Railroads & Trolley Lines of Geneva N.Y.
Text of a lecture by Bud Smith
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for The Geneva Historical Society
17 February 1987
Geneva's First Railroad: The Auburn
The 1870s: The Rail System Grows
The 1890s: Packer Expands the Lehigh Valley
Trolleys Run on the Streets
The Rochester and Eastern
connects Rochester to Geneva.
Decades of Challenge, Opportunity,
and Decline for The Lehigh Valley
Merger, Collapse, and Conrail
The first steam railroad in the world was opened in England in 1825,
but railroad construction was not an assured success in that country
until 1829. In this country, between 1826 and 1830, steam railroads
were projected in South Carolina and Maryland, with very few miles of
road actually constructed. The first railroad in New York State, the
Mohawk and Hudson between Albany and Schenectady, was opened in 1831.
These railroads were pioneers and encountered the difficulties incident
to all new enterprises. Scattered and imperfect records show some of
the problems that were encountered and solved by those initiating that
gigantic system of railroads, upon which the existence of the greater
part of the world would depend for over 100 years.
Within the Geneva area, we had nurseries, foundries, glass factories,
brick factories, farms, orchards, and many more industries for producing
the items needed to survive. The market was primarily local, especially
for perishables, because travel by wagon or canal boat was slow. Goods
would spoil before reaching their market. Larger and heavier items had
to be shipped piecemeal and assembled at their destination.
Railroads changed all this. They were faster, traveled greater distances,
and could carry heavier loads intact. They opened new and previously
inaccessible markets. This meant more business for local merchants,
and conversely, brought in goods ordinarily unobtainable.
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Geneva's First Railroad: The Auburn and Rochester
The first railroad in Geneva was the Auburn & Rochester. It was
incorporated in 1836 and finished in 1841. It ran from Auburn through
Seneca Falls, Waterloo, Geneva, Vienna (now called Phelps), Manchester,
Canandaigua, and Victor to Rochester. Its charter granted the railroad
container a rather curiously drawn provision with reference to the canal
problem. The railroad was seen as a financial threat to the recently
completed Erie Canal. For this reason, a provision was added to the
charter to insure the business income of the canal. It restricted the
railroad from competing with the canal boats when the canal was navigable.
This provision was ineffective since it provided no penalties if the
railroad didn't comply with it.
The original estimate for building the Auburn and Rochester had been
just about $1.5 million. By 1848 the actual cost amounted to just over
$2.5 million. It would seem our ancestors also knew about cost overruns.
By 1843, with the construction of 10 such railroads connecting with
each other, Genevans could travel west to Buffalo and Niagara Falls
and east to Albany.
In 1850 the Auburn and Rochester consolidated with the Auburn and Syracuse
Railroad to become the Syracuse and Rochester Railroad. In 1853, all
the roads connecting Albany to Buffalo were consolidated into the New
York Central Railroad. The 1850s also saw a proposal for constructing
a railroad from Geneva to Sodus Bay.
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The 1870s: The Rail System Grows
A road from Geneva to Ithaca was first discussed in 1853. The rest
of the 1850s and 1860s had virtually nothing tangible as far as railroad
proposals or construction in Geneva. The 1870s and 90s however, were
quite a different story. The 1870s saw six railroads proposed, of which
three were built.
The Geneva and Ithaca was incorporated in 1870 and completed in 1873.
It connected with the Ithaca and Athens Railroad that had been finished
in 1871. This gave Genevans a rail route to New York City via a tie
with the Erie Railroad at Waverly. Both railroads failed within a year
and were reorganized in 1874 as the Geneva, Ithaca, and Athens Railroad.
The railroad again failed within a year. With funds from Asa Packer's
Lehigh Valley Railroad, it was reorganized in 1876 as the Geneva, Ithaca,
and Sayre Railroad. Packer, who had vast coal interests in Pennsylvania,
was building an expanding rail empire to move that coal. He saw in the
Geneva, Ithaca, and Sayre a valuable connection between his railroad
at Waverly and the New York Central at Geneva. The merger would open
new markets for his coal.
1871 saw the incorporation of the Geneva and Southwestern Railway to
connect Geneva with Naples. The villages of Naples and Middlesex were
bonded for the money needed for construction, which started in 1872.
