The Day Nunda Finally Got its Own Railroad Station
By Richard Palmer
The Western New York & Pennsylvania Railroad was in firm control of the line from Olean to Rochester when the village of Nunda finally got a suitable station building in 1896. But it did not come without a struggle. For more than a decade, a succession of railroad companies apparently felt that the original facility, consisting of a waiting room in an old former Genesee Valley Canal warehouse on Second Street, was more than adequate. But village residents didn't think so.
As early as 1882. the citizens of Nunda were prevailing upon the Genesee Valley Canal Railroad, which at that time was operating the Swains branch, to build a depot in the village. But no progress seems to have been made in this direction. Two years later, still nothing had been done. "We do not understand exactly the cause of the delay in putting up a depot in Nunda by the railroad company," it was noted in the Nunda News of Nov. 29, 1884. By now the Swains branch was being operated by the Lackawanna & Pittsburg Railroad.
More than a decade then passed. In 1896, the Central New York & Western Railroad, successor to the Lackawanna & Pittsburg, was operating two morning and two evening trains from Hornell to Rochester through Nunda over the Swains branch, which connected with the W.N.Y. & P. Rochester line at Nunda Junction. One old-timer recalled: "In fact, there was so much business that trains were even running on Sundays. That was typical of this short spur line. It either did lots of business or none at all."
The matter of securing better station facilities came to a head early 1896. Up until that time the Western New York & Pennsylvania did not receive or deliver freight to the village, compelling shippers to use West Nunda station. The matter was then presented to the New York State Board of Railroad Commissioners who recommended that the railroad provide daily freight service directly into the village.
Initially the railroad company paid no attention to this recommendation and the issue dragged out for several months. Finally, the village appealed to the New York State Attorney General. Apparently prompted the railroad to take action as one day the village received a a letter from the company attorney, offering to pay half of the expense of moving the West Nunda depot to the village. But this was declined.
The railroad finally gave in. In a letter to the Attorney General dated Oct. 27, 1896, Frank Rumsey, General Solicitor (attorney) for the railroad, wrote:
"The company has now decided to do better for the people of Nunda than the order of the railroad commissioners would do, by removing to Nunda village the station now located at West Nunda, and making it the principal station of the company at this point. "The work of removal will be carried on as expeditiously and practicable, which I hope will be satisfactory to you."
The decision was made to locate it near the warehouse that was then being used as the depot. The big day came on Sunday, Nov. 22, 1896, and village residents turned out en masse to witness this historic event. The depot at West Nunda, built in 1888, was loaded on two flat cars and transported to the village. It was run down to Nunda Junction and then backed into the village to its new location.
After reaching the state road crossing, progress was slow as it passed several buildings. At one place the track had to be moved to avoid striking a cooper shop. A crowd of people lined State Street who stood out in the cold for several hours to see how such a large building could be moved in this way. The railroad company had secured a large number of workmen, and the track swarmed with men getting the track ready and doing other chores.
This was quite a large undertaking, but was successfully accomplished in a one day, although the actual final locating of the building took another two days. It was hoped that other improvements would soon be made, including relocating some tracks to better accommodate businesses.
Recalling this episode of local railroad history, the late Col. Clarence E. Koeppe, who lived in Nunda as a boy, recalled:
" The moving of the depot met with several difficulties. As the train approached State Street crossing, trees along the right of way adjoining the old Amos place on the north side of Vermont Street had to be partially hewn down. Then there was the problem of getting by the old Allday Cooper Shop which was very close to the railroad's sharp curve after crossing Third Street."
Nunda village residents finally had their own depot. Oddly enough, it was located on one of the sites that would obviously cause the street to be blocked with trains. But after 14 years of waiting for a depot, no one seemed to mind if the street was blocked for a short time daily. The station would stand until 1960 when it was razed. A shelter was subsequently built at West Nunda.
The Nunda News on Nov. 28, 1898 reported:
"Nunda has thus secured what the people asked for through the Railroad Commissioners last spring, and when everything is completed we trust it will be satisfactory both to the people and the railroad company. The delivery of freight and all business will be transacted here instead of at West Nunda, which has been practically, by this move, wiped off the map.
"There will be possibly be other improvements in the near future by changing the track so as to better accommodate business at the new station, and it is hoped the company will see the advisability of running up the old canal line from the village to the deep cut and thus make the junction of the Hornellsville road here. instead of at three places as heretofore. That this will be ultimately be done nearly everyone believes, the sooner it is accomplished, the better, for both the company and the people.
