant."
Horse cars claging along Exchange street. And freight cars in the yards bearing beautifully painted reapers and binders. Sidewalk solicitors in front of clothing stores across from the station. Cab drivers ready to take the incoming yokel where he can see "life" and then be robbed - and maybe killed. Mustached and booted bullies returning from the West with pokes full of nuggets, and their mouths full of "tall talk".
Adelina Patti, surrounded by admirers, tripping daintily across the platform while brakemen and porters stare.
Grover Cleveland, Buffalo's mayor, down at the station to meet dignitaries now forgotten.
Grover Cleveland, President of the United States, back on a visit, stamps a capable foot on the station platform. Here is home. Freedom from worries.
Free silver. William Jennings Bryan of the thin lips and silver tongue.
"You shall not crucify labor on this cross of gold!"
His frock coat brushes the door knob that once felt the touch of Lincoln's hand - the door knob that is now brown with rust.
Torchlight processions on Exchange street. Groups of men arguing in the waiting room.
Down in the shadows on the far end of the platform, two Italians fight over a woman. One is stabbed and gasps out his life on the boards.
Again the roll of drums and skirling fife.
Uphold America's honor!
world's greatest figures passed through
waiting room now dim with dust
"There'll be a hot time
In the old town tonight!"
And the thud, thud, thud of young men's feet marching along the platform - Buffalo boys garbed in blue climbing into railway cars to die of typhoid in a Tennessee fever camp that the rape of Cuba by the unspeakable Don might not go unavenged. Cheers, tears, kisses of farewell.
The war to end wars. Captain Richmond Pearson Hobson, handsome hero of a feat which failed. Scores of pretty girls in the waiting room and on the platform. A girl kisses him, another and another - and a promising political career is blasted more thoroughly than was Hobson's gun-boat Merrimac.
The white-mustached and chunky admiral, hero of Manila Bay, walks across the waiting room with his wife.
"Wonder why not dey didn't give HER dat fine sword?" remarks a train porter.
And there is the malaria-ridden veteran who swallows a bottle of carbolic acid in the men's wash room and dies calling for Jennie.
And the young man travelling with his sick wife from New York City to Colorado. She is taken from the train at the station gasping for breath and dies before the doctor arrives.
Countless babies born in the matron's quarters. One was named New York Central, which he edited to "York" as he grew to the age of reason.
William McKinley - although he did not pass through the Exchange street station on his fatal visit to the Pan-American Exposition.
Theodore Roosevelt and his "malefactors of great wealth." William Howard Taft of genial smile, tremendous girth and George Ade campaign jokes.
Automobiles now roar on Exchange street.
Woodrow Wilson of careful diction.
"He kept us out of war."
And the war to end war.
The roll of drums in the Exchange street station. And the blare of brass.
"Over there, over there.
"Send the word, send the word to beware.
"That the Yanks are coming..."
Again the thud, thud, thud of marching feet on the platform. This time the Buffalo boys are clad in dun, bound for France to die of gas and flu that the rape of Belgium by the unspeakable Hun might not go unavenged.
Train after train filled with soldiers pull into the station from the West. In the daytime, girls and women at the station feed the boys sandwiches, coffee and doughnuts.
I am on one of these trains which pulls into the Exchange street station from California about midnight. I am posted on guard in a vestibule to see that no one gets off the train nor gets on it. I am sleepy and hungry and tired from a five-day journey from the Pacific coast, so I step down to the old wooden platform and walk up and down a bit to stretch my legs.
An elderly man with a kindly face steps up to me. He looks like a banker.
"Where are you from son?" he asks.
"We're not allowed to tell." I say.
The arc lights sputter and send weird blue shadows across his face.
"What division is it?"
"Sorry sir, but I can't tell you"
"I understand." he says. "Are you bound for France?"
"You'll have to draw you're own conclusions as to that."
"Well, are you hungry?"
"Now," says I, "you've asked a question that I can answer freely and with enthusiasm."
"Come with me, son, and I'll..."
"Sorry, but I don't dare leave the train. I'm on guard."
Well, he hurried away, and presently came back with a big mug of steaming coffee and a chicken sandwich and a big beef sandwich and a piece of apple pie.. The apple pie was made with cinnamon instead of nutmeg, as all good apple pies should be made.
As I ate his food of the gods, this sainted gentleman pointed to a pile of about twenty coffin boxes stacked at one end of the platform.
"The flu is hitting us mighty hard." he said. Then the train began moving. I hope this Buffalonian, whoever he was, escaped the flu and is enjoying good health today.
Then came peace.
"When you come back,
"If you do come back,
"You'll find the whole world,
"Waiting for you."
And so the soldiers came home from France. Buffalo's own 174th Infantry landed at the old station with a reception that the boys are still talking about. The station was busier than ever - perhaps too busy now for the little human dramas to take place there. The McLeod hotel across the way was always full.
When Statler announced he would build a great new Hostelry, Duncan McLeod said, "I don't care how many new hotels you build so long as you don't build any old ones."
That wasn't so long ago.
But it was before the new New York Central mosque to the American God speed was opened in East Buffalo.
Now, the McLeod hotel is closed. Furniture still stands in its lobby, but the chairs are covered with dust.
On Exchange street, an occasional trolley car bangs along. In a Negro pool hall five black men sprawl languidly. One of them is talking half heartedly about some one named Gertrude. The others make no comments.
Across the way, the Exchange street station sits in the sun and waits for death.