Article From the Fall 2002 Issue of
The Journal of the New York Museum of Transportation
PORTAGE CROSSING TURNS 150
Reporting on the 75th anniversary of Centralized Traffic Control and the 30th anniversary of Hurricane Agnes didn’t leave any space in the Summer issue of HEADEND to commemorate another important date. We thank David Minor for alerting us to the fact that it was on August 9, 1852 that the first train crossed the Genesee River on the high bridge at Portage, New York.
Soon after the completion of the Erie Canal, the dream took hold of a direct, through transportation route between New York City and the Great Lakes, one that didn’t involve first going to Albany as was the case with the Canal and would be the case with the still-forming New York Central. After many long years of effort, in April 1851 the last spike was driven near Cuba, New York, and the New York and Erie Railroad brought that dream to reality.
The western terminus of the line was at Dunkirk, New York. But during the long years of NY&E construction, the Erie Canal had brought phenomenal growth to Buffalo, which inspired a branch line from Hornellsville (later Hornell, New York) to that city. The one big obstacle on this route was the Genesee River gorge at what we know today as Letchworth State Park.
A timber trestle was envisioned to bridge the 900-foot width of the canyon. According to Edward Hungerford’s "Men of Erie", 1,600,000 linear feet of timber and 106,280 pounds of iron were assembled to create this amazing structure. Hungerford tells us, "In its 50-foot spans and benches, it was so fabricated that if any one of the members was found to be defective, that member could be taken out and replaced without disturbing the rest of the structure". Cost of the bridge came to $175,000.
It took two years to complete the bridge, and on August 9, 1852, the Erie’s favorite locomotive, the "Orange", pulled the first train across to much celebration. Again with thanks to David Minor, we have this report of the great event from the August 17, 1852 edition of the Wyoming County Mirror, published in Warsaw, New York:
Portage Bridge—First Crossing
Last Saturday, at 4 o’clock, p.m., an engine, and train of cars crossed Portage Bridge for the first time. We were there, and never felt happier in riding on a railroad than we did in going with that train over this stupendous structure. It was one of the most thrilling scenes we ever beheld. Thousands had congregated on each bank to witness the performance, who chose to be spectators rather than actors in the first scene; and as the old Orange, (the pioneer of all railroads, by pre-emption right,) came down with its train to the west bank of the river, preparatory to crossing, and sent forth a long, wild scream from her startling whistle, a thrill seemed to pass through the concourse which cannot be described; and the conversation of many indicated that they almost expected to see that mighty fabric of timber and iron belts, as the train approached its center, tumble with its thousand human beings into the awful chasm below, to be hurried in an instant over the great falls that roar almost beneath. There were three open cars, a baggage car and two passenger cars, which, with the engine and tender, were completely covered with persons eager to take the ride. Everything was admirably arranged, and our old friend Doty, the conductor, performed his part like a gentleman. Messrs. Lauman and Rockafellow, of the Contractors, Col Seymour, Chief Engineer, Mr. Haywood, President of the Company, and several of the Directors, were present, and occupied the tender. The train started from the west side with as much speed as possible, and probably did not occupy over one minute in crossing. When the train arrived directly over the river, and 240 feet above it, the people on board, and those on the bank, sent up such a shout as drowned even the roar of the falls; and as the train passed, the cheers continued, amid the whirling of hats by the men, and waving of handkerchiefs by the ladies who were scattered over the east bank and filled the balconies and windows of the Mountain House. Many ladies passed over in the train, occupying the passenger cars, and seeming to enjoy it as much as those who have sometimes been considered bolder than they. At 5 o’clock the train crossed again, on its return to Attica, filled with people.
But the Bridge itself—It was as firm as the rock on which it is founded. We do not believe it moved in any direction to the amount of one hundredth part of an inch. The surface of the water, which stood upon it in tubs, showed but a slight tremor as the cars passed. This Bridge is the most wonderful structure of the kind in this, if not in any country. The chief builder is Joseph Pencil, of Pennsylvania—W. R. Watous, builder of the mason work. The work is so perfectly constructed, that in looking across the top and ends of the top timbers, not the eighth of an inch variation from a straight line can be observed. Both the masonry and wood work reflect great credit upon the builders; its design is equally creditable to Col. Seymour, and the whole thing, with its completion so much earlier than had been expected, is creditable to the enterprising Contractors, Messrs. Lauman, Rockafellow, and Moore. In fact, we believe it has been the salvation of the Company that the work went into their hands; and they are now doing much, with others, by affecting important connections of the road with others at Buffalo, &c., to render it one of the most important roads in the country.
The trains are hereafter to pass the Bridge daily; and we understand that after to-morrow there will be the same number of trains west of the river, as east of it. We will publish the time table, if the officers desire it.
Separate articles in the Mirror inform us that no one was killed or seriously injured in the construction of the trestle, although a brouhaha broke out just before the celebratory train made its triumphant crossing, leaving several men with more traditional injuries. Seems the track workers and the bridge workers disagreed on who got to occupy the first car on the train behind the locomotive.
One footnote: as if all this technological accomplishment were not enough, a fire destroyed the wooden bridge in 1875, and in just 47 days a new wrought iron bridge was designed, fabricated, erected and put in service!