Submitted by Richard Palmer

Bolivar Breeze,  Feb. 17, 1898

Queer Oil Region Roads              

Little Left of Narrow Gauges that made Money Once. Railroads Built in Oil Boom Days by Engineers That Hesitated at Nothing - Great Profits at First - Disappearance of Towns and Railroads Alike - The Peg Leg Line.                                      

     Bolivar, Jan. 29. - A picturesque feature of the northern oil fields, the narrow-gauge railroads, will soon be a thing of the past. One after another, in the wake of the oil boom, they have been ripped up and sent to the junk pile after serving a useful purpose. There are left to left to represent the millions of capital once invested in these enterprises only long stretches of graded right of way, almost hidden by underbrush, weather-beaten stations, solitary and alone, with broken platforms, doors wrenched from hinges, and open windows through which the winter winds blow great piles of snow; dismantled trestles, and here and there the stone pillars of pretentious bridges, the timbers of which have been pulled apart and carted away to serve a useful purpose.

     Nearly all the roads were built over the mountains and around sharp curves where the standard gauge would be would be impracticable. There was no filling done. Every gulley was trestled with hemlock, and the space between the ties was ballasted with the dirt shoveled out of the ditches.  Many of the farms  cut up by the narrow gauges show no traces of the road now; the land has been reclaimed by the original owners, many of whom received a fancy price right of way.

     The engineers who staked out the narrow gauges hesitated at nothing;  in some places the grade was 265 feet to the mile, and there was a string of high trestles over a succession of gulleys. one high trestle followed another over a string of gullies. Today there are only two short spurs of narrow gauge railroad left in the northern oil fields, the Central New York & Western's 18-mile stretch that runs from Bolivar to Olean, and the Bradford, Bordell & Kinzua, which climbs over the hills between Bradford and Smethport, a distance of twenty-eight miles.

     The changes that have taken place in this section of the country in fifteen years are marvelous. In 1882, in the flush of the oil boom, the Allegany Central was completed from Olean to Angelica, and did an immense business. Bolivar and Richburg were as full of life as new mining camps and thre were other lively towns along the line of the road. Richburg had more than 8,000 population and had the reputation of being the hottest oil town on the map. The Allegany Central's freight receipts for the first 30 days after the road was running footed up over $12,000, and that was before a station was built. A box car answered for the freight and ticket office as well as waiting room, and the telegraph instrument was screwed on the top of a dry goods box in one corner of the car.

    The passenger traffic was enormous. Ten passenger and four freight trains were run over the road every day and when there were extra attractions at the Richburg theatres special trains were run from the towns along the line. The passenger rates were five cents a mile and freight rates stiff, but no one kicked,  for the air was full of greenbacks. That was when Richburg boasted of a morning and evening newspaper, two banks, a hundred hotels, a dozen doctors and an equal number of lawyers, eighty public bars,  dance houses and everything else that went to make up a boom city in the oil country. One of the young lawyers who drifted in with the boom earned $3,000 fees in the first three months he was there. Bolivar with 6,000 population was not far behind either in the volume of business transacted or in show-down of  wickedness.

The Allegany Central soon had opposition. The Wellsville, Bolivar & Eldred, later the Bradford, Eldred & Cuba, was quickly built from Eldred to Wellsville, where connection was made with the Erie railroad. Some lively little towns sprung up along the line. Allentown, midway between Bolivar and Wellsville, was one of them. Allentown had 1,000 population at  one time. The Bradford, Eldred & Cuba built a branch line a mile up the valley  from Bolivar to Richburg. Seventeen trains a day each way were run over this short line and for several months as many as 800 people a day rode on the "dinky" road, as it was nicknamed.

    A branch line was built over the mountains from Little Genesee to Cuba to connect with the Tonawanda Valley narrow gauge which ran from Attica to Cuba. the line was to give the Bradford, Eldred & Cuba an outlet to Buffalo but neither the Cuba branch or the Tonawanda Valley road paid operating expenses and both were long ago ripped up. When the Cuba branch was built it was believed that the Bolivar oil field extended clear across the county in the direction of Cuba but the guess was wrong. The Bradford, Eldred & Cuba connected at Eldred with the Bradford, Bordell & Kinzua and through trains were run from Bradford to Wellsville.

