Erie Railroad Scraps the Broad Gauge

by Richard F. Palmer

      It is generally known among railroad historians that the Erie 

Railroad was originally constructed to six-foot gauge, and it has 

been chronicled many times in various histories. Less known is the 

long-term project to convert it to standard gauge.

     Starting in the late 1860s, a third rail, as finances would 

permit,  was gradually laid the length of the system to accommodate 

standard-gauge rolling stock and to permit interchange with other 

railroads.  It is recorded that the Lehigh Valley Railroad advanced 

the money to the Erie to lay a third rail west from Waverly, N.Y. so 

it could operate standard-gauge coal trains to Buffalo. This 

arrangement was continued until the 1890s when the Lehigh Valley 

built its own main line from Sayre to Buffalo.

     This eliminated the complicated operation in which railroad 

officials had to sometimes resort to peculiar methods of coping with 

the different gauges.  For example,  Erie locomotives were equipped 

with offset couplers to handle both wide and standard-gauge cars. 

Dual-gauge yards could be nightmares when snow covered the tracks 

only experienced trackmen could contend with.

     Virtually the only source of information for this interesting 

chapter in railroad history is the local newspapers of the day. They 

reveal fascinating details of  how this  massive slimming of the 

rails was accomplished.  Although the actual changeover may in many 

cases have been done in a matter of hours, months of preparation went 

into this. The newspapers hailed the changeover as a miracle of 


     Following are several newspaper articles explaining how this was 

accomplished. It wasn’t until 1882 and the investment of some $22 

million that the Erie management finally corrected this extremely 

costly mistake of not going to standard gauge in the first place.  It 

all but drove the Erie into bankruptcy because it also necessitated 

the standard-gauging of thousands of pieces of rolling stock, 

including locomotives, coaches and freight equipment.

American Railroad Journal, April 10, 1852

Gauge of Railroad from Buffalo to Cleveland.

     From Cleveland, Ohio, to Erie, Pennsylvania, the Ohio gauge of 

four feet ten inches is used. Upon the Erie and Northeast railroad, 

extending from Erie to the New York State line, a distance f some 18 

miles, the wide, or six feet gauge has been adopted. From the state 

line to Buffalo, the four feet ten inch gauge prevails.

     To whom this arrangement is owing we are not informed, but the 

genius of all evil himself could not have framed a a more 

inconvenient, or one better adapted to obstruct business and travel. 

With the exception of the Buffalo and State-line road, the only 

gauges known in this State are the 4 feet 8 1/2 inches, and the 6 feet.

     Common sense would seem to dictate that one of these should have 

been taken by the Lake Shore road. As it is, there must now be 

transshipments at Buffalo, Dunkirk, the Pennsylvania state line, and 

at Erie; making tour where there should have been but two at most.

     Either the wide or the narrow gauge should have been carried to 

Erie. That would have been a convenient place of transshipment, and 

would probably have been selected as such, had there been no break of 

gauge even thee. There must be a limit to the distance to be run by 

freight and passenger cars. It is found to be more economical and 

convenient to transship freight from one train to another, than to 

run the train over  given distance, on account of the difficulty of 

preserving order in the arrangement and distribution of the cars.

     We presume that under no circumstances whatever, would cars 

loaded at Cleveland be run through to this city. A break of gauge at 

some point upon the line between the above cities is not 

objectionable, provided it occurs at the most convenient point. But 

where there are three or four interruptions to the transit of 

merchandise and travel, within short distances, and at the most 

inconvenient places, they will be found to work a serious injury to 

traffic of all kinds.

     We predict that evil will be in a short time become  unbearable, 

as to work out its own cure. What the Erie people were about, when an 

arrangement was completed, that completely prevented them from moving 

in any direction, is more than we can opine. At the lake their road 

comes to a dead halt, and all through business has to be tumbled  out 

of their own cars upon those of other companies. All these blunders 

must be remedied, and the sooner the better.

