History of the Swains Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad
By Howard W. Appell
[Note: This story appeared in a series of articles in the Nunda News between November 18, 1992 and February 17, 1993; Compiled by Richard Palmer)
Between the years 1874 and 1906 Nunda had a railroad line which ran right through the heart of the village. Many residents will recall the abbreviated remnant of this railroad, a dead-end freight spur which connected with the Pennsylvania Railroad, over which Nunda Lumber, GLF and the tubing company received shipments until 1963, when both the Pennsylvania and freight spur were abandoned and torn up.
At one time the track continued southward, beyond the coal trestle and unloading points in the Nunda Lumber yard and over Keshequa Creek, winding its way through the hills and down into the Canaseraga Creek valley, terminating at a connection with the Pittsburg, Shawmut & Northern Railroad at Swains.
I became interested in the “Swains Branch” about ten years ago and did some extensive historic research into this little railroad. I was fortunate to find two people with a living memory of the time when the trains ran all the way to Swains, both of whom are now deceased.
Former Nunda area resident Col. Clarence Koppe was 98 years old and living in California when we corresponded with one another in 1983. He was able to describe his vivid boyhood memories of the railroading activities at Swains, where the 'Central New York & Western’ (a predecessor of the Shawmut) crossed over the Erie main line on a large horseshoe-shaped trestle and when the arrival and departure of the Swains Branch train was a daily occurrence.
Wiscoy resident and former Pennsylvania Railroad employee Bert Smith was 104 years old of age when I had the opportunity of taping several conservations with him. He had actually ridden the line in a caboose, serving as a sort of mobile telegrapher in the early 1900's, when the Pennsylvania scheduled a freight train by way the Swains Branch and Shawmut between Mt. Morris and Wayland. Mr. Smith recalled stopping at a little telegraph shanty in swains, where he would plug in his portable gear and receive orders for the train to wait or proceed.
Although Nunda's little railroad hardly amounted much more than a rickety country short line, it was originally incorporated with grand visions as the Rochester, Nunda & Pennsylvania Railroad in 1872.
In the post-Civil War era, the railroad was seen as the basis of America's industrial might. A community without a railroad had virtually no future. Nunda had a railroad of sorts. The Buffalo line of the Erie Railroad, completed in 1852, passed a point about two miles south of the village, known, appropriately, as 'Nunda Station', a satellite community which would see exert its independence by renaming itself 'Dalton.'
But Nunda wanted and needed a genuine railroad of its one, one which ran right through the heart of the village from which goods could be sent and received and passengers could arrive and depart.
No small wonder, then, that when a new railroad line was proposed which would provide a venue for transporting the rich lumber and coal resources of western Pennsylvania to the city
of Rochester via a route through the village of Nunda. Nunda businessmen and politicians offered full support. In fact, so much support was promised from Nunda that the village’s name was incorporated into the railroad companies.
The Rochester, Nunda & Pennsylvania was chartered in 1870 with Reuben P. Wisner of Mt. Morris as president. Initially, the line was proposed to run between Mt. Morris and Belvidere; a point in Allegany County on the Hornell-Salamanca section of the Erie Railroad main line. Over the course of the next two years, extensions were incorporated which projected the railroad to the destinations in its title, northward to Rochester and southward into Pennsylvania. A number of municipalities along the proposed route bonded themselves to invest in the project: Mt. Morris for $75,000; Leicester for $40,000;
Nunda for $50,000, and the City of Rochester for $50,000. Another $25,000 was forthcoming from a neighboring railroad company, the Avon, Geneseo & Mt. Morris Railroad, a short line which connected its namesake villages with re the Erie Railroad at Avon.
In 1872, when Benjamin Dow of Fowlerville succeeded the deceased Reuben Wisner to the R.N. & P. presidency, prospects were looking bright. The Erie had built a switch at Rosses, a point about halfway between Dalton and Swains on the projected right-of-way of the R.N.&P., for the delivery of rails and other equipment. Grading was being done by Irish work crews along the length of the route from Belvidere to Mt. Morris. Foreign speculators in London were seriously considering a $2,700,000 investment in the R.N.&P. and the City of Rochester appeared to be good for another $400,000. With the promise of the sizeable British investment, the company too an option to purchase some extensive coal lands in Pennsylvania.
