Trains passed through downtown Syracuse for nearly 100 years. View is looking east as the Empire State Express approaches the intersection of East Washington and Montgomery streets in the early 1900s
By Richard Palmer
Peering through a drenching rain on September 24, 1936, thousands of Syracusans cheered the passing of nearly a century of aggravation as New York Central trains began using an elevated route through the city.
Since horse drawn cars of the Auburn and Syracuse Railroad clip-clopped down Washington Street in 1838, an ever increasing cascade of trains has clogged one of the city's main streets, created interminable delays at the 29 grade crossings, tangled with carriages, streetcars and automobiles, provided excitement for generations of small boys and dogs, coated the nearby office buildings under a thick layer of gritty soot and made Syracuse, New York, the butt of many vaudeville jokes as "The city with the trains in the streets."
It all began in 1837 when the village trustees met and decided that the new railroad should run on the south side of the Erie Canal. This was important because the decision to run the tracks through Washington Street developed the business section on South Salina Street. Heretofore most of the business and social life had centered around Clinton Square.
When the first station was built in 1839 at Vanderbilt Square in Washington Street between Salina and Warren Streets, strap iron rails were laid and the locomotives sped over them at 20 miles an hour on good days and under favorable conditions. The Auburn and Syracuse ran their first train down Washington Street June 4, 1839. A month later, the Syracuse & Utica Railroad was opened and both roads used the same depot.
By 1869 the tracks in the street had been double tracked the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad had been formed, and the Vanderbilt Square station was becoming inadequate. The building was 294 feet long 50 feet wide and 26 feet high. It had wooden platforms 10 feet wide on each side built on a level with the platforms of the cars. In a dramatic move on April 30, 1869, locomotives were attached to each end of the building and proceeded to pull it down. By the next morning not a stick remained on the site. The next station was opened at Franklin Street, in 1870 at the junction with the Syracuse Northern, later to become the Rome Watertown and Ogdensburg Railroad which had laid its rails from the North Country along the Oswego canal and then down the middle of Franklin Street to the station. An interesting feature of this second station was a series of arches just outside the front of the station. Each arch had an oval top with the name of a local hotel displayed. When a train arrived, a porter from each hotel stood under his particular arch to receive baggage and direct persons to his hotel.
In the early 1880s, the New York, West Shore & West Shore Railroad was being built across the state to compete with the New York Central. The railroad located its track to the north of the Erie Canal on private right of way and constructed a large station at the junction with the RW&O on Franklin Street between Herald place and Belden Avenue. When the New York Central leased the West Shore Railroad, the use of the station was phased out. It was extensively damaged by fire in 1910 and thereafter a small portion of the remaining station was only used for the New York State Fair special trains until removed in 1933 to make way for the elevation project.
Passenger business continued to increase rapidly and the "new" station of 1870 was found to be overcrowded and obsolete by 1895. So a new and larger station was built one block south on Franklin Street at the comer of West Fayette Street. The third passenger station opened October 6, 1895. The old station was used until the new one was completed, then it was demolished and a large enclosed train shed built on the site.
During the 1930's, there were 68 regularly scheduled passenger and mail trains east and west on Washington Street. Adding in the local switching and special trains, there was an average of 90 train movements per day, which increased to as many as 125 movements per day near holidays. The West Shore averaged 33 trains per day on the line destined to become the elevated right of way. During a period of one year a total of 32,923 train movements on Washington Street were counted. Of these 24,372 were thru trains.Across James Street on the west Shore, the train movements amounted to 11,911 for the year. The train speed was limited to 15 miles per hour, so a train of 12 to 18 passenger cars would take some time to pass a given point, allowing both passengers and pedestrians a good chance to observe each other.
A crossing guard was assigned to each of the 29 grade crossings through Syracuse. These people were some of the most faithful and trusted employees of the New York Central. Many of them had been injured years before; had lost limbs working as brakemen in yards, etc. Instead of eliminating them from the payroll, they were given a rather menial, but no less important position as crossing guards. Many of the crossings were equipped with small shanties used as shelters, heated by small coal stoves. Imagine today seeing a crossing guard standing in the middle of busy Salina Street, halting traffic for a passing passenger train! Crossing guards were also stationed on the West Shore, Hojack and DL&W street crossings through the city.