Montrose (Pa.) Democrat, Feb. 16, 1876

     The laying of a third rail by the Erie Railway between Waverly 

and Buffalo, will be in effect the first step taken by that road to 

reduce the gauge. The tendency in all railroads is now toward narrow 

gauge, which is found to be quite as safe and convenient as broad 

gauge and much cheaper. In a few months the Albany and Susquehanna 

Railroad will be entirely narrow gauge; the Delaware, Lackawanna and 

Western Railroad are making arrangements for a similar change from 

Scranton to Syracuse; and it is safe to predict that ere many years a 

broad gauge car will be unknown in this locality.

Montrose Democrat, April 26, 1876

      The third rail on the Erie railway from Jersey City to Waverly 

will be laid by the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western and Delaware and 

Hudson companies, they receiving from the Erie company 24 percent of 

the earnings for two years. The Lehigh Valley Railroad company will 

lay the third rail from Waverly to Buffalo and will have a perpetual 

lease of road so that they can run their trains over the Erie at any 

time. They have formerly been obliged to pay a large sum for the 

privilege. Over 1,200 carloads of iron will be required to lay the 

third rail from Jersey City to Buffalo.

New York Tribune, Nov. 8, 1877

     Receiver Jewett of the Erie Railway, has been authorized to lay 

a third rail from Binghamton to Susquehanna, to  connect with the 

Jefferson Railroad (which is leased by the Erie), and on which a 

third rail has already been laid.  The Jefferson road taps the 

Delaware and Hudson Railroad system at Carbondale, and this route  

will give the Erie another outlet to Philadelphia. The object of 

obtaining this authority at present was to to furnish a guarantee to 

the directors of the Boston, Hoosac Tunnel and Western Railroad, that 

the necessary arrangements for a Boston connection would be made, 

without which they refused to begin the  construction of their road.

     Accompanying the request for the order, was a letter from T.W. 

Powell to Mr. Jewett. Mr. Powell and Sir Edward Watkin are the 

"independent trustees, not representing any special interest." Mr. 

Powell, who has now returned to England, states that he was 

authorized by the other seven trustees of the reconstruction program 

to act on their behalf during his visit to America. "I have, 

therefore, to inform you," he says, "that the trustees approve the 

laying of the third rail for narrow gauge on that section and the 

issue of the receiver's notes for the purchase of the necessary steel 

and iron. And you may assure the vendors thereof of such an approval, 

and of our intention thereof of such an approval, and of our 

intention as trustees, having control of the expenditures of the 

assessment money after the intended foreclosure sale, that (without 

assuming or being held liable for any personal responsibility) it is 

our intention to protect and pay any portion of the receiver's notes 

for the purchase money of said steel and iron, which may not be paid 

by the receiver before he hands over the road to the purchasers, 

under the reconstruction program."

     Mr. Powell's authority to act was contained in a resolution of 

the Reconstruction Trustees, which provides that: "Mr. Powell be 

urgently request to proceed to America to decided with Mr. Jewett the 

appointment of Purchasing Trustees, and to make such arrangements as 

may be necessary in his best judgment, to further the completion of 

foreclosure, the repurchase of the undertaking, and the 

reorganization of the company."

Cincinnati Commercial, Jan. 4, 1879

Erie's Narrow Gauge


The Laying of the Third Rail.


Advantages of the New Gauge.


    New York Tribune. - In April last of the Erie Railway 

reorganized,  and under the new management the familiar name was 

changed to New York, Lake Erie and Western Railroad. But the new 

management made other changes besides that of name. The most 

important of these has been change of the gauge of the road, which 

has been accomplished by the laying of a third rail. This work was 

begun in 1876, when the alteration was made on the Buffalo, and a 

part of the Susquehanna Division, so that narrow-guage cars of the 

Lehigh Valley Line were run from Philadelphia through  to Buffalo on 

the Erie Road from  Waverly.

     Last summer the laying of the third rail was continued to 

Binghamton, connection being there made with Albany by the 

Susquehanna Railroad. The work was completed last when the additional 

rail was finally laid to Jersey City, and yesterday the first train 

passed over to Port Jervis, the end of the Eastern Division. 

