Saturday marks the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad in Meadville — the system that became Erie Railroad and provided many years of transportation and employment opportunities for the region.
The railroad began construction from Salamanca, N.Y., with completion to Jamestown, N.Y., on Sept. 11, 1860, and reached Corry on May 27, 1861. Overcoming enormous financial difficulties and finding enough construction workers during the Civil War, the railroad was opened for revenue service to Meadville on Nov. 10, 1862.
A special 12-car excursion train stopped at Meadville and continued on to Cleveland, Ohio, celebrating the official opening of the railroad from Meadville to Cleveland on Nov. 18, 1863. The Dec. 1, 1863, Crawford Democrat newspaper commented, “There is every reason why the citizens of Meadville should rejoice and why they should be proud of the immense artery of commerce which passes through our town, destined to be the leading channel of travel between the Atlantic and Pacific.”
Serving Corry, Cambridge Springs and Meadville in northwestern Pennsylvania, the Erie Railroad was prosperous during and just after World War II, providing dependable freight and passenger service east to New York City and west to Cleveland and Chicago.
During the 1950s, trucks and planes eroded its traffic. The 1960 merger of the Erie Railroad with the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad into the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad could not solve the revenue problem as manufacturing in the area served by the railroad was shrinking.
Following the devastating Hurricane Agnes of 1972 the railroad filed for bankruptcy and became part of the Consolidated Rail Corp. in 1976. Portions of the railroad between Corry and Jamestown, N.Y., and between Olean and Hornell, N.Y., were taken out of service. In August 1994 the Interstate Commerce Commission authorized Consolidated Rail Corp. to abandon the line from Meadville to Corry. A newly created Northwest Pennsylvania Rail Authority acquired the line in 1995, but it wasn’t until 1997 with a lot of guts, grit and great determination that final agreement was reached that allowed the authority to keep the line.
In 1998 most of Consolidated Rail Corp. (which to its credit had become a prosperous railroad) was split between CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway. The Western New York and Pennsylvania Railroad acquired the former Erie Railroad main line from Meadville to Corry from the Northwest Pennsylvania Rail Authority and trackage from Corry to Hornell was leased from the Norfolk Southern Railway. The track was rehabilitated using a combination of private and government funding.
On March 4, 2002, the first revenue freight train was operated to Meadville. A railroad that was almost lost has been reclaimed.
If that railroad had been abandoned, many communities in northwestern Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York would have lost their connection to the nation’s mainline railroad system, and it might not have been possible to re-assemble that rail corridor. This route is one of only two east-west rail corridors in New York State. Today the 330-mile railroad has become part of a feeder system connecting with the Norfolk Southern Railway at Meadville and Driftwood in Pennsylvania; the Canadian Pacific Railway at Hornell; the Buffalo and Pittsburgh Railroad at Corry and Salamanca; and the Oil Creek and Titusville lines at Rouseville. For shippers it provides more flexible service and an expanded market for local products.
Meadville is on track with this railroad that helps to sustain local businesses and enhances employment opportunities in local communities.
To commemorate the Erie Railroad anniversary, Tom’s Train Terminal will set up a display of Erie Railroad model freight cars, and I will do a book signing on “Remembering the Erie Lackawanna Railroad” and my other train and trolley car books, at Tom’s Train Terminal, 940 Park Ave. (the Shops @ the Bank) in Meadville on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Springirth, a resident of Harborcreek Township, is author of 19 books on railroads and trolley car systems.