Elevating the Railroads to a New Level
In 1873 a group of Syracuse's leading citizens met to see what could be done about the many grade crossings throughout the city. The hat was passed around and enough money was raised to take the matter to court. The action was based on the fact that the New York Central had violated its original franchise by abandoning its station in Vanderbilt Square and moving the "Depot" to Franklin Street. The courts held that the board of trustees of the village of Syracuse originally had granted an irrevocable franchise and that the railroad could stay in Washington Street indefinitely. That settled the matter until the late 1890s, when the city fathers put pressure on the State Board of Railroad Commissioners to order the railroad to install safer crossings and approaches.
The "fight" ensued off and on for another 38 years, mainly through the efforts of the Syracuse Grade Crossing Commission which had been formed in 1912. Years of study went into working a successful resolution to the problem of grade crossings. One discarded scheme called for a tunnel under the hills of the Eastwood and James Street section of the city which would have been two miles long.
Still another aborted proposal was to run the tracks down the abandoned Erie Canal bed. There was much debating over utilizing the existing freight line around the city, which ironically, would be what would happen some 30 years later. Some consideration was given to depressing the tracks along the West Shore Route.
The plan adopted after a public referendum in 1927 called for the elevation along the West Shore route with a station at North West and West Genesee Streets. This was later amended to move the station to Erie Boulevard East and Burnet Avenue between Catherine and North Crouse Avenue. The Walsh Construction Company was designated as the prime contractor for the $17 million elevation project. Construction began in 1930. The first major project was the new Thompson Road viaduct which was opened that December. The new Midler Avenue bridge was completed in 1931, followed by completion of the Peat Street yards in 1932.
Traffic was discontinued on the West Shore through Syracuse on April 2, 1934. That year, abutments and steel were erected for 27 bridges, and work was pushed on completing embankments and retaining walls. Most of the fill came from Kirkville. Work on the new passenger station commenced on June 1, 1935, by the William M. Ballard Co. On October 16, 1935, the elevation was completed enough to run an inspection train.
Meanwhile new connections were installed to accommodate "Hojack" trains from the north with the tracks being rearranged at "Salina Junction" (also known as JG). Oswego and Watertown trains would be routed over the Syracuse Junction branch to the westerly end of the elevated line and thence to the new station. The old line through North Franklin Street was discontinued September 27, 1935.
The advent of the elevation required substantial changes in the local train signaling system. Tower #1, the main control point for trains in and out of the Fayette Street station, was relocated to a penthouse on the new Erie Boulevard station. The manually operated signals and switches were replaced with a centralized Traffic Control system where all switches and signals are electrically controlled.
Tower #2 at Syracuse Junction was completely rebuilt as a 63 lever electrical interlocked plant. Tower #48 was constructed at the east end of the new line, near Midler Avenue. This was a 24-lever mechanical interlocked facility where the switches and signals were controlled by direct mechanical linkage to the levers. The many engine movements to and from the engine house at Syracuse were controlled from tower #48. Tower #2 controlled the junction of the 4-track main line, 1-track Auburn branch, 2-track passenger line, and 2-track freight bypass line.
The New York Central elevation would eliminate 62 grade crossings, would be five miles in length, and include modern station facilities. It involved approximately 1.5 million cubic yards of embankment. Finally, the day so many had waited for came on September 24, 1936. Syracuse celebrated its “liberation" of the railroad from the streets with a grand jubilee that included a parade of appropriate floats tracing the community's history.
The last westbound train through Washington street was the Empire State Express. A short time after its arrival at the old station, the eastbound Forest City arrived late, thus was the last regularly scheduled passenger train through Washington Street. The engineer of the last train was William Lynch and the fireman was the late Chapter member Carl A. Peterson.
The NYC goes first class: The Erie Boulevard Station
The new passenger station, considered one of the best and most modern of the time, was constructed four stories high and faced with Indiana Limestone. It measured 160 feet wide and 95 feet deep at the street level. The waiting room walls were finished in travertine with marble border and base. The ceiling was of ornamental acoustical plaster, and floor was of terrazzo. An adjunct of the depot was a building on the Burnet Avenue side for the Railway Express Agency. Mail and express were handled through these buildings, under the tracks, with elevators and subways.
The rail line was double-tracked through the city. The station layout consisted of 10 through tracks eight of which were adjacent to the four island platforms. All New York Central traffic was diverted to the new elevated line through two connections; the easterly one located between Midler Avenue and Peat Street, and the westerly one west of Hiawatha Boulevard.
