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Erie Railroad

Allegany, Peaks of - An Interesting Sidelight of Erie RR History

Cuba Patriot & Free Press

Feb. 1, 1940

 

Peaks of Allegany

By Hubert D. Bliss

 

          [An interesting sidelight on Erie Railroad history that belongs to Allegany County warrants inclusion here as a footnote, so that it may be known to current generations. When the main line of the Erie was put through from the east, construction was halted just east of Cuba. Instead of finishing at Dunkirk, the end of the line, a connecting link was built from the west. The final meeting point was a mile and a half west of Cuba. There in 1851 the last spike was driven on the Erie to connect Piermont and Dunkirk, by David Kirkpatrick, then Erie foreman. Mr. Kirkpatrick made another bid to railroad pioneering fame when he compelled Daniel Webster to speak when he came through on the first train over the Erie by blocking the track with ties].

 

          Tip Top finds the Erie Railroad at its peak for its main line. And that Tip Top represents another peak for Allegany County. There the Erie tracks have scaled the heights in the sinuous ribbon that marks its right-of-way from New York to Chicago.

          The name Tip Top is derived from this watershed division on the great trunk line that spans half the continent. From there the water flows east toward Alfred Station, Hornell and eventually the Atlantic Ocean; and west toward Andover, the Genesee River, Lake Ontario and finally the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Located in the narrow valley below the Alfred Station-Andover state highway, the Erie route right at Tip Top does not suggest to the naked eye the high-water mark that it is.

          But the figures in Erie railroading so record it. There the Erie passenger is 1,776 feet above sea level. Within a few miles east or west, he is four or five hundred feet lower. However, the climb is more precipitous from Hornell west. In about 15 miles, the elevation has increased 525 to 575 feet over that of Hornell.

          Right at Tip Top the terrain, within the pass the railroad takes, flattens out so that it does not suggest a division point of two water-sheds. There is no perceptible ridge, and in season of normal rainfall it is aid there is no break in the rivulet that sends water to two great rivers.

          Tip Top has made Erie Railroad history in an other way than marking its highest point. In doing so it has given Allegany County another claim to railroading peaks. From the time the Erie pierced the Allegany highlands around 1850, its trains puffed and belched smoke to the top of this great watershed divide. Freight trains, especially, met the tests on this 26-mile stretch. To the Erie for close to 60 years this imposed a railroading handicap of major proportions.

          Then entered the Erie engineers with the key to the problem. The so-called Hunt's cutoff, starting just over the Livingston County border and striking through Allegany County in the Short Tract-Belfast area was their answer. By routing through freights over the cutoff and the Hornell-Hunt link of the Buffalo division, they could eliminate the Tip-Top climb.

          There ensured one of the great bridge-building feats of railroad history. Because, while this route cut out the Tip Top nightmare, elevation had to be reckoned with in crossing whole valleys without any sharp grade.

          Two gigantic spans resulted in 1910. To the public, the one identified geographically as the Belfast bridge is better known. The official Erie name is the Genesee viaduct. It is entirely within the Town of Caneadea, so that the popular reference to it as the Belfast bridge comes from its proximity to Belfast Village.

          Rising 141 feet at its highest point over the Genesee Valley level, the bridge is 3,119 feet long. That means three-fifths of a mile of titanic concrete foundations and bridge girders. Often the span is called "The mile long bridge." Approaches and trestle fills add to the distance that rightly belongs to the bridge construction, and from the building period the idea of a "mile-long bridge" undoubtedly dates.

          Either in the officially rated three-fifths of a mile length or the full mile of popular conception, it is the longest high bridge in the state. (1) In fact it ranks among any list of long high bridges that might be compiled for the world. While less than half as high as the famous 301-foot tall Kinzua Bridge in Pennsylvania, is half again as long as Kinzua. (Note 2)

          The other gigantic cutoff span is known as the Rush Creek viaduct in the Town of Granger, about two miles west of Fillmore-Short Tract Highway. This span surpasses the Belfast one in height but is shorter. It is 155 feet high at its maximum point and 1,922 feet long.

          Together these two viaducts accredit to the Allegany highlands one of the peak railroad construction feats of the worked. Either was a stupendous triumph of an engineering age. But the obstacles encountered in building are reputed to have made the Hunts cutoff the most costly railroad construction, per mile, in the world that did not involve tunnels. While this takes in a pretty big territory for such comparison, the fact that big money went into the work is accepted. The prevalence of quick-sand over some of the land where immense foundation bases had to be located added much to the cost.

          The height of the Belfast bridge above sea level is around 1,250 feet, 525 feet less than Tip Top. The grade from Hunt to the point of union again with the main line near Cuba is slight.

          With the opening of the Hunt's cutoff went the old dominance of Tip Top as a control point on the Erie. Now a big water tank alone marks the Erie peak where once the railroad maintained an important telegraph tower. Now only trunk line passenger trains and local freight trains travel the Tip Top route. Still holding the prestige of being the highest point on the Erie system, it bade farewell 30 years ago to the big loads of railroading.

          Altering routes also has wrought a sweeping change in the freight tempo of the Erie. In the Tip Top glory days, 40 to 50 cars, made a maximum sized train. That was common with other railroads of the east. This standard held for some years over the Hunt's cutoff. Then came the big train era, when the number of cars was stepped up until they reached the 125-car trains of today. The Erie pioneered the goliath trains in the East. This it scarcely could have done over the old route, with its more than 525-foot climb from Hornell to Tip Top.

          Today the nearly mile-long trains roll over the Hunt's cutoff viaducts on express schedules. In comparison to train lengths, one Belfast resident told me that a 100-car train reaches from one to the other of Belfast bridge. The millions spent on the Belfast bridge thus found utilization on a scale that its builders could have scarcely envisioned.

          Then from the physical aspects of the project, it again emphasizes that the Allegany County terrain is one that challenges the genius of an engineering world. It stresses it as a highland country that must be surmounted, rather than circumvented. Not until the Hunt's cutoff could the Erie find an east west route around the big divide, and then only at huge cost.

          And so we can say that not only in Tip Top does Allegany County have a peak in railroading, but that by adding the Belfast span and the Rush Creek viaduct it has triple peaks that again drive home the little-sensed heights attained in our highlands, rated merely as Allegany foothills.

          Even Tip Top has to surrender any claim as a railroad peak of Allegany County. Both West Notch and Swains mark elevations on the Pittsburg, Shawmut & Northern Railroad that are higher. They represent the southwest and northeast extremes of railroad engineering in the county.         West Notch is between Friendship and Richburg. Starting with a mighty horseshoe dirt-filled trestle that spans the Richburg valley, the Shawmut makes a mighty climb up the West Notch hillside. It reaches a maximum altitude of 1,938 feet - Allegany County's peer for railroad elevation. The Adirondacks and the Catskills present few, if any, greater operating railroad peaks.

          At Swains the Shawmut makes another horseshoe sweep across the valley in reversing its direction to get on the west hillside. There the tracks attain a 1,778-foot height; two feet higher than Tip Top.

          But Tip Top is legend in Erie and Allegany railroad annals as marking the high point between New York and Chicago. Hence it will remain probably in the public mind as a symbol for Allegany highland peaks as the easiest to identify in a conventional way. But both the Erie and the Shawmut leave no doubt of Allegany being "on the up-and-up" when it comes to railroading.

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Note 1. This is an error. Castleton Bridge south of Albany is the largest railroad bridge in New York State, being 5,255 feet long. Second largest is Moodna Viaduct on the Erie near Cornwall, N.Y. which is 3,200 feet long and 192 feet high.

Note 2. The 32-mile cutoff from Cuba to Hunt Junction with the Buffalo line was abandoned by Conrail in 1976 and bridges removed in 1980. Kinzua bridge largely destroyed by a tornado in 2003 while in the process of restoration.

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Thank You to Richard Palmer for researching and submitting this article for publication here. Some photos are from files of Allegany County Historical Society and added to the story for reference. Photos of the Rush Creek Viaduct are from the Library of Congress files, Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey, 1933-Present; Erie Railway, Allegany Division, Bridge 367.33, Rush Creek, Botsford Hollow Road, Fillmore vicinity, Allegany County, NY

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