The line was surveyed, grading of the right-of-way started, cross ties
purchased and some bridges built. A financial panic in 1873 caused abandonment
of the project. For the next six years, efforts were made to revitalize
the project, even to consolidating with other proposed railroads to
Hornellsville and Salamanca, but to no avail. Both villages lost their
1872 also saw the proposal of the Geneva and Phelps Railroad to connect
the Sodus Point and Southern with the Geneva and Ithaca; but nothing
came of it.
In 1875, the Syracuse, Geneva, and Corning Railroad was incorporated.
After a lot of discussion with the property owners on South Main St.,
it was finally completed in late 1877. The first trains ran on the line
in December of that year. The road connected Geneva with the rich coal
fields of Pennsylvania. Construction of the railroad was sponsored primarily
by the Fallbrook Coal Company, resulting in the road being called the
In July of 1878, the Geneva and Lyons railroad was completed. It connected
Lyons with The New York Central at East Geneva (now Border City). The
first train ran in September, bringing over 600 people in ten coaches
from Lyons to Geneva at take a steamboat to Watkins Glen. The Railroad
had one station, located at the crossing of State Road in the town of
Phelps. In November of that year, arrangements were made to run passenger
trains of the Syracuse, Geneva, and Corning Railroad and The Lehigh
Valley Railroad on the Geneva and Lyons route to Lyons.
It should be noted that all railroads in Geneva at this time, except
the Fallbrook, used the rails to one passenger station on East Lewis
St. Thus it is not surprising to note records of altercations between
opposing trains of the different railroads occurring at the station
from time to time.
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The 1890s: Packer Expands the Lehigh Valley
The 1880s saw no more construction until 1889. Asa Packer, founder
of The Lehigh Valley Railroad, decided he had paid enough Tariff to
the Erie Railroad from Waverly, where his railroad connected with it,
to ship his coal to Buffalo. Packer wanted his own railroad to Buffalo.
With control of the Geneva, Ithaca, and Sayre to Geneva, he was only
90 miles short of his goal. But, with the steep grades in and out of
Ithaca, hauling freight on the line was out of the question. To eliminate
the grades, The Lehigh Valley's engineers proposed building an entirely
new railroad, the Geneva and VanEttenville Railroad, bypassing Ithaca.
Designed with easier grades to haul coal and merchandise tonnage, it
diverted from the existing mainline at VanEttenville, cut across the
hills to the east shore of Seneca Lake, and then ran north to rejoin
the mainline at Geneva Junction.
Simultaneously, construction was started by The Lehigh Valley on the
Buffalo and Geneva Railroad. This railroad was to connect the Geneva
and VanEttenville railroad with The Lehigh Valley's existing property
at Lancaster, N.Y. Upon completion in 1892, The Lehigh Valley had trunk
line status from New York City to Buffalo through Geneva.
In 1892, the Middlesex Valley Railroad was incorporated. Construction
utilized the graded right-of-way of the never-built Geneva and Southwestern
Railroad. When completed in 1894, it connected Naples with The Lehigh
Valley at the Geneva station on Sherril St. The Lehigh Valley acquired
the Middlesex Valley the following year by buying up the entire capital
stock of the railroad. The Middlesex Valley, however, kept its corporate
title until 1903, when it became the Naples Branch of The Lehigh Valley.
In 1897, a railroad called the Seneca County Railroad was opened from
the Lehigh Valley at Geneva Junction to Seneca Falls. It was extended
to the village of Cayuga in 1904. This Seneca Falls Branch of The Lehigh
Valley was the last new Railroad to be constructed that had connections
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Trolleys Run on the Streets of Geneva
The early 1890s also saw the organization of three trolley lines: The
Geneva Surface Railway Company, incorporated in 1891; The Geneva &
Waterloo Railway Company, incorporated in 1893; and The Waterloo, Seneca
Falls, & Cayuga lake Railway, incorporated in 1894. The organization
of these three companies was the first step in linking Geneva, Waterloo,
and Seneca Falls with an electric railway.
The Geneva & Waterloo was the only one of the three to operate.
It was controlled by the Brush Electric Company of Cleveland, Ohio which
also operated the electric utility in Geneva, called the Geneva Brush
Electric Light and Power Company. Located at 547 Exchange St., this
company became the source of power for the Geneva & Waterloo Railway.