Hereafter it will be in constant use.

     Octave Chanute, Assistant Superintendent of the railroad, 

yesterday gave the following account of the adoption of the old 

gauge, and its change:

     "When Stephenson built the first railroad the gauge adopted was 

five feet between the centers of the rails. The rails were then U-

shaped, they had a trough in  the center about three inches in width, 

for the wheel to run in. But this form was soon abandoned, because 

the dirt collected in it, and the edge, or T-shaped rail was adopted. 

In order to adapt this to the rolling stock then in use, it was found 

necessary to measure the gauge on the inside of the rails, and this 

four-feet eight and one half inches, which thus became the standard 


     The managers of the Great Western  Railway of England believed 

that more power could be gained by having a broad base to the boiler, 

and that greater security would be insured by a broader gauge. So 

they adopted seven feet. When the Erie was built three ideas 

prevailed, and the six-foot or broad gauge was chosen. But these 

principles have since been proved to be fallacious; no advantage has 

been gained by the extra width, and the cost of rolling-stock has 

been much increased."

     "What will be the advantage to the road of the new rail?"

      "The great saving will be in running freight through without 

breaking bulk. Time and money will be saved by not having to change 

the loads of cars when they come on our line. We have saved the 

unloading of through cars by changing trucks at Buffalo,  but this 

cost forty cents for each car and took considerable time. The way it 

has been done is this: Two cars, one on broad-gauge trucks and the 

other on narrow, were run in side by side. By hoisting machines the 

cars were raised and the trucks changed; one car went on west by the 

narrow gauge track and the other ran to this city on the broad-gauge. 

By the new regulations, cars of both  gauges may be run on the same 

train. We have been doing that on portions of the road already 

provided with three rails. No difficulty is found, as we use a patent 

coupler, which causes a direct draft between the two widths. Much 

care is necessary at the switches, however, and extra caution is 

enjoined upon all employees. To simplify matters as much as possible, 

we try to keep all cars of the same width together."

      "Has the company purchased any new rolling-stock for the narrow-


      "We have ordered thirty new engines, which are being made in 

Patterson, and 3,000 new freight cars. The present rolling-stock will 

not be altered but will be replaced as fast as worn out by those of 

narrower gauge. It would cost only about half a million to change all 

the cars, but more than three times that mount would be necessary to 

alter new locomotives, as new boilers would be required. No change 

has been made in connections with other lines. It is quite probable 

that some arrangements may be made  with other lines, such as the 

Midland, which meets us at Middletown, but so far the only change has 

been with the Montclair and Greenwood Lake Road. Of this road's stock 

we bought a large share at its recent sale, and the third rail will 

permit the running of their trains to our depot in Jersey City.

The trains of that road have been running to the depot of the 

Pennsylvania Central, but tomorrow the change will be made, and 

hereafter all passenger and freight trains of the road will run to 

and from our depot only. A general notice to that effect has just 

been printed. All business on that line will be noted at our offices."

John N. Abbott, General  Passenger Agent, was asked if the completion 

of the new gauge would make any change in he running of passenger 

trains. "Our broad-gauge passenger and sleeping coaches," he said, 

"give us an advantage over other lines in the comfort of passenger. 

We have quite a reputation in this respect between here and Buffalo, 

and we expect to keep it. Through trains of broad-gauge cars will be 

continued over our own line and our broad-gauge connection, the 

Atlantic and Great Western Railroad, o Rochester, Niagara Falls, 

Buffalo, Cleveland and Cincinnati.

      "To points which we  don't reach by broad-gauge we shall run 

narrow-gauge cars, as to Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit. The fast St. 

Louis express, leaving here at 6 P.M., will be made up of narrow-

gauge cars, to run through. We had fifty new narrow cars built for us 

in the Centennial year, and placed on broad trucks, these we can 

change to use on the narrow gauge, if we wish. Of course, we shall 

build no new broad-gauge coaches, although they  are pleasanter to 

ride in from their roominess, and run more steadily, from heir 

broader base."