By early 1873. ten miles of rail had been laid from Rosses through Nunda to the Mt. Morris town line, thirteen more miles of right-of-way had been graded in the towns of York and Chili and nearly all the grading and bridge construction had been completed from Rosses southward to Belvidere.
Then the unthinkable happened.
The New York City banking firm of J. Cook and Company failed on September 18th, 1873, initiating a nationwide recession which would become known as the ‘Railroad Bond’’ panic. Sources of investment dried up. The contractor for the R.N.& P. construction, A.L. Dolby & Co. of Syracuse, went unpaid for a large portion of work and found himself bankrupt.
Largely through the efforts of Dolby agent James Hill, who had a large stake in the construction already accomplished, additional rail was acquired, enough to build the line an additional five miles northward to Sonya. At Sonya a connection was made with another new railroad line, the Erie & Genesee Valley Railroad, which was an extension of the Avon, Geneseo & Mt. Morris from Mt. Morris to Dansville. The R.N.&. P. now had 17 miles of line complete, from Rosses through Nunda and Tuscarora to Sonya.
On September first, 1874 a brand new locomotive from the Brooks Works in Dunkirk was delivered by the Erie to the RN&P connection at Rosses. The locomotive was named F. D. Lake after a prominent Nunda hardware merchant and member of the R.N.& P. Board of Directors. Six flat cars accompanied the delivery. On September 26th a grand opening excursion took place, with the excursionists competing for space with piles of fill dirt on the flat cars.
During the course of the winter, some freight shipments were made over the R.N.& P. but without additional investment, the line was doomed to failure: On May 17th, 1875 the locomotive F .D. Lake was shipped back to Dunkirk, having been repossessed: when the R. N. & P. was unable to make payments.
Some hope: appeared when the Erie's famous wooden viaduct at Portage, the highest bridge in the world, was totally destroyed by a fire on May 6th, 1874. A possibility existed that the Erie might utilize
the R. N. & P. as part of a detour route. But this never occurred and in fact the Erie completed a new steel viaduct in a record 47 days’ time.
Now locomotive-less, the R. N. & P. has fallen on very hard times. For the next five years the track would remain rusty and unused. Farmer, D. D. Woodman, even pulled up the rails crossing his property and sold them to the Silver Lake Railroad. During the five years from 1875 to 1880, while the rail of the Rochester, Nunda & Pennsylvania lay rusty and idle, the State of New York closed and abandoned the Genesee Valley Canal. The state announced that it would be willing to sell the towpath right-of-way at a reasonable cost to some company willing to construct a railroad along the route, thereby compensating the canal communities for the loss of commerce suffered when the canal was abandoned.
In 1880 the canal right-of-way was purchased by a syndicate of New York and Philadelphia bankers, prominent among whom were Henry A.V. Post and Archer N. Martin. This syndicate made a large investment in existing and potential rail routes in western Pennsylvania and New York during the early 1880’s, all under the auspice of the Buffalo, New York & Philadelphia Railroad. Included in the syndicate’s projects was the 100-mile-long Genesee Valley Canal Railroad built along the towpath of the abandoned canal.
The construction of the Canal Railroad caused much consternation in the Village of Nunda when it was learned that the route of the railroad would have to be engineered so as to avoid the steep gradient of the canal right-of-way west of the village. Thus the Canal Railroad would not be able to follow the exact route of the canal through the Village. Instead, the railroad skirted the area northwest of the village, where a station with the name ‘‘West Nunda”’ was established at Picket Line Road. Once again, as had happened with the Erie in 1852, a railroad avoided the village.
The newspaper editor and local officials complained to Albany, to little avail, but their tempers cooled when it was announced, very soon after the canal acquisition, that the same syndicate had also purchased the old Rochester, Nunda & Pennsylvania property between Sonya and Belvidere. Under the new ownership, the railroad was renamed the Rochester, New York & Pennsylvania and given a new lease on life.