In another brief item in the same issue it was stated:
"The event of the week has been the removal of the West Nunda station to the village. It is to be painted and put in good order for occupancy. It is well located near the former station and this is a move the people here have long desired, and has been accomplished through the efforts of the committee appointed by the citizens."
The depot was recalled as being a special place. It was always warm and cozy early in the morning, with the pungent odor of soft coal smoke, the clicking of the telegraph key and the train movements outside. To children especially it was a wondrous place. Until 1900, the Pittsburg, Shawmut & Northern shared depot facilities with the Western New York & Pennsylvania in Nunda while they operated the Swains branch. It was then turned back to its owner, the W.N.Y. & P., that operated it for another four years. But that's another story.
Operationally, southbound trains headed in and backed out and northbound trains backed in and headed out to Nunda Junction. Originally there were a turntable and water tank a short distance from the village depot. For generations Nunda was known as "the place where the trains backed in." The fact that the village of Nunda was on a stub end became even more evident after the Swains branch was reduced to a two-mile spur from Nunda Junction.
As locomotives became larger the Pennsylvania Railroad eventually decided to build a wye at Nunda Junction. The Nunda News of Saturday, June 4, 1910, reported:
"The early morning train to Rochester, leaving Nunda at 6:20, was restored to this division Sunday Morning. Monday morning 57 passengers took this train for Rochester leaving at 9:04. Rain doubtless kept many others at home.
"A large engine and tender, looking more like a huge battleship than anything else, pulled the initial train out of here Sunday morning and caused considerable trouble on its return Sunday night when it was discovered the Nunda turntable was too short to accommodate both engine and tender, and it was necessary to turn them separately.
"It is expected a Y will be built at Nunda Junction in the near future, which will save much time and hard work now devoted to operating the local turntable." Recalling this turntable, Col. Koeppe said: "Spectators were numerous whenever a locomotive had to be turned around. The turntable was designed for the small locomotives first used on the Swains Branch; but later larger ones were used necessitating the separation of the tender from the engine, each section being turned by itself."
Further detail on this subject is found in an article in the Nunda News of September 3, 1910:
"The railroad crew on the “fast milk” which arrives here from Rochester over the Pennsylvania R.R. daily at 7:05 p.m. are congratulating themselves that in the future the Nunda turntable will remain idle, as far as they are concerned, the new Y at the Nunda Junction acting as a turntable for the whole train, which now backs into the village every night.
"When the train reaches the Junction, it runs up on the West Nunda branch, a short distance, backs on to a half-circle switch over onto the Nunda branch, turning the train completely around. The operation consumes about three minutes and is as simple as it is wonderful.
" On cold winter nights when the mercury goes below zero, the Y will be appreciated more than ever, and the train crew will be saved the work of operating the turntable in snow a foot deep."
During World War I, the railroads were operated by the United States Railroad Administration which aptly proved the government's ineptness at trying to run private business. It was also at a time when automobiles and improved highways conspired to change the traveling habits of Americans. Railroads either would not or could not compete with this. There were tell-tale signs that rail passenger service was beginning to deteriorate on the Rochester branch (as well as on neighboring railroads). The Nunda News on Feb. 1, 1919, in sort of tongue-cheek reported:
"The train from Rochester on this division of the Pennsylvania Railroad on its arrival here mornings remains at the local station for 12 minutes according to orders issued when the last time car went into effect. This tends to please passengers to please passengers in general and it is thought the time may be extended eventually so that this train will lay over here all day.
"One of the conductors said one day last week 'through freights used to make better time on this division than the passenger trains are making today.' One decided improvement has been made at Nunda Junction, where as a rule, the milk train up from Rochester in the evening, takes the siding and waits for a long freight to pass.
"This is much better than keeping freights backed up toward West Nunda and letting the passenger train go into Nunda on time, and meets with the hearty commendation of the traveling public, who rejoice at the opportunity of paying higher fares than ever before and riding along the line almost as slow as in the days of the old canal boats. It is thought that if sufficient pressure can be brought to bear on the present management the canal boats may be restored."
Up until the 1920s Nunda was served by two daily passenger trains each way that backed in from the junction. It appears from the record that round trip Sunday service came off about 1926, the same year the Pennsylvania Railroad replaced the regular first class service (consisting of a baggage car and coach) with a gas electric car to which was coupled a railway post office/mail car.