Most of the rolling stock conversion took place at company shops such 

as Susquehanna, Pa. and Hornell, N.Y., while some was done at smaller 

facilities for convenience.

Cattaraugus Republican, Salamanca, N.Y., Thursday, June 24, 1880:

The Erie Narrowed Standard Gauge--A Day Without A Railroad Train--

Waiting Passengers--Quick Work--An Ovation--Again On Time.

     Never was the enterprise and push characteristic of our age more 

fully exemplified than in narrowing the gauge of the Erie last 

Tuesday. For the last few weeks extra gangs of men had been busily at 

work preparing the track and switches for the change, and getting 

everything in readiness for the moment when the order should be given 

to move one rail fifteen and a half inches nearer the other.

     Moving the rail, however, did not constitute the greatest amount 

of work to be done. The handling of the vast amount of rolling stock 

was one of the largest jobs in connection with the work. Monday 

morning the yards all along the division were full of broad gauge 

cars, and these had to be sent to Hornellsvile on that day. During 

the day 300 cars were shipped out of Salamanca, and at night the yard 

on the Erie side looked desolate and deserted. The old switch 

engines, 304, 36 and 73, which had so long pulled in and out on the 

labyrinth of switches, were likewise sent away. As these old switch 

engines left the yard the Atlantic (and Great Western) engines and 

engines in the shops gave them a parting salute. The departing 

locomotives gave a long good-bye blast, which had in it some little 

tinge of sadness, and the whistles which had become familiar to all 

were heard for the last time on the Reservation. At 6 o'clock Monday 

evening there were but three broad gauge cars in the Erie yard -- the 

tool car and two gondolas, which were to be narrow-gauged here.

     The passenger trains ran regular Monday forenoon, but in the 

afternoon there was a general abandonment after train 9 had passed 

over the road. The last broad gauge train over the road was a wildcat 

from Dunkirk to Hornellsville, run by conductor Kimball, and passed 

Salamanca at 9:30 P.M.

     Monday night was a remarkable one in the history of the Erie 

road. After Kimball's "wildcat" reached Hornellsville, the shriek of 

no engine broke the stillness between Dunkirk and Hornellsville. The 

moon shone down upon a stretch of 198 miles of track upon which stood 

not a single car. Excepting a few cars in the shops at Salamanca, 

there was not a car on the Western division from 12 M until 9 o'clock 

on Tuesday morning.

     The work of moving the rail began at 4:30 Tuesday morning, and 

at 8 A.M. intelligence was flashed over the wires to Superintendent 

Beggs that the work was completed on the main line. About 800 men 

were employed in the great enterprise, which was carried through 

without accident in just three hours and a half from the time the 

first spike was pulled. The Little Valley section was first to report 

its work finished. In just two hours from the time of beginning 

Foreman Carroll sent in his report that his section was ready for the 

narrow gauge trains. Track Foreman Wyman telegraphed to 

Superintendent Beggs that the Salamanca section was ready at 7:30. A 

number of sections were completed at almost the same moment.

     Shortly after the news that the line was reduced to standard 

gauge, an inspection train, with Wm. Wilcox as conductor and 

containing Division Superintendent Beggs and other railroad officials 

was started out of Dunkirk. The train was pulled by an engine from 

the Dunkirk & Allegany Valley Railroad, "The Conewango, No. 3"--with 

engineer Tibbits at the throttle. The engine and cars were decorated 

with flags and the train was greeted with continuous ovation as it 

passed over the road. As it reached Salamanca, at 11:45, there was 

such a screeching of engines as is seldom heard. The "wildcat" 

inspection train proceeded to Olean where it was met by a similar 

train from Hornellsville. The Dunkirk train returned to Salamanca and 

was closely followed by the Homellsville inspection train, under the 

direction of Conductor Langworthy. The train was pulled by engine 574 

and reached here at 2:30 P.M. and was greeted with an enthusiastic 

reception. M.W. Coburn, one of the most reliable engineers on the 

road, has the distinction of driving the first Erie engine over the 

narrow gauge track. Engine 574 is nearly new, having been used on the 

Buffalo Division for a few weeks. It is a 60 ton Mogul, built at the 

Grant Locomotive Works at Paterson.