The rise in the track grade at the east end of the work began at the new east end connection, the initial rise being on a 0.3 per cent grade, which extended through a distance of approximately 3,700 ft. to a point where the elevated tracks were approximately 12 ft. above the level of the old West Shore tracks. Immediately west of this point the high level tracks continued on a level grade for about 1,600 ft., beyond which, for about 3,000 ft. they dropped on a 0.10 per cent grade to the west and then continued on a level grade for a distance of about 2,600 feet. Within this stretch are the station facilities.
West of the station layout, the main through tracks rose on a 0.15 per cent grade to the west for a distance of about 1,500 feet, and then descended on a 0.3 per cent compensated grade to the level of the existing New York Central main tracks at Syracuse Junction. Curvature on the elevated line was limited to two degrees, except directly within the heart of the city, where in order to avoid excess property damage, curvature slightly in excess of three degrees was necessary.
The platforms were 22 feet wide covered with canopies. The station layout also included several short sidings for private cars, Pullman cars, and diners. A car repair facility for limited repairs was included on the northeast end of the complex. The upper floors of the station housed most of the Syracuse Division offices of the railroad. The spacious waiting rooms measured about 5,000 square feet and included the usual amenities of newsstand, baggage room, ticket office, public telegraph and telephone offices, lunch room and restaurant and restrooms. There was also a shoe shine parlor.
There were two parks flanking the station. The east end was called Edward F. Joy Park while the one to the west was named William M. Ballard Park. A parking lot for station patrons was reserved across the street. The parks were named for prominent Syracuse businessmen. The station was heated by hot air passing over steam coils supplied with steam from a heating plant located in the mail and service building on the Burnet Street side of the complex. At each end of the station platform facilities, water columns were erected to service steam locomotives. Four 100-foot floodlight towers at each end of the station track area were equipped with a battery of three main "projectors" fitted with 1500-watt lamps.
The New Erie Boulevard station was first class all the way. It was a far cry from the dark and damp depot that had seen better days on West Washington Street, along with its gloomy copper-roofed train shed. A plan had been proposed early in the elevation planning to convert the train station to a union station for the many electric lines radiating out of Syracuse. Unfortunately they had pretty well vanished by 1935 so no use was found for the abandoned depot. However, the old depot would hang on for another three years before being demolished, stubbornly clinging to the past with its boarded up windows and leaky roof.
East Syracuse and Then Syracuse Goes Intermodal
The use of passenger trains continued to decline and branch line service was gradually discontinued, until the upkeep on the elevated line became uneconomical. By now, the number of passenger trains had dropped from nearly 100 to less than a dozen. The new elevation was used scarcely 26 years before being transformed into Interstate Route 690. A new, much smaller depot was opened in East Syracuse on August 29, 1962. The late John F. Nash, then Operating Vice President of the New York Central, officiated at ribbon cutting ceremonies. He was a native of Syracuse and was the last president of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. The trains were finally routed around the north side of the city on the upgraded freight line.
Located on East Manlius Street, the East Syracuse station was a single-story building sufficient for the shrinking passenger traffic of the day. It also included crew quarters and a sizable mail and express facility attached. Interestingly, for a short time, this facility included a small restaurant and newsstand. The irony was that this was built as a temporary building as the New York Central intended to get out of the passenger business within a short time. But it survived more than 40 years, even through the Penn Central debacle. In 1972 it became an Amtrak station and underwent renovation.
Over the years Amtrak has made numerous improvements resulting in increased train ridership out of Syracuse. In 1975, service was restored west if Buffalo after an absence of several years with the creation of the Lake Shore Limited between New York/Boston and Chicago. Amtrak ridership is on the increase in Syracuse.
Transportation Center is Born
As the need for modern public transportation facilities became apparent, the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council considered creating an intermodal facility as early as 1991. They subsequently published a project feasibility study which led to the new facility being opened eight years later. Funded by the Federal Transportation Administration, the Central New York Regional Transportation Authority, the New York State Authority and the New York Department of Transportation, the regional transportation center cost approximately $14 million.
The William F. Walsh Regional Transportation Center, located off Park Street, was opened in 1999 to serve Amtrak and Greyhound Lines, Trailways and other bus lines. The station was named for the late William F. Walsh, former mayor of Syracuse and Congressman. The center replaced the highly unpopular downtown bus station and the inconvenient Amtrak station in East Syracuse.