Construction began in April 1904. The mainline in Geneva ran from Jay
St. north along the east side of Pulteney Street to Hamilton Street
where it moved to the center of Pulteney, north to Milton Street, east
to Main Street, south to Seneca Street, east to Exchange Street, north
to Lewis Street, west to Genesee Street, and north on Genesee Street
to the Lehigh Valley station. The line was single-tracked except through
the business section on Exchange and Seneca streets. On Friday, June
29, 1894, trolley cars ran on the streets of Geneva for the first time.
The New York Central Railroad would not permit the trolley line to cross
its tracks on Exchange Street. The Geneva and Waterloo, however, built
the line north on Exchange Street and east on north Street to Border
City. On July 30 a trolley was run to Border City by using horses to
pull it across the New York Central tracks, after which it continued
under its own power. The railroad relented the following month and the
trolley line was finally able to build the crossing at the railroad
tracks. Construction of the rest of the line to Waterloo commenced in
early 1895 and the railroad again sought to keep the trolley from crossing
its tracks on North Street. The matter went to court and the trolley
line got its crossing.
In March, The Geneva and Waterloo Railway, with the never-constructed
Geneva Surface Railway and The Waterloo, Seneca Falls, and Cayuga Lake
Traction Company, were consolidated into The Geneva, Waterloo, Seneca
Falls, and Cayuga Lake Traction Co. The company commenced service between
the villages in its long title in September, 1895. People going to Waterloo,
Seneca Falls, or Cayuga Lake Park, boarded the trolley on Seneca Street
at Linden. The company owned 17.75 miles of track, 21 trolley cars,
4 trailers, and five work cars. Proposals of extending the traction
company to Auburn were mentioned from time to time, but no construction
was ever started.
On 26 July 1909, by order of the New York State Supreme Court, the name
of The Geneva,Waterloo, Seneca Falls & Cayuga Lake Traction Company
was changed to The Geneva and Auburn Railway. The Geneva and Auburn
failed in 1912 and sold at a foreclosure sale in 1913. A new company,
The Geneva, Seneca Falls and Auburn Railroad was incorporated as a reorganization.
Business kept dropping off, due to the automobile. The trolley had to
follow the rails and a schedule. The auto didn't! October 1925 saw Geneva's
local service canceled. The service between Geneva and Seneca Falls
struggled on until December 28. The next day the buses took over, these
being noted in The Geneva Daily Times as the "new era in transportation."
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The Rochester and Eastern connects Rochester to
Between 1900 and 1910, 4 trolley lines were proposed: The Rochester
and Eastern in 1900, from Rochester to Geneva; The Geneva, Phelps, and
Newark in 1905; The Geneva to Penn Yan in 1909; and the last one connecting
Geneva with Clifton Springs, Manchester, Port Gibson, and Palmyra. The
Rochester and Eastern was built but the other three, which were all
proposed by the Rochester and Eastern to expand its territory, never
were, although the line to Palmyra had a right-of-way surveyed.
The Rochester and Eastern was organized in 1900 and chartered in 1901.
Approval to construct and operate the line was granted by the New York
State Railway Commission in late 1901, after much discussion and opposition
by the steam railroads. Construction began in 1902 and the 43 mile long
trolley line between Rochester and Geneva was completed in June 1904.
Service was hourly at first and then shortened to every forty minutes.
The Rochester and Eastern entered Geneva on west north and ran east
down Castle Street to the station, which was located on the north side
of the street, halfway between Geneva and Exchange Streets.
Though a great deal of package freight and perishable express was carried
by The Rochester and Eastern, most revenue came from excursions. Geneva
was widely promoted for its park, recreational facilities, steamboat
rides to Watkins Glen, as well as its trolley connection to Cayuga Lake,
where you could take a steamboat ride to Ithaca. People would flock
to Geneva by the thousands on weekends to travel, play, and sightsee.
Special theater trolleys ran on week nights, bringing people to see
the shows at The Smith Opera House.
1905 saw the introduction of postcard advertising of The Rochester and
Eastern to promote their business that was running twenty-one trolleys
a day to Geneva. That year also saw The Rochester and Eastern sold to
The New York Central Railroad in June. In 1909, The Rochester and Eastern
was merged with all the traction companies throughout the state into
the New York State Railways.
After World War I, the steamers were gone. Trucks could deliver freight
anywhere and automobiles could take you anywhere, anytime. They weren't
tied to a schedule or twin steel ribbons between communities. Rochester
banned the trolley from its streets in 1922. They were in the way. The
Crash of 1929 and The Great Depression finished what the automobile
and truck had started a few years earlier. The last run of The Rochester
and Eastern was 31 July 1930.