     The inspection trains having passed over the road, the track was 

pronounced in good condition, and train three was dispatched from 

Homellsville as "wildcat." The train, run by Conductor Martin, came 

into Salarnanca at 2:50 P.M., being about three hours behind its 

regular time. David Cary, one of the oldest men on the line, pulled 

the train with engine No. 57. Thus with comparatively little  

inconvenience to the traveling public the Erie was reduced to 

standard gauge, and again the trains are speeding over the road 

nearly on time.


The gauge of the New York, Pennsylvania & Ohio Railroad between 

Leavittsburg, Pa., and Dayton, Ohio, was changed Tuesday from broad 

to standard. Two thousand five hundred men were placed along the line 

from Dayton to Leavittsburg, 325 miles. The work began at 3 a.m. and 

ended at 9 a.m. the shortest piece of work of this kind on record.

     The trains on the Eastern Division of the NYP&O, with few 

exceptions, ran on about their usual time Monday and Tuesday.

     Twenty new consolidated 60-ton moguls from the Grant Locomotive 

Works are to pull the freight on the westem division of the Erie. 

Their power seems almost limitless, and the boys say they will draw 

everything that can be hitched to them. One of them took about eighty 

log fed cars out of Salamanca yesterday morning.

     On Monday a special order was issued by Superintendent Beggs, 

enjoining engineers and conductors to use the utmost care in running 

trains. The order was faithfully obeyed and the great amount of 

rolling stock moved to the east terminus of the division without 

delay or accident. The same care was enjoined and complied with in 

moving the train after the road had been reduced to standard gauge. 

About 70 cars have been narrow gauged at the Erie shops since the 

15th of May. They are stamped "N.G. Salamanca, May (or June) 1880." 

"N.G." doesn't always stand for "no good."

     The new bob-tail switch engine No. 515, to be used in the yard 

here, reached Salamanca Tuesday. Two more of the same pattern are 

expected to do the same work by the old switch engines. Train 12 on 

the N.Y. P.& 0. came into Salamanca Tuesday with narrow gauge 

coaches.  1,600 cars from the N.Y.P.& 0. road were sent east over the 

Erie between Monday and Monday night. Since the "embargo has been 

raised," freight traffic has been lively.

Rochester (N.Y) Union and Advertiser, Saturday, July 30, 1881

"The Battle of the Gauges" Last of the Broad Gauge--The New York, 

Lake Erie & Western Railroad Conforms to the Standard

     The broad gauge of the New York, Lake Erie & Western Railroad is 

no more. In the bright light of this beautiful summer morning with 

each moving rail a change was wrought and in a few short hours the 

diligent hands of experienced workmen had transformed the Erie road 

from a broad gauge route to one of standard gauge. It was a matter of 

expediency, nothing more. A few years ago this fact was fully 

appreciated by the directors and managers of the road, and a third 

rail -- allowing means of passage for both broad and standard cars -- 

was placed on the main line. To-day an important step has been taken 

by the company. The road between this city and Coming has been 

narrowed from a width of six feet between the rails, to one of 4 feet 

8-1/2 inches, the standard gauge.

How It Was Done

     As the Erie was the last railroad to submit to the "battle of 

the gauges," some little interest may be excited as to the manner in 

which the change was made. For several months past extensive 

preparations leading to a rapid narrowing of the road have been going 

on. All along the line between Coming and Rochester, a distance of 94 

miles, the measurements for the new gauge have been made. In fact the 

line had already once been laid before work was commenced this 

morning. The east rail was the one to be moved, and just 15-1/2 

inches from the inside of this rail spikes had been set, throughout 

the entire distance, at intervals of time throughout the past two 


     Mr. Canfield of Buffalo, Road-master, and Thomas Conners, 

Supervisor of Tracks, had thoughtfully and carefully made preliminary 

arrangements and G. E. Butterfield, stationmaster in this city, had 

changed the switches in and about the yard, thus completing the 

preparations for successful and speedy changing of the gauge. Last 

night the rolling stock of the road was all transferred to Corning.