The other was a mixed train, with a combination baggage and passenger car sandwiched in between a few freight cars and a caboose. The regular passenger service was reduced to one run a day in each direction in 1932 In 1926, the Pennsy replaced the remaining first class train with a self-propelled gas electric car. This was discontinued as of April 25, 1937.
The mixed train doesn't appear that it was well patronized. The editor of Nunda News had little good to say about this service - "...there is a so-called combination passengere-freight train one may ride on coming this way providing they do not object to spending six to eight hours in an obsolete day coach, riding the 100 miles between Rochester and Olean." The mixed train was finally discontinued on April 27, 1941.
The freight business continued to dwindle on the Rochester branch. The last customers in Nunda were Nunda Lumber Co., Foote Manufacturing Co. which received coal for its boiler house, and GLF. Earlier there was a Sheffield milk plant plant there served by the railroad. For a time, the agent out of Mount Morris handled the business in Nunda after the agency there was closed. The long-vacant depot in Nunda was razed in August of 1960.
The station at Nunda Junction had long since been abandoned. The
Nunda News of Dec. 26, 1930 reported:
" The station on the Pennsylvania Railroad at Nunda Junction has been discontinued. The depot has been sold to Harley S. Jones, wholesale grocer, who is moving it to his farm to be converted into a warehouse for groceries."
The depot in Nunda was razed during the summer of 1960. It had been closed for several years. Many small town stations disappeared with the discontinuance of less than carload freight business. What railroad business was left there was handled by the agent at Mount Morris, out of his car.
The Rochester branch had two brief moments of glory after World War II. On June 19, 1949 and again on Oct. 12, 1952, the Pennsylvania Railroad operated excursion trains over the line, sponsored by the Buffalo Chapter, National Railway Historical Society.
A.W. Lenhard of Rochester, district sales manager for the Pennsylvania Railroad, said in 1960 the PRR lost $16 million and the branch was losing $300,000 a year. He said in 1946 the Rochester branch handled 2,900 cars. By 1960 this had dropped to 854 cars. He said, "currently, it cost the railroad $3,000 a year to maintain one mile of track for the use of 10 cars" and the company was seeking to abandon the line, although it was reluctant to do so. Lenhard said large users of this branch had been notified of the railroad's intention to abandon the line.
On Dec. 21, 1961, the Pennsylvania Railroad filed a notice with the Interstate Commerce Commission requesting permission to abandon the 84 miles of single track line between Wadsworth Junction, south of Rochester, and Hinsdale, north of Olean, where it connected with the Buffalo line.
A largely protracted public hearing was held in Rochester on April 16, 1962 at which time I.C.C. examiners heard both railroad officials and representatives of local businesses along the line and government officials. The I.C.C. examiners sided with the railroad and the application was granted. The line was abandoned in early 1963. The remaining 14½ miles between Wadsworth Junction and Rochester were not abandoned until 1971 because they initially still served some businesses. An old 2.9 mile spur between Scottsville and Garbutt had been abandoned in 1944.
Shortly after this abandonment request was made, strong opposition arose all long the line, but it did no good. The railroad claimed that loss of business and increased operating costs were forcing it to seek abandonment. The I.C.C. granted permission and the line closed on Feb. 26, 1963.
No one could foresee that this scene would eventually come to an end with the coming of the automobile and improved highways. The loss of this railroad was came as a severe and continuing blow to the communities through which it passed.
The story of the depot at Nunda would not be complete without mentioning some of the people who worked there. Lester P. Higgins was the station agent there for 43 years, retiring on Feb. 1, 1932. He was assigned to Nunda in 1888, having come from Belfast. He was a prominent Nunda citizen, having served as mayor, assistant postmaster and president of the Nunda Board of Education. He died of a heart attack at the home of his son, Frank, in Pitman, N.J. on Dec. 27, 1940, and was survived by his wife, Mary, and daughter, Mrs. Dorothy Hall of Hornell. Many years before he had operated a dry goods store in Swain.
An earlier station agent at Nunda was Samuel Eldridge, who suffered a heart attack and died at his home on Conesus Lake in September, 1902. He was only 40 years old at the time.
Correspondence with Charles Woolever, Rochester, N.Y., who has spent many years chronicling the history of the Rochester Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Nunda News: Sept. 16, 1882; 1896 - March 21, April 18, May 2, May 9, June 20, Aug. 8, Sept. 26, Nov. 21, Nov. 28; Sept. 13, 1902, May 13, 1932, April 23, 1937, April 10, 1940, Dec. 27, 1940, Feb. 7, 1947, March 30, 1961, April 26, 1962, Dec. 20, 1976.