Under the syndicate, the old RN&P was utilized in three separate railroad construction projects. The section between Sonya and “Nunda Junction,” where rail and bridges were already intact, was used as the Genesee Valley Canal Railroad route, instead of the generally parallel towpath itself. (This legacy of the R.N.&P. remains today in the proposed route of the Genesee Valley Greenway, which would follow the old railroad grade, close to but not on the canal towpath between Sonya and Nunda Junction.)
The middle section of the RN&P from Nunda Junction through Nunda to Swains was restored and track laying was completed between Rosses and Swains.
Both the Rochester, New York & Pennsylvania Railroad and Genesee Valley Canal Railroad were leased to the Buffalo, New York & Philadelphia Railroad. In September of 1882 freight and passenger trains began utilizing these routes in schedules between Angelica also found a useful purpose. Grading and bridges had been constructed along this route, but rail had never been laid. In the spring of 1881 oil was struck in the southwestern part of Allegany County. During the next few months a network of railroads was built to serve the boom towns which sprung up in the wake of oil fields activity. These railroads were all built “narrow gauge” meaning the tracks were set only three feet apart, as opposed to the standard spacing of four feet, eight and a half inches.
The Post-Martin syndicate had an interest in one of these narrow gauge companies, the Allegany Central. During the latter part of 1881 and early 1882 the Allegany Central was extended northward from Friendship, linking up with the former R.N.& P grade at Belvidere and continuing right into Swains.
Thus in the summer of 1882 Swains had become a bustling little railroad center, where connections could be made via the Erie to Buffalo or Hornell, via the Allegany Central to the oil fields and via the Buffalo, New York & Philadelphia to Rochester.
And Nunda residents were pleased with the frequent service and new equipment of the B.N.Y.&P. which was scheduling three passenger trains each direction daily right through the village, plus a “commuter’’ train which originated at Nunda in the morning, running to Rochester and returning in the evening.
The Allegany Central narrow gauge railroad was a prospering enterprise in 1882, with 59 miles of trackage from Olean to Swains by Way of Bolivar, Friendship, Angelica and Birdsall. But the company had grander visions similar to those of its predecessor, the Rochester, Nunda and Pennsylvania Railroad, whose route and right-of-way the Allegany Central utilized between Belvedere and Swains.
In June of 1883, the Allegany Central was renamed the Lackawanna and Pittsburgh and commenced several major expansion projects. Then narrow gauge track from Angelica got Swains was re-laid with heavier rail and widened to standard gauge, with bridges and trestles being strengthened to accommodate larger standard gauge engines and cars. At Swains a large horseshoe shaped trestle was constructed which extended the line towards Canaseraga and onward to Wayland, with the ultimate goal of Geneva. A five-mile connection was built from Angelica to a point south of Belfast on the Genesee Valley Canal/B.N.Y. & P. railroads. Then, in August of 1883 the Lackawanna and Pittsburgh leased the Swains branch from the Rochester, New York and Pennsylvania / B.N.Y. & P. railroads.
In April of 1883 the B.N.Y. & P. had removed from its schedules one of the three daily trains through Nunda, but service remained at a respectable level with two through trains plus the Nunda-Rochester commuter run. As lessee, the Lackawanna and Pittsburgh operated the two through trains which provided connections between Swains (and later Angelica when, in November of 1883, the standard gauging project was completed) and Rochester-Olean B.N.Y. & P. trains at Nunda Junction. The commuter run continued to be operated by the B.N.Y. & P.
In June of 1884, the L&P further expanded its operations by acquiring trackage-use rights over the B.N.Y. & P. and other lines between its Belfast connection and Newcastle, Pennsylvania, and between Nunda Junction and Genesee Junction (the point where the Genesee Valley Canal and New York, West Shore and Buffalo railroads connected just south of Rochester). Agreements between the Lackawanna and Pittsburgh and B.N.Y. & P. were easily arranged, since several B.N.Y. & P. Directors also held positions as L. & P. directors.
At this time the Lackawanna and Pittsburgh began operating the trains of the “Globe Fast Freight Line” over a nearly 300-mile route between Newcastle and Genesee Junction, which included the Swains Branch. For five exciting months, from June to November of 1884, the long freight trains of the Globe Line sped through Nunda Village on fast, tight schedules.