   With the waning of the oil boom came the gradual death of the narrow gauges in the field. Richburg has declined from a city of 8,000 to a village of 409, as the census taken a few days ago showed, giving it the distinction of being the smallest incorporated village in the state. All its push and glory have departed, though it still has twice the population it had before the boom came. Five years ago the narrow gauge rail that connected it with the outside world was pulled up, and now a daily stage is the only public conveyance that passes through the once prosperous City.  Bolivar's 5,000 population has dwindled down to 1,200. It has settled into a steady-going country town, and is the business center of the oil development.

     After the oil boom subsided the Bradford, Eldred and Cuba road thrived for a short time on the lumber interests along the line, but as soon as these were exhausted the road began to lose money. Then T.C. Platt was appointed receiver. About all that was turned over to him was a worn-out roadbed and a lot of rolling stock fit only for the junk pile. He kept the wheels turning until he saw that the road must either be rebuilt or ripped up. The outlook for business was not encouraging, and the road was knocked down to a New York broker in 1893. The junk went to a Florida lumber road. The road earned $150,000 the first year, but after that the earnings steadily decreased.

     The little stub line of the Allegany Central now known as the Central New York and Western, the last strip of narrow gauge in Allegany county, forms a link in an interesting bit of railroad history. Soon after the Allegany Central was completed from Olean to Friendship, George D. Chapman, a professional promoter, came up from New York and secured control of the road, and extended it to Angelica. That was in 1882, when the road was making money hand over fist. Then Chapman built a standard gauge line from Angelica to Wayland to connect with the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western, and secure control of a couple of other short standard gauge lines and couple them up. He equipped all his lines with fine rolling stock, his narrow gauge division having the largest and finest narrow gauge engines in the world.

    He operated his lines on a lavish scale, and when he ran short of money he reorganized the road, changed the name of it, and had a new issue of bonds printed. On his standard gauge line he built the Stony Brook Glen viaduct, the highest structure in the state. It is built of steel, is 700 feet long and 245 feet high, and cost $70,000.  Over the Erie tracks at Swains he built a hemlock horseshoe trestle 1,865 feet long at a cost of $22,000. Chapman maintained an office in Wall Street and put on more style with his little ninety-one miles of railroad than the Price of Wales would have a right to. When the oil boom weakened and the oil earnings declined the employees went on a strike for wages overdue.

     The road was shut down for several months. In July, 1892, after a hard fight, Chapman was ousted from the receivership of the road, and the property was sold to a company of New York men, of whom Major John Byrne is at the head. The narrow gauge line from Angelica to Bolivar was ripped up and one of the standard gauge spurs was abandoned. The other branches are in successful operation still.


    The narrow gauge roads in the Bradford oil fields, across the state line, have met the sam fate. The Kendall and Eldred, one of the best paying roads ever built while the boom lasted, has been torn up. There were half a dozen red-hot towns along its line early in the eighties. Duke Centre and Rixford were hummers.  The conductor's cash fare collections averaged $400 a day for several months. The Bradford field was then on the top wave of prosperity. Every train that went over the road was packed with passengers, and in some instances they sat on the pilot of the engine and the platforms and roofs of the coaches.

     The freight business was enormous. The rates were high, but they were ever questioned. The employees made big money. Many a time an oil producer in a hurry for a car tipped the conductor a $20 bill to hurry it along. A stage line has taken the place of the Kendall and Eldred.

     The Olean, Bradford & Warren narrow gauge, which wound over the mountains from Olean to Bradford, lay idle for a long time, and last year was widened to a standard gauge and converted into an electric road by a company of Boston capitalists, who built a health resort on top of one of the mountains.  In some places the grade of this road is 380 to the mile. It is 22 miles long. The other end of the old line from Bradford to Marshburg is still rusting and will no doubt soon be ripped up.

    The main line of the Bradford, Bordell & Kinzua, from Kinzua Junction to Eldred, has been abandoned, but the line is still in operation from  Bradford to Smethport.  And it is due to  William S. Bissell, ex-Postmaster General,  that this last bit of narrow gauge is now in existence. The road was originally built from Bradford to Eldred. When it was proposed to build a branch line from Kinzua Junction to Smethport, the move was bitterly opposed. It was finally decided by one vote to build it there and  Bissell cast the deciding vote.