     The Last train running on the broad gauge, drawn by engine 

number 11, B. Rogers, engineer, and A.S. Alexander, conductor, 

arrived in this city at thirty minutes past eleven and almost 

immediately returned to Coming. Between two and four o'clock this 

morning about 500 experienced workmen, employees of the Rochester, 

Buffalo, Susquehanna and Western Divisions, were distributed in gangs 

of six or eight each at equal intervals along the line of the road 

between this city and Coming. Strict orders were given to begin the 

work promptly at four o'clock and at that hour, all being in 

readiness, almost simultaneously each separate force of workmen began 

their allotted task. It was an interesting sight to one walking along 

the line of the railroad to see these men busy as beavers tearing up 

and rapidly replacing the rails. In each division the work was so 

arranged that it was carried on in the most systematic manner possible.

Perfect System

     First came the men who skillfully and quickly withdrew the 

spikes, then followed swiftly those who moved the rail from its old 

position to the one destined for it alongside of the spikes already 

set, snd last of all in quick succession came those who drive the 

spikes about the rail in its new place. The work progressed far more 

rapidly than one would readily believe, the rate of taking up and 

relaying the rails being about one mile in four hours as performed by 

each gang.

     By eight o'clock the whole distance of ninety-four miles had 

been transformed from a broad gauge to the standard measurement and 

the last victory of the standard width, 4 feet 8-1/2 inches, in the 

battle of the gauges in this country has been won. The first arrival 

this morning over the newly laid track was the "wild cat" train from 

Avon, drawn by engine 60, Frank Marsh engineer, and A.S. Alexander 

conductor. This train left Avon at 8:15 and reached this city at 

11:45, being detained about an hour and a half at the Henrietta 

section; the only place along the route where the men laying the 

track had not done all that was expected of them. At a quarter before 

twelve o'clock the train from Corning, drawn by engine 35, in charge 

of Augustus Johnson engineer, and G.H. Brown conductor, reached its 

destination, thus proving the complete transformation of the road.

     Although this train was an hour and forty minutes late running 

time had been made, the delay being occasioned by waiting at various 

stations for orders, the passengers on this train report a gala day 

all along the line. At each station crowds were assembled to welcome 

the train and great enthusiasm prevailed. Hats were thrown in the 

air, handkerchiefs were waved and cheers burst from the lips of many. 

The change is completed and general satisfaction prevails and great 

credit is due to both managers and men for the highly creditable 

manner in which this work has been accomplished.

Fish Plates and Spikes

--J.E. Butterfield and his men did some hard work yesterday. John 

Wieman is the Boss man to "fix" switches.--The Hog (switch engine) 

left on Thursday morning at 5 o'clock never to return. The porcine 

locomotive, almost a historical machine, has done its duty.

 --John English began at this end of the branch, with twenty men.

--Thirty men from Avon to Attica breakfasted at Mrs. Kelly's hotel at 

half-past two o'clock this morning.

--V. Rogers, the well-known engineer, enjoyed the distinction of 

driving the last locomotive over the broad gauge. He "made the old 

gal scream" before leaving the city.

--Frank Marsh is the first engineer over the narrow gauge on the 

Rochester branch.

--Tom Ford wants a little more practice before he can draw a spike 

properly. --It as amusing to see Dan Turner handle a crow bar yesterday.

--It was a big surprise to some of the boys on this end of the 

division to see themselves in the agony of perspiration. --Joseph 

Bradt was out with his rail gang this morning and did splendid service.

--Tom Connors, the supervisor of the tracks, tough obliged to forego 

the pleasure of helping in the narrowing, on account of 

indisposibility, followed the work of the men in his mind and was 

almost well when he heard the scream of the last engine out on the