But the volume of freight anticipated by the L. & P. failed to materialize and rate wars initiated by major trunk line companies forced revenues down to absurdly low levels. In December of 1884 the L. & P. was bankrupt and placed in receivership.
First the freight trains had disappeared in November. Then in March the L. & P. eliminated its passenger express train from the Swains branch, followed by the local accommodation train in September. During the winter of 1885-86 there was no service between Swains and Nunda, although Nunda depot still hosted the B.N.Y. & P. Rochester commuter train. Once again Nunda’s little railroad had failed. Boom then bust, and it would not be the last time.
During the spring of 1886 the faltering Lackawanna & Pittsburgh Railroad made a sincere effort to pull itself up by its bootstraps. Contracts were negotiated with United States Express Company and the Pullman Company resulting in the introduction of the “Cannonball” between Wayland and Olean, hauling passengers, mail, express parcels and sleeping cars. New equipment was obtained to replace the old locomotives and cars, most of which had been repossessed by creditors.
This activity on the L. & P. mainline had ramifications on the leased Swains Branch, where a local freight and passenger accommodation train was reintroduced in April of 1886, between Nunda Junction and Swains, briefly supplemented by an express train, introduced in September but taken off again in January.
Then in May of 1887, the Buffalo, New York & Philadelphia Railroad instituted a schedule change which definitely made Nunda Village residents unhappy. It was necessary for the locomotive for the daily commuter train between Nunda and Rochester to have its direction reversed on a turntable located behind the hotel on Second Street. Having built another turntable at Portageville, the B.N.Y.&. P decided to make this Wyoming County village the new terminus of the commuter run. Henceforth Nunda residents could no longer board the train in the village, but instead had to go to the “West Nunda” station to catch the Rochester commuter train.
Now the only train on the Swains Branch was the daily L. & P. accommodation. This service too ended in September of 1888 when disgruntled Lackawanna & Pittsburgh employees, several months without their paychecks, struck for back wages. Once more Nunda found itself as a village with railroad tracks, but no trains.
Meanwhile the B.N.Y.&P. Railroad, itself in none-too-healthy financial condition, had undergone corporate reorganization in 1887 and was now known as the Western New York & Pennsylvania Railroad.
This new W.N.Y. & P. company inherited responsibility for the Swains branch from the B.N.Y. & P. (Technically, the branch remained as the Rochester, New York & Pennsylvania Railroad, leased by the W.N.Y. & P.). The Lackawanna & Pittsburgh in 1889 had also undergone an name change and was now the Lackawanna & Southwestern, but the new L. & S.W. company never exercised its option to operate trains on the Swains Branch.
For two years the W.N.Y. &. P. was the subject of complaints by Nunda citizens to the New York State Railroad Commission, seeking restoration of train service into the village. Finally, in the summer of 1890 the W.N.Y. & P. agreed to run one of its Olean-Rochester locals down the branch as far as the village.
But from 1888 to 1890 no trains operated between Nunda and Swains. Nevertheless, the W.N.Y. & P. must have seen some potential in the Swains Branch, because in the spring of 1891 it commenced a major rebuilding project at the south end. The Swains Branch would be given one more chance to prove its worth.
When the B.N.Y.& P. Railroad had completed the final four miles of the Swains Branch in 1882, the project required the construction of a long s-shaped wooden trestle at Rosses, where the track crossed over the line of the Erie Railroad. Over the Erie Railroad itself, stone abutments supported the Swains Branch bridge. (These abutments remain intact today and can be seen when approaching Rosses crossing on Route 70.) The Swains branch then continued parallel to the Erie, through the swampy Klossner’s Pond. The following year a great 180-degree horseshoe shaped trestle was built at Swains where the Lackawanna & Pittsburgh crossed over the Erie.
The arrangement was adequate during the early and mid-1880’s when most traffic on the Swains branch was either to or from the south, that is Angelica, the Alllegany oil fields and Pennsylvania. However, by the late 1880’s, the Allegany oil boom was over and the Globe Fast Freight line had failed.
Nonetheless, new traffic sources and destinations had emerged to the east. In 1888 a branch was completed from a point on the L. & P. railroad just east of Canaseraga, 10 miles into Hornell. Known as the Rochester, Hornellsville and Lackawanna Railroad, this company had a prosperous business in Hornell.