There were provisions made for OnTrack, Syracuse's now-defunct commuter line, to connect directly to the station from downtown Syracuse. This also included a loading platform at what is now called Alliance Bank Stadium. Local bus service is provided by the Central New York Regional Transportation Authority (CENTRO). Ironically, the station is built on one of the sites proposed in the 1930s before it was decided to build elevation through the city on the old West Shore Railroad right of way.
The East Syracuse station was demolished and replaced by new commercial development. Meanwhile, the old Erie Boulevard station deteriorated over the years from weather and water damage. After a fire in 1996, Greyhound, its sole occupant, largely ceased using the interior of the older station building and sold it to Time Warner Cable in 2001. Time Warner invested in a $6 million its restoration and adapted its interior to the needs of television and radio studios while retaining much of the historic character. The station was added to the National Register of Historic Places on November 11, 2009. The neighboring freight complex, stretching underneath I-690, has changed ownership several times since 1996 but is currently largely unused.
The DL&W Reaches New Heights Too
The history of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad through Syracuse dates back to October, 1848, when the Oswego & Syracuse Railroad - later to become part of the Lackawanna - was opened to traffic. Six years later, on October 23, 1854, the Syracuse & Binghamton Railroad, also later incorporated into the Lackawanna system, was put into operation.
On October 13, 1856, the road went under the hammer in mortgage foreclosure. It was reorganized as the Syracuse, Binghamton & New York Railroad Company on April 30, 1857. In 1870 both roads came under the management of the Lackawanna. This stretch of railroad, between Binghamton and Oswego was officially designated as part of the Syracuse and Utica division of the Lackawanna.
The early Binghamton road was of a wide gauge (six feet), while the Syracuse-Oswego line, as originally constructed, was of standard gauge (four feet, eight and one half inches). When the roads consolidated, the problem of fitting the standard gauge cars upon the wide gauge road, and the reverse, was met, temporarily, by the laying of a third rail. The line was converted to all standard gauge on May 17, 1876, as part of a massive project that required just 48 hours to complete.
For its first passenger station in Syracuse, the company operating the Binghamton road obtained a small brick building at West Onondaga and Clinton Streets. In 1864 a 40 foot wooden addition was built. This station continued in use until 1877, when the station facing the space, that in later years became known as "Armory Square," was erected.
This second station was a three story ornate, Victorian brick structure. Built on a curve next to the Armory on Jefferson Street, the platform canopy extended for several car lengths along the station track. In 1886 the station saw passenger service consisting of four New York-Oswego trains, six Syracuse-Oswego locals and three Binghamton-Syracuse locals. All D.L. & W service operated through the streets, passenger trains as well as freights and the Solvay stone trains.
By 1935 the Lackawanna passenger service had been reduced to two trains per day between Hoboken and Oswego via Syracuse and six Syracuse-Binghamton trains. This still provided an interesting variety of ways to travel from Syracuse. One could catch the Lackawanna Limited with its through deluxe coach, Oswego to Hoboken. One could leave Syracuse at 11:55 a.m. and arrive in Hoboken by 7:12 p.m.
If a traveler desired a late Syracuse departure with an early arrival in New York City for business, he could take the Lackawanna Special. He could board his drawing room sleeper at 9:45 p.m. in Syracuse and get into Hoboken for transfer to New York City by early morning.
Daily service was also provided to Philadelphia via the Interstate Express. A drawing room sleeper was provided between the two above mentioned points. The train left Syracuse at 9:45 p.m. and traveled the D.L. & W. to Scranton, the Central Railroad of New Jersey to Allentown, Pa., and the Reading Railroad to Reading Terminal in Philadelphia. The return trip left Philadelphia at 11:45 p.m. with arrival in Syracuse at 10:25 a.m.
The D.L. & W. had 22 main line street crossings, 13 sidings plus street running along Clinton Street. In 1940, to eliminate the last major street running in Syracuse, the D.L. &W. broke ground for the elevation of its line through the city. Prior to this date a number of different proposals to eliminate the street running had been brought up and then discarded. One of these was an idea to route all Lackawanna trains east of Syracuse to connect with the New York Central and then to utilize N.Y.C. tracks to the new elevated station. This would have made the new elevated Central station a union station.
