Transcribed by Crist Middaugh

The Wellsville Daily Reporter, Jan. 7, 2004


Tracing the Fortune That Got Away Photo 1 of 1

Genesee Reflections

Bill Greene

Railroads race to Richburg

I have always thought this story would make a great movie. You have seen the plot a dozen times. The railroad tycoons want to put a line through a town, but there are competing interests, and the Indians don’t want the tracks across their buffalo hunting grounds. There are scenes in the saloon and the shoot-outs in the street. There are all kinds of twists and turns, but finally the railroad gets built, there is a big celebration and most everybody lives happily ever after.

Well, in the 1880 days of the oil boom, we had just such a situation right here in good old Allegany County. To compound the excitement there were not one, but four railroads and a trolley line, all racing to be the first to get to Bolivar or Richburg. They were Shawmut, the Bradford Bordell and Kinzua, the Bradford Eldred and Cuba and the Olean Street Railway.

When these lines happened to cross, there was considerable excitement because the first line to get there got the right of way. It was up to the late comer to build the grade crossing and overpass. Keep in mind that it was all hand and animal labor. In one case, 300 men showed at sunrise on Sunday morning to get their track to the crossing first.

Typical of the Western scenes, all four of our railroads started out as narrow gauge lines. That is, the rails were three feet apart as opposed to the standard gauge of four feet, ten and a half inches. They could move around sharper curves, and up steeper grades, than the standard gauge could. Of the four, the Shawmut survived and was converted to standard gauge. The reason for its survival was the hauling of thousands of tons of coal to the Lake Ontario area.

One line went up Saltrising over the hill, down into Clarksville, and then back up another hill into Cuba. Another line came in from Wellsville by way of Petrolia, and down through the gorge west of Allentown. I often wonder why it had to climb Norton Summit. From Allentown to the summit is not a bad climb, but on the Wellsville side, that’s another story. It could just as well have gone down Knights Creek in Scio. It is possible, however, that it needed to make the stop in Petrolia to pick up whatever business might be there. After all that was the site of the first well. The trolley just went around the hills.

John Herrick’s book “Empire Oil” touches on a number of the personalities involved in these projects. Many people were on boards of directors of several companies. One would have to study the stories of all of them, and compare for conflict of interest. For example, Orville P. Taylor, who brought in the first well, was involved in several operations. The O.P. Taylor story alone would make quite a movie. The Index of Leases in the County Clerk’s office shows who the wheeler-dealers were. Part of the plot would include the interplay among the personalities. It would not be without some violence. There was at least one barroom fight that ended in a fatality. There were probably some love stories too.

Possibly not all the land owners were too thrilled about having engines running through their pastures. In some cases the railroad was built even before title to the land was taken. A lot of deeds refer to the taking as fifty feet or sixty-six feet wide, half on each side as the line now runs. The railroad was to build fences where necessary, and provide one grade crossing per farm. This makes it next to impossible to plot the taking on a map. After 100 years, there are still people trying to pin down their boundaries. In some cases grades will give a clue, but in others, there is nothing.

There is at least one more facet to the story. One of the speculators in Bolivar was a Mr. Baum. He ran the Opera House in Richburg for a couple of years, and tried to start a subdivision along what is now State Route 417, east of Bolivar. After a couple of years he was foreclosed on. You have heard of his son, L. Frank Baum of the Wizard of Oz. It is believed that Frank spent some time in Bolivar, and it is speculated that “the yellow brick road” may have been insprired by our country roads covered with yellow maple leaves. Mr. Baum also wrote a number of other books. Could they also have hints about our local history?

We need somebody who can write a screenplay.

(Bill Greene is a Daily Reporter columnist)