Although the Lackawanna & Pittsburgh had not reached Geneva, it had reached Wayland, where it connected with the main line of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad. The Swain branch had the potential of being a conduit between the traffic centers at Hornell and Wayland, and Rochester as well as Nunda and the villages along the Genesee Valley Canal Railroad.
There was only one problem. Swains branch trains to or from the east had to cross, then recross the Erie over the trestles at Rosses and Swains and would find themselves facing the wrong direction upon reaching Swains. To remedy this situation, the new owner of the Swains Branch, the W.N.Y. & P. Railroad, abandoned the trestle and bridge at Rosses and the eastern four miles of line on the southwest side of the Erie tracks. A new track was built on the northeast side of the Erie, connecting to the L. & P. (now Lackawanna & South Western) on the northeast end of the horseshoe trestle, at a point designated “Swains Junction.” The old junction on the opposite end of the horseshoe trestle was now merely a short stub-end spur into Swains hamlet.
(Today you can see both the old and “new” Swains branch grades on either sides of the existing Norfolk Southern tracks through Klossner’s Pond, both railroads long since abandoned. The Department of Environmental Conservation lookout point on Route 70 is filled in over the new grade, but offers a good view of the old grade. Walk down the trail at the north end of the fill and you will be standing on the new grade. Walk along the shore further north and you will see more evidence of both old and new grades, which were built on fill through the length of the swamp.)
In September of 1891, a new “short line route” from Hornell to Rochester via the Swains Branch and its newly rebuilt trackage was open. Nunda again had first-rate passenger train service. The “Short Line Express” ran between Hornell and Nunda under R.H.& L. operation and between Nunda and Rochester under W.N.Y.& P. operation. In addition, daily local freight and passenger service off the W.N.Y.& P. main line (Canal Railroad) continued to serve Nunda as well as a weekly local train from Hornell, operated by the R.H.& L.
The little “Short Line Express” appears to have been a competitive threat to the mighty Erie Railroad. The Erie soon initiated its own Hornell-Rochester express in cooperation with the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh Railroad using a connection at Silver Springs.
The decade of the 1890's finally brought some stability to train operations on the Swains Branch. In November of 1892 the Rochester, Hornellsville & Lackawanna and Lackawanna & Southwestern companies were merged and reorganized into the Central New York & Western Railroad. The C.N.Y. & W. retained the lease of the Swains Branch from the R. N.Y. & P. and W. N. Y. & P. Railroads and operated two daily trains, an express and local accommodation in each direction through Nunda for the remainder of the decade.
The CNY&W also made some substantial improvements to its own properties, among which was the replacement (actually, burying) of the large horseshoe trestle at Swains with earthen fill, with a concrete culvert installed over Canaseraga Creek and a steel through truss bridge over the Erie Railroad. Although the railroad is long gone, abandoned in 1947,the horseshoe-shaped fill remains very much in evidence at Swains today.
In 1899 this company again changed its name, from the Central New York & Western to the Pittsburg, Shawmut & Northern when it merged with several other railroads in the bituminous coal country of northwestern Pennsylvania.
The P. S. & N. or “‘Shawmut,”’ as it was popularly known, continued to operate the Swains Branch forabout another year. However, in 1900 the Rochester, New York & Pennsylvania Railroad became
part of the great Pennsylvania Railroad system, the “standard railway of the world.”
The Pennsylvania Railroad operated the Swains Branch for the next four years, and it was during this period that Burt Smith was telegrapher on the Mt. Morris-to-Wayland freight train which ran over the branch.
The Pennsylvania Railroad, which had acquired the W.N.Y. & PO. system primarily for access to Buffalo and Rochester apparently did not see much value in the 12-mile Swains Branch, which traversed some rather steep grade and sharp curves in its meanderings over the hills between the Keshequa and Canaseraga creek valleys.
Operation of the branch between Nunda and Swains ceased in 1904 and the trackage was removed in 1908. The two-mile connection between Nunda Village and Nunda Junction, on the Pennsylvania Railroad “canal” line in Rochester, was retained, so Nunda still had a railroad, albeit a dead-end spur. The Pennsylvania continued to deliver freight car shipment into the village and passenger service off the canal line likewise continued,
As the new century progressed the size of railroad locomotives increased. When the locomotives became too long for the small turntable in the village, turning had to be done at the wye shaped trackage up at Nunda Junction. As Col. Koppe recalled, “Nunda became well known to railroad patrons as ‘the place where the trains back into” which was a dirt if a civic disgrace to local citizens.”
After 1908 the Swains Branch was reduced to a two-mile spur track which connected the Village of Nunda with the Pennsylvania Railroad ‘main line’ between Olean and Rochester. In the years prior to World War Il, Nunda was served by two daily passenger trains, which would back in from Nunda Junction on the ‘main line’. One of these trains was a first class express usually consisting of a locomotive, tender, baggage car and coach. The second train was really the freight train, with a combination baggage-passenger coach sandwiched between the freight cars and caboose. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, the express train was replaced by a gas-electric “doodle-bug,” an early predecessor of the diesel locomotive, which had two gasoline engine powering a generator which fed power to traction motors in the axles.
All passenger service between Olean and Rochester, including service to the Swains Branch, was eliminated on April 26, 1941.
A more important function of the Swains Branch in the 20th century was the delivery of freight into the village. A 1902 map indicates switches for a coal shed, warehouse and feed mill. A 1913 listing of Pennsylvania Railroad sidings indicates switches for Foote Mfg. Co. (which received coal for its boiler house), for W. Baker's Planning Mill, for a ‘public track,’ and for William Craig.
Even into the early 1960's, Foote, GLF and Nunda Lumber received and/or shipped by rail.
The Pennsylvania Railroad ‘canal’ line between Hinsdale (in Cattaraugus County) and Wads-orth Junction (in southern Monroe County), including the spur into Nunda, was abandoned in March of 1963.
The story of the abandonment of the line appeared in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle on February 22, 1963.
Old Pennsy Line Calls It Quits
The Pennsylvania Railroad branch line between Olean and Rochester will call it quits Feb. 26 after 84 years of service. Customers have been notified of the closing date but it is understood that 10 days will be allowed to take care of unfinished business along the line.
The Pennsylvania filed a notice with the Interstate Commerce Commission Dec. 21, 1961, asking permission to abandon the single track line of 84 miles located in the counties of Cattaraugus, Allegany, Wyoming, and Livingston.
Shortly after the request was made strong opposition arose all along the line that apparently did no good. The railroad claimed that loss of business and increased cost of operation has forced the closing of the line. The Interstate Commerce Commission has granted permission for pulling up the track.
The abandoned right-of-way was subsequently purchased by Rochester Gas & Electric Corporation.
Soon, with R.G. & E.’s cooperation, it may become the Genesee Valley Greenway Trail.
An interesting recollection of the Swains Branch and ‘canal’ railroad, author unknown, appeared in the Nunda News of September 17, 1948.
The Genesee Valley Canal railroad which eventually replaced it was not built until 1882. Six construction trains then were at work in the vicinity. Laborers struck in March of that year for $1.50 a day, an increase of 10 cents. Teams of horses earned $3.50 a day. 68,000 Fence posts were required to put up the barbed wire fence along the road, and probably as many telegraph poles, as Nunda was connected with the outside world by telegraph that year, although it previously had been connected via the Erie. Portageville staged a big celebration when the work train arrived there on the 30th anniversary of the first crossing of the High Bridge by a train.
The first passenger coach ever seen in Nunda arrived in July, 1882, and the people turned out in large numbers to greet its arrival, but it was not until December that thru trains were running between Rochester and Olean. The new coaches were described as ‘‘models of elegance and comfort.’’ They were painted a bright straw color, the interiors were lighted with four double center lamps, the seats were red plush, and the hat racks, brass. West Nunda was the name given in the timetables for Nunda’s station on the main line. The depot at that place was built in the winter of 1887-88.