Oswego trains and D.L.& W. freights would utilize the New York Central freight by-pass around the west end of the city to connect with its own trackage. With the elevation plan decided upon, construction commenced in the summer of 1940. The old station was closed on September 29 of that year and a temporary station built near Taylor Street. Trains were using the new elevation by July 1, 1941, and by October 21, the new station, constructed on the old location at West Jefferson and South Clinton Streets was opened.
The new station was two stories high with ground dimensions of 50 by 100 feet. On the ground floor were ticket offices, baggage rooms, Union News stand, and lavatories. The second floor contained offices and utility rooms. The elevated was run behind the station with access through a subway. The platform was 600 feet long with a 450 foot canopy. Northbound trains used one side of the platform while southbound trains utilized the opposite side.
The station consisted of a granite base and was mainly built of buff face brick with stone trim. The waiting room floors were of terrazzo and the doors of aluminum and glass. The office personnel had moved tickets, timetables and the rest of the operating equipment from the temporary station to the new station in the quiet of the night in preparation for operating out of their new home.
The Brief Career of Ontrack
When service began in 1994, the trains ran between Syracuse University, Armory Square and Carousel Center 10 times a day, seven days a week. In 2005, service was limited to Saturdays. The fare was $1.50. Two Budd RDC cars were used in this service. Financing was approved in April 2004 to build a bridge that would allow OnTrack to reach to the new regional transportation center, Alliance Bank Stadium and the Central New York Regional Market. The missing link, a bridge over Park Street, was never built.
Rather than purchasing the old DL&W station OnTrack built a new station next door. OnTrack was heavily subsidized with roughly $8 million of state money spent on the system. In order to be profitable, OnTrack needed 500 riders a day. But at its height the ridership at best was 75 passengers daily 75. In July 2007, OnTrack abruptly ended service. For one or two summers it made special runs to Jamesville Beach.
Ambitious plans for the future of OnTrack included:
- Completion of the bridge mentioned above that would have made the line much more useful as many people arrive in Syracuse through the Transportation Center and may need public transportation to travel further into the city. This plan was plagued by construction problems.
- Increased ridership from the long overdue construction of Destiny USA, a multi-billion dollar tourism attraction, which was supposed to draw millions of tourists a year.
- Increased ridership as a result of more strategically placed stations. All but Colvin Street Station were in non-residential neighborhoods. Colvin Street station mostly failed to attract ridership. This could be attributed to OnTrack's operating hours, which did not include morning rush hour service.
OnTrack also ran the "Orange Express" shuttle during Syracuse University Carrier Dome events. This shuttle was more successful than the rest of the operation. But on the whole, OnTrack, which was a segment of the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railroad, failed to live up to its expectations and quietly ceased operation in 2007.
For several years the NYS&W ran numerous excursions for the Central New York Chapter, NRHS and other groups over the Syracuse and Utica branches. It also annually operated trains to the Maple Festival in Marathon until 2010 - initially from Syracuse and in later years from Cortland.
Finger Lakes Railway
The Finger Lakes Railway took over operation of 118 miles of former Conrail lines on July 23, 1995 - primarily the old New York Central "Auburn Road." From 2001 to 2010 it operated passenger train excursions which were extremely popular. Many were sponsored by the Central New York Chapter. They essentially operated over the Auburn Road between Solvay and Geneva, and occasionally to Canandaigua and Watkins Glen. However, with increased freight traffic, the railroad decided to discontinue this service.
NAME TRAINS PASSING THROUGH SYRACUSE IN 1935
Even numbers Eastbound / Odd numbers Westbound
Day Coach Deluxe 1 & 2
New York Special — 4
Mohawk 5 142
Fast Mail 9 X4
Fifth Avenue Special — 6
The Wolverine 17 8
Southwestern Limited 11 12
Ohio State Limited 15 —
Lake Shore Limited 19 22
Cleveland Limited 21 —
The Knickerbocker 24
Twentieth Century Limited 25 26
The Niagara 29 58
The Iroquois 59 30
The Chicagoan 35 —
The Genesee 63 36
North Shore Limited 39 40
Boston Express — 42
South Shore Express 43 —
The Detroiter 47 —
Empire State Express 51 50
Dewitt Clinton — 56
The Commodore Vanderbilt 67 68
The Forest City — 90
New York Express — 96
Upstate Special 467 —