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Decades of Challenge, Opportunity, and Decline
for The Lehigh Valley
In the beginning, Geneva was an important termination point of many
small railroads. They were dependent upon Geneva's business. As time
went on and the giant rail systems across our country took shape, Geneva
became, for the most part, just another town on a railroad map full
of towns. Service, after the building up and consolidation of the 1890s,
and except for the trolleys, was provided by two railroads: The Lehigh
Valley and The New York Central.
The railroad's fortunes depended for a large part on coal, merchandise,
and passengers. This was visible to the public. What wasn't visible
was the influence of people working behind the scenes like Asa Packer
of The Lehigh Valley and Ezra Cornell of The Ithaca and Athens who wanted
to build; Franklin Cowan and Archibald McLeod of The Reading Railroad
who wanted to monopolize and control; and financiers like Anthony Drexal
and J. Pierpont Morgan who wanted to guide and manipulate. The railroads'
fortunes were also guided by cut-throat coal competition, disasters,
strikes, federal, state, and local legislation, a depression, 2 world
wars and last, but by far the most devastating, the invention of the
The anthracite rate wars between the railroads date from just after
The Civil War. They were the cause of the first cartel in the United
States formed by the anthracite carriers. The rate wars kept profits
minimal in spite of increases in tonnage hauled. What should have been
a highly lucrative business was more like an accommodation to the coal
companies, just to keep their business. Thus the usual way of making
profits was cutting wages. This led to strikes in 1877, 1893, and 1922.
It also led to the formation of the railroad unions.
Due to the strike in 1893, a national financial panic the same year,
and being strapped by the cost of expansion, The Lehigh Valley ceased
paying dividends on their stock although, in spite of this financial
weakness, the Lehigh inaugurated The Black Diamond Express on its 50th
anniversary in 1896, nine and a half hours from Jersey City to Buffalo.
In 1897, J.P. Morgan financed the Lehigh's indebtedness. The railroad
replaced old equipment with new, rebuilt wooden bridges with steel and
concrete, standardized their locomotives to 4 basic types, ballasted
road beds, and laid heavier rail system-wide. They provided fast passenger,
merchandise, and milk train service. By the eve of World War I, The
Lehigh Valley was a financially sound, modern,standardized rail system,
with 1454 route miles.
By 1915, east-bound wartime traffic had all port terminals paralyzed.
The railroads had to put an embargo on just about all traffic except
munitions. This and the lack of ships and the resulting stockpiling
at The Lehigh Valley's New Jersey Black Tom Island Terminal led to disaster.
On 30 July 1916, fire destroyed 24 warehouses, six piers, 100 barges,
and 85 freight cars. The accompanying explosions broke plate glass windows
in Manhattan and were heard in Connecticut. The disaster cost The Lehigh
Valley millions in damage claims, including those demanded by France
and Russia for munitions lost. This and confusion over priority traffic
caused the federal government to take over control of all railroads
in the country in 1917 by the United States Railway Administration (USRA).
It set priorities, schedules, standardized locomotive design, and gave
railroad employees a forty-one percent wage increase.
The railroads were in sad shape after World War I because of the heavy
wartime traffic. Post war rebuilding and modernization was hampered
by many problems. The Lehigh Valley had more than it's share. In 1920,
the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) found The Lehigh Valley in
violation of the Panama Canal Act of 1912, which forbade railroad ownership
of water-bound common carriers. In 1922, the Supreme Court forced The
Lehigh Valley to sell its Great Lakes fleet. It was also found in violation
of the 1906 Hepburn Act, which forbade railroads from shipping interstate
mining products they had either direct or indirect interest in. The
Supreme Court also found The Lehigh Valley in violation of the Sherman
Antitrust act and the railroad had to divest itself of it's vast subsidiary,
the Lehigh Valley Coal Company.
The transportation act of 1920 canceled the USRA and set up the ICC
as the planning agency to solve the problem of too many railroads. This
overabundance of railroads caused too much competition in the northeast.
The ICC was to coordinate the merger of the railroads. However, it never
developed any master plan and the railroads were left to develop on
The recession of 1921 and 1922 caused the railroad to economize and
lay-off employees. The ICC ordered automatic train control devices on
all locomotives. In 1922, the United States Labor Board rolled back
wages of employees closer to prewar levels, causing nationwide strikes
of railroad shopmen and coal miners. With the high prices of coal caused
by the miners' strikes and the increase in use of oil and natural gas,
the amount of coal traffic dropped throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
The New York State legislature in 1923 enacted the Kaufman act, which
said that railroad operations within metropolitan New York City had
to be both smokeless and noiseless. By 1926, diesel locomotives began
to make their entrance.
After a long struggle, 1928 saw The Pennsylvania Railroad win out over
The New York Central for stock control of The Lehigh Valley.
In 1933, the mortgage bonds issued in 1892 came due on the Lehigh Valley
Coal Company. The Lehigh Valley Railroad had guaranteed these bonds
on its subsidiary, but in being forced to divest itself of the coal
company thirteen years before, failed to see that new bonds were issued,
retiring the earlier ones. Thus, The Lehigh Valley Railroad had to make
good on $6.5 million in bonds on a company it no longer owned. By 1934,
The Lehigh Valley was over $8 million in debt to the Federal Government,
had millions in interest due on other bonds, and owed the states of
New York and New Jersey nearly $4 million in back taxes. More employees
were laid off. The rest, including management, took wage cuts. Financial
manipulation in 1939 barely saved The Lehigh Valley from bankruptcy.
Freight tonnage was cut in half during the first two years of The Great
Depression. Over 100 trucking companies and 25 bus lines were taking
an ever increasing portion of the freight and passenger business. Unprofitable
branch lines began to be abandoned and unused trackage torn up while
competition for the fast merchandise freight service demanded newer
equipment and more powerful locomotives. And in 1939, in an attempt
to lure passenger traffic, the railroad streamlined some of their passenger
On 7 July 1935, eight and a half inches of rainfall overnight in the
Finger Lakes region caused The Lehigh Valley alone more than $500,000
in damage with sixty-nine landslides, twenty bridges washed out, and
tracks washed away in 287 places.
With extensive New York City harbor facilities and several large military
bases along the line, World War II saw The Lehigh Valley transport 1.7
million sailors to and from Samson Naval base , move over 86,000 carloads
of munitions to and from the Seneca Ordinance Depot, and haul more than
700,000 tank carloads of oil, in addition to regular traffic, by the
end of 1945.
Even though it was badly worn from war traffic and debt-ridden for years,
the Lehigh Valley still put on a show by decorating some of their passenger
engines for the railroad's centennial in 1946.
Diesel switching engines had begun replacing the more expensive-to-run
steam engines in 1935. Dieselization of freight engines began in 1945
and of passenger engines in 1948. It was completed in 1951.
In 1956, with consistent downturn in traffic, persistent debt, and hurricane
damage in 1955, the red ink began to flow and The Lehigh Valley Railroad
would never show a profit again. Passenger traffic dropped to the point
where a number of passenger trains were discontinued in 1959, including
the Black Diamond. The Lehigh Valley Railroad, in 1961, was the first
class-one railroad to eliminate all passenger service.
Merger, Collapse, and Conrail
In 1962, The Pennsylvania Railroad took total control of the Lehigh
Valley. One mainline track was taken up and the local branch lines began
to be abandoned. Later that decade, The New York Central Railroad and
The Pennsylvania Railroad both went bankrupt and were merged in to the
Penn Central Railroad in 1968. Two years later, the Penn-Central went
bankrupt in June 1970 and the Lehigh Valley followed three days after.
The Lehigh Valley's trustees requested complete termination of service
but the U.S. Department of Transportation postponed termination and
liquidation pending development of a congressional master plan to deal
with the bankrupt northeastern railroads.
Congress passed the Regional Reorganizational Act in 1973 and ordered
the U.S. Railway Administration to draw up a rail system to cover the
Eastern and Midwestern bankrupt railroads. Congress provided funds to
maintain essential service until The Consolidated Rail Corporation System
(Conrail) could be implemented. The USRA concluded that the Lehigh Valley's
position, with inadequate merchandise tonnage and crippling deficits,
was untenable as a competitive trunkline railroad and could not be retained
even as an alternate freight route.
On 1 April 1976, Conrail took over six bankrupt northeast railroads.
The old Fallbrook Line, running north and south, was retained, as was
the east-west running Auburn branch line - the route of the first railroad
through Geneva 135 years before. The Lehigh Valley, except for a few
small sections, became history three weeks short of its 130th anniversary
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