In 1892, the railroad--known by then as the Western New York and Pennsylvania--proposed that the people of Nunda raise the money to build a depot to cost not more than $1,000, for which the railroad would reimburse them at the rate of $100 per year. The company also proposed to straighten the tracks through the village, locate the express and telegraph office here instead of at West Nunda, replace wooden bridges with iron, and iron rails with heavy steel.
Later, however, the depot was moved here from West Nunda-- placed on a flat car one Sunday and moved to its present site ‘amidst great pomp and ceremony.”
Nunda was once known to the outside world as the town where the trains backed in. Nunda Junction, northeast of the village, where the L & P (Swain’s branch) and the Pennsylvania met, was the site of a ‘‘Y’’ in the tracks where trains made the turn to take the spur into the village from the main line. For years there was a train which lay over here all night and left for Rochester every morning. It was known as “The 6:20’ and it returned at about 6 p.m. A later train did not come into the village but made a stop at West Nunda about 9 p.m. and late stayers in “‘the city” could return on that train and take the stage to the village. Numberless excursion trains carried sight-seers and picnickers to Portage.
This account of the old Swains Branch depot in Nunda appeared in the Nunda News on August 18th, 1960, shortly after the class landmark was demolished:
The razing of the “Pennsy” depot in Sunday village brings a small nostalgic tear to the eyes of those who have sat in the warmth of its pot-bellied stove and listened to the mysterious clicking of the telegraph while waiting (impatiently!) for the train to back in from Nunda Junction so they could be off to Rochester or Olean…or perhaps to Belfast change to the Buffalo & Susquehanna for Belmont, or maybe to Portage Bridge or Mt. Morris.
The depot was always warm and cozy in the morning. It smelled strangely of soft coal smoke, but to a child it was a wondrous place. We are glad to have a couple of “Rexie” Wright’s old postcard views of it and most grateful to those who so kindly contributed them.
The story of how the depot was moved from West Nunda to Nunda on a couple of flat cars has been told a good many times, but it inevitably comes to mind again. The feat was accomplished on a Sunday in November, 1896. Another story which has not been repeated quite so often concerns a man who was a sort of unofficial train-greeter, meeting practically every train which came to town.
Some friends of his thought it would be a good joke if he missed this most-exciting-of-all arrival, so corralled him well ahead of the appointed hour and plied him with refreshments, so to speak. Time flew by, his faculties dimmed, and the depot backed safely into town without benefit of his presence. He was so upset when he realized what had happened that he never met a train again.
This was too bad in a way, for - in the words of soap operas - he was a “kindly old gentleman, just like the man next door” and much too decent to be made the brunt of such a joke. But no doubt the perpetrators enjoyed the whole thing immensely.
The only depot in the village up to that time has been a waiting room in a warehouse which formerly stood on the opposite side of the tracks, so the townspeople were very happy indeed when railroad officials announced the decision to move the depot down from West Nunda, where it had been built in 1888. The reason for its location there must have been that while all trains on the division did not come into the village, all passed that point. A new road running west from the north end of Gibbs street had been built to reach the West Nunda Station. Price Street is part of that road, and West Nunda was where the railroad crosses the road a short distance farther west. So far as we know, that’s all there ever was of West Nunda - a depot, freight house, coaling station, etc. Stages ran between there and the village.
Several sites had been considered for a depot in the village, including the one where it eventually came to rest. But that spot had been considered the least desirable as there was not sufficient room for trains without blocking the street. And of course trains did block the street for many years - but the inconvenience was more than offset by the thrill of watching the train. In one old photograph in our collection, the crossing sign is the time-honored one, “Railroad Crossing, Look Out for the Cars.” This was part of an old riddle - remember? “Can you spell it without any R’s?””
The Special did not run on the Rochester-Olean division, though. The original coaches on this division were painted a bright straw color and had red plush seats and brass hatracks. But our recollection is of green plush seats, somewhat discolored from soft coal soot. Open windows were the air-conditioning system, and cinders had a way of coming thru the windows, sometimes even lodging in eyes. But even so, there seemed to be an elegance about a train, no matter how remote from the main line.
Backing in from Nunda Junction was all a part of it, too. The time was when there was a turntable at the Junction, but every new engine was longer than the one before, and finally there wasn’t room on the turntable, so tracks were laid in a ‘“‘Y”’ and the trains came into town in reverse. Many out-of-towners used to refer to Nunda as ‘‘the place where the trains back in.”
And so one looked backward to watch for familiar hometown landmarks. Now we are looking backward at an era which is all but gone--not with real sadness but perhaps a sigh because the things of today seem less glamorous.
Col. Clarence E. Koppe lived the later years of his life in California, but recalled the Swains
branch and the great horseshoe trestle from his boyhood days in Nunda and Swains in this November 1, 1962 letter to the Nunda News: :
As a lad at the turn of the century, I frequently visited my uncle, James Ryan, who lived at Swain; and I spent many hours of each visit watching the trains on both the Shawmut and Erie.
The trestle shown in connection with your article formed a great horseshoe curve, comparable to the Pennsylvania horseshoe curve at Cresson, Pa. This great curve was necessary in order to reduce the grade in going from the lowlands of Chautauqua Hollow to the higher area at Birdsall and Angelica. Later this trestle was filled with gravel except at the point where the Shawmut crossed the Erie. This was a common practice of the day, and I well remember seeing this method of grading along the newly built line of the Buffalo and Susquehanna Railroad as it crossed the broad Genesee Valley east from Belfast. As you know, the B. & S. Railroad went the way of the Shawmut, the Olean Rochester section of the Pennsylvania R.R. and many other railroad lines.
Another point of interest is that the original Swains Branch crossed the Erie Railroad at a point above the swamp lands of Chautauqua Hollow just north and west of Swain; its passenger station was in the center of Swain, an old red building later used by the Shawmut which sent its passenger trains into Swain from the junction a mile or so up the grade toward Angelica. Later, the Swains Branch, then known as the Western New York and Pennsylvania Railroad, moved its track to the other side of the Erie and joined the P. S. & N. at the point where your photograph showed the Shawmut Depot; this junction point was only a few rods from the highway now labeled Highway 408.This new junction point made it possible for the Swains Branch to haul considerably more freight originating not only along the Shawmut, but also the Lackawanna and the Erie.
Even so, this additional freight was not sufficient to save the Swains Branch which had so many wrecks on the poorly ballasted tracks that the final owner, the Pennsylvania Railroad, abandoned the line in the first decade of this century, salvaging only the light rails. Thus ended the aspirations of the people of Nunda for a “through line,” for which they bonded themselves for $75,000 a bond which was not paid off until long after the line was torn up.
Some time back you mentioned two things in connection with the railroad, usually referred to in my early memory as the ‘Swains Branch.’ One concerned the depot. The first depot that I recall was located in a sort of warehouse east of the tracks and situated next to the Cottage Hotel, run at that time by the Murphy’s. When the Pennsylvania system acquired the Swains Branch, the depot which was located at West Nunda was moved on a flat car from West Nunda via Nunda Junction. The whole town turned out for the occasion.
The moving of the depot met with several difficulties. As the train approached the 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 All-day Cooper Shop with was very close to the railroad’s sharp curve after crossing Third Street.
The other railroad item concerned the turntable which, I believe you said, was located at Nunda Junction. The turntable was actually located right in Nunda back of the Cottage Hotel and back of the present Duryea Funeral Home. 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.
The original railroad and its rolling stock held great fascination for young and old. I recall many occasions when the lone (I believe there was only one) freight locomotive with the rusty cowcatcher would be unable to haul its load of perhaps 20 cars up the rather heavy grade back of our home on Vermont Street. So the train would be cut in two sections, the engine taking one section over the hump near Towne’s Pond and leading into Chautauqua Hollow, returning an hour or two later to pick up the other half of the train.
It was a sad day for the Nunda villagers when the Pennsylvania decided to abandon the line from Nunda to Swains. They started removing the rails from the Swain end of the line, moving them on little flat cars (about the size of the ‘hand-car’ in use by section crews). On Sundays when the rail removing crews were idle, some of us teenagers would push a flat car up the grade perhaps as far as the foot of the old Stone Quarry Road, and then coast down into the village using a stick on the wheels for a brake. We would travel at what seemed to me to be a frightening rate of speed, but most thrilling. Of course, my parents did not know that I was participating in such a dangerous enterprise.