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Railroad Riots Once Rocked Birdsall

by Richard Palmer

    In the 1830’s and 1840’s the New York & Erie Railroad (NY&E) was searching for a route west from Corning.  The surveyors identified at least five routes. One had heavy grades and would have passed through the hamlet of Birdsall.  What was chosen was a route with a 1.05% westbound grade over aptly-named Tip Top and through Wellsville which added 18 miles to the “as-the-crow flies” straight-line route from Hornell to Olean.

     Unfortunately for proponents of a route via Birdsall and Angelica, the towns along the Wellsville (or Genesee, as it was then known) route offered the best engineering and commercial possibilities for the new railroad.  At the time of the May 15th, 1851, opening of its main line from Piermont-on-Hudson to Dunkirk the NY&E was the longest line of railroad in the world.  The NY&E’s alignment via Wellsville meant that Angelica, then the Allegany County seat, remained isolated, only to be reached by horse and buggy, stagecoach, or foot from railhead stations at nearby Belvidere or Belmont. Birdsall Township remained isolated but the existence of the NY&E in Allegany County drove its population from 597 (in 1850) to 838 a scant five years later.  By contrast it is to be noted that Birdsall had a population of 268 in 2000.

    The Allegany County oil boom eventually freed Angelica and Birdsall from dependence on Old Dobbin and Shank’s Mare for basic transportation.  The Allegany Central Railroad (AC) was incorporated early in 1881 and on November 21st, 1881, merged with the Olean Railroad and the Friendship Railroad, completing in 1882 a 36-inch narrow-gauge railroad from Olean to Swains, N.Y., designed to serve the Allegany County oil fields centered on Bolivar and Richburg, N.Y. The AC’s managers soon saw an even more expansive future for the railroad and caused the chartering of the Lackawanna & Pittsburgh Railroad Company (L&P) on November 1st , 1882, into which the Allegany Central was merged on July 1st, 1883. The new L&P standard-gauged the former AC from Angelica through Birdsall to Swains and extended the line northeast from there to Wayland (Perkinsville) where it connected with the newly-built Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad.  The L&P also built a standard-gauge line from Angelica to Lackawanna Junction, a point south of Belfast, where it connected with the Genesee Valley Canal Railroad.

    The advent of the L&P literally put remote sections of Allegany County on the map, giving it a trunk-line connection that even included Pullman sleeping car service. Birdsall, a small place that boasted of little more than three stores, a dozen houses and two churches, grew jealous because nearby Angelica had been chosen as headquarters for the L&P. This made some less-than-deep-thinkers in Birdsall see red.

     In 1885 the railroad ran Sunday excursions to Stony Brook Glen, a picturesque little spot near Dansville where the railroad had built one of the highest steel bridges in the country. During its existence it took away much of the glory of the Erie's bridge at Portage.   The revengeful roughs of Birdsall would turn out in force and board these excursion trains to intimidate the passengers.

      Soon, the railroad assigned employees to keep things under control. But the odds were against the railroad. One day the Birdsall mob turned out in full force along the line. A confrontation at Stony Brook Glen turned into a brawl which left 10 of the combatant’s unconscious in the aisle of one of the coaches. It is said two or three men died as the result of their injuries.    A few Sundays later another fight broke out aboard a construction train after several of the rioters had been laid low. One man was knocked off a flat car and the wheels ran over him, beheading him.  This, obviously, ended the excursion season and the Sunday trains.

    But the trouble was not tamed yet. Birdsall ruffians remained belligerent. Finally trainmen took matters into their own hands and decided it was time to make an example of some of them. The Birdsall gang would soon find out that they had met their match with L&P railroad men, who could be as equally tough.  Things finally came to a head one hot day in July, 1886.

    One of the hard fighters of Birdsall was at the station with a spirited horse when the evening train arrived at 9:30 PM.  The engineer, still rejoicing in the recent victories of the railroad, was rather free with his whistle. As a result the spirited horse came near running away. The ‘fighting citizen of Birdsall" had a few words to say regarding the engineer and a brawl broke out involving some local residents and the train crew. Blows were exchanged, and then the "reserve forces" of Birdsall" joined in. They were soon at work hammering one another with vigor and strength. The battle was short, sharp and decisive, and Birdsall was laid out by the civilizing efforts of the railroad company.  There were plenty of bumps, bruises and bloodletting as a result.     Things quieted down, but it was some time before a real truce was reached. Every evening for a time the clans would gather at the little station, trying to muster up enough courage for another confrontation. The railroad men, known as fighters from way back, were constantly on guard. They carried instruments aboard the trains that could cause serious damage.  They had all been deputized and had authority to make arrests if they had a chance to do so.

     Until trouble subsided, each train carried a double crew riding on the locomotive and in the baggage car that were armed with such weapons as coupling-irons, brass padlocks with chains and other hardware ready to do battle. But as far as can be determined, they did not carry side arms or shotguns. One newspaper reporter quipped, "Railroading in the old Allegany is a pretty tough amusement.   The little village, 10 miles from Angelica, is convulsed from center to circumference with warlike talk, and in railroad circles it is generally believed that the end of the present trouble will not be reached until there are a few funerals..."

(Source: New York World, July 25, 1886 and Auburn Morning Dispatch, July 26th, 1886).

 

 

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