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Miscl Railroad Articles

Those Remarkable Railroad Bridges

Transcribed by Jaylyn Thacher

Evening Tribune

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Those remarkable railroad bridges

Those Remarkable Railroad Bridges Photo 1 of 1

Belfast, Letchworth spans are gone, but well remembered

By Robert F. Oakes

This is a story of two bridges both well-known to residents of Western New York, which played important roles in the growth of area communities.

Both spans are now only memories. The first, the old wooden bridge spanning the gorge at Letchworth State Park, was destroyed by fire on May 6, 1875. The second, the Belfast railroad bridge which carried Erie, Erie-Lackawanna and later, Conrail, traffic though that section of Allegany County, was dismantled by workmen earlier this year.

Constructed in 1909, the Belfast span of steel was 3,120 feet in length and erected by Italian crews. Cost of materials for the bridge was estimated at about $110,000. At $650 a ton today, it would cost more than $3.5 million just to replace the 5,600 tons of heavy steel in the structure, according to Leone’s report on the dismantling project.

To fill the swamp over which the bridge was built, 7,000 tons of wood pilings were used. More than 11,000 cubic yards of concrete made up the bases for the 24 steel towers which supported the span. Each tower was 40 feet square and 80 feet from the next tower, rising from 100 to 130 feet into the air. During construction, an Italian worker was killed and his body buried in the fill.

The span, and another near Fillmore, was part of the Erie-Lackawanna and later, Conrail’s, River Line, 32.6 miles of track which connected Cuba to the main Hornell-Buffalo line at Hunts. Conrail halted traffic over the bridge several years ago and abandoned a portion of area history.

The River Line had been constructed as a cut-off to save heavy freight trains from having to struggle over elevations traversed by rail lines in the southern part of Allegany and Steuben counties.

The Belfast Bridge, long a spectacle of engineering and beauty to railroaders and other residents alike throughout the area, came down despite efforts of Allegany County to have it preserved as an historic landmark, to add still another chapter to the story of railroading in the area. But memories still remain of the span and will remain so long as traces of the concrete bases remain visible to travelers along Route 19 in the Town of Caneadea.

The Letchworth bridge Pat Lowell, a student at Keshequa Central School in nearby Nunda, wrote an essay on the old Letchworth Park bridge for which she was awarded a prize. It is being reprinted in these columns, in part, to add to the historical information so important to residents of this area.

Her essay on the span was published in the October 1980 issue of The Yorker and later by the New York State Historical Association.

The first wooden bridge to carry trains of the Buffalo and New York Railroad (later merged with Erie Railroad Company) over the Genesee River was built in the mid-1800s above the upper falls of Letchworth gorge, near the Village of Portageville. According to legend, the bridge was designed by a 16-year-old boy, but Silas Seymour, a 34-year-old chief engineer working for the railroad, is credited with being responsible for designing the bridge and supervising its construction.

Work on the wooden bridge began on July 1, 1851, and was completed on Aug. 14, 1852. Thirteen stone piers, set in the banks and the bed of the river, served as the foundation for the bridge which rested in Livingston County on its eastern end and Wyoming County on its western side.

Measuring about 1,000 feet long and 234 feet high, it was reported to have been one of the longest and highest in the United States, if not the world. It was a unique lattice-like structure, built so that individual timbers could be taken out, repaired or replaced, without affecting the overhead train traffic. This marvel of engineering skill and the beautiful natural scenery of the gorge attracted tourists from everywhere. Railroad business increased and as many as 20 trains crossed the Portage bridge each way daily.

Since it was not unusual for coal-burning engines to throw out sparks, guards patrolled the bridge during the day as well as night. Shortly after midnight on May 6, 1875, Pardon Earl was the watchman on duty when a passenger train crossed the span and set the bridge afire. Although hoses were kept at each end of the bridge, fire prevented Earl from reaching the nearest one. He races to the opposite side but was unable to turn on the water because hose connections and faucets had rusted during years of disuse. With the fire now raging out of control, he hastily turned in an alarm.

William Pryor Letchworth, a Buffalo businessman and philanthropist who had purchased a large estate at Portageville and who years later donated it the state for a state park, observed the fire from Glen Iris, his home near the middle falls. He wrote the following account for the then Buffalo Courier:

The fire extended rapidly through the upper trusswork, flames being fanned by a gentle breeze blowing down the river. The light material thus fired soon fell in heavy fragments on the framework below. Each timber in the bridge then seemed to be ignited, and an open network of the fire was stretched across the upper end of the valley.

His report on the fire to the Buffalo paper went to say:

A slight rain was descending, owing to which we are spared the recording of other disasters as probably the pine groves and every building in the Glen Iris Valley would have been destroyed had the leaves of the woods and shingles of the buildings been dry.

The student’s essay on the fire then added:

In anticipation of just such a disaster, plans for an iron bridge over the gorge already been made. Four days after the fire, materials for the new bridge began arriving. The bridge, built in less than three months, was about 800 feet long and its construction required 1,310,000 pounds of iron and 130,615 feet of timber.

The high bridge across the Genesee River was an important railroad crossing, and during the Civil War additional civilian guards were places on and around it to protect Union soldiers on their way South. During World War II, when vast amounts of military supplies were sent to New York City for shipment overseas, the government again feared sabotage and forced the railroad to hire armed guards to protect the bridge 24 hours a day.

Over the years much of the old iron bridge was replaced by steel. The fragile-looking structure still stands and still carries trains across the Genesee. As they had done for more than a century, people from miles around still come to see the high bridge and the many splendors of the area now known as Letchworth State Park.

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