    Fifteen years ago some of the liveliest little oil towns in the state boomed along the line of this road, for it traverses the richest producing section of the Bradford field. After the first wild rush was over the towns gradually began togo to seed, and where once stood prosperous villages thee is scarcely a habitation today. Tall oil derricks loom up in the woods in every direction, and the ride over the mountains is picturesque

     In getting out of Bradford the road makes a detour of two and a half miles to get up the mountain side. Often a passenger missing the train at the station had followed a path up the face of the mountain and caught the train at the summit. It required two engines to pull a train of five cars up the steep grade.  Several high trestles are crossed by this line, and it winds about the mountain summits in a very bewildering fashion. In 1881 this road carried 190,000 passengers  and paid 33 percent dividends on its capital stock of $350,000. When the oil boom died away and the timber was about exhausted the road was reorganized, the debts were declared off, and new ails, ties and rolling stock were purchased.      This road cost $14,500 a mile and now has forty-pound steel rails and twenty-eight-ton locomotives.

     It is remarkable that there have been so few accidents in the history of the narrow gauge roads. The only accident in the history of the Bradford, Bordell & Kinzua was a terrible one. In January, 1884, a 250-barrel tank full of oil burst and the oil ran down over the snow onto the track, forming a pool between the rails for a long distance. The Smethport passenger train, of two coaches and a baggage car, dashed into the flood of oil.

    The firebox ignited the gas and oil, and in an instant the train was a blazing mass. Four of the 68 passengers were burned to death, and several were badly injured. Engineer Patsy Sexton stuck by his engine and tried to run the train through the river of fire. His eyes were burned out, and he is now living in New York. The passengers escaped into the snow by breaking out the windows, the flames making it impossible to open the doors. The cab was burned off the engine, and there was not a splinter left of the cars. the accident happened on the hill, three miles out of Bradford.

     Of the queerest railroad ever built in the oil regions, or anywhere else, the Peg Leg, there is scarcely a trace left. Here and there where this once famous road ran you will find a solitary spile that has not yet rotted down The Peg Leg was the dream of Col. Roy Stone of Bradford.

He exhibited a model of the Peg Leg at the Centennial in 1876. It ran over a ravine on the Exposition grounds, and attracted much attention.

     The Peg Leg was a single railroad. Oak spiles were driven into the ground ten feet apart. On top of the spiles a heavy timber was bolted, and on this the rail was spiked and fishplated. Guard rails were placed on each side of the spile three feet from the top. The average height of the rail from the ground was eight feet.

     The road was about five miles long, and ran from Bradford to Derrick City, through half a dozen suburbs. The cars rested on two wheels, one at each end, and hung low on each side of the rail. One of the passenger cars cost $3,000. The engine was a queer-looking machine, and an Irishman said it reminded him of a pair of boots thrown over a clothesline. The road and equipment cost $46,000.

     The road had very few curves, running almost in a bee line. In one place it ran directly across the center of a millpond, and a few of the spiles can still be seen sticking out of the water.  The road was completed in January, 1878, and ran a year almost to a day. No visitor to the oil regions was willing to go home until he had ridden the Peg Leg, and its fame traveled all over the country. Eli Perkins was one of the first to take a ride over the road.      From the first there was much trouble with the engines and break-downs wee frequent. The Peg Leg paralleled the Olean, Bradford and Warren narrow gauge and the engineers often raced, giving the passengers some wild rides.

    The Peg Leg did considerable business the conductor's cash collections often amounting to $50 a day. The first time a green Irishman saw  a Peg Leg train shooting toward him he exclaimed:

   "Holy smoke. See the train comin' down the fence."

     Jan. 27, 1879, saw the finish of the Peg Leg. A trial trip was being made by a new type of engine. A stop was made to mend a steam pipe, and the boiler blew up, killing six men and mutilating several more. The assistant superintendent and the conductor were among the killed. The road was marked as a hoodoo, and sold Sheriff's sale shortly after on a judgment of $19,000. The road was bid in for $3,500, and the rails were stripped off. - John P. Herrick in New York Sunday Sun.