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Saturday, March 12, 2016

In the early 1800’s, the fledgling United States had just survived another War with Britain, and had finally asserted itself on the globe as the land of the free, and the home of the brave. Britain had finally lost their colonies here in America, but they continued to be a world power through the use of sheer ingenuity. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing in Europe as the Erie Canal was completed in Lockport, in 1825.

The use of steam locomotives on rails was already being used throughout the United Kingdom as early as 1804, with Richard Trevithick’s “Puffing Devil” providing the power. However, the first railroad in America would not be built until 1826. In Quincy, Massachusetts, rails and a single rail car were built as a means to transport granite for the erection of the Bunker Hill Monument, but this was simply a one-horse operation and the vision of creating a nationwide system was still many years off.

In Lockport, there was much animosity brewing between Lyman Spalding and his mill operations, and the people who had property interests in Lockport’s Lowertown. Some of those property owners were very active, politically, in NY State, and it was their political maneuvering that convinced the Erie Canal Commissioners to order that the Mill Race be closed, and all waters were to be channeled through the locks. Spalding was using those surplus waters without having the rights to do so, but in his defense, his was the only property able to utilize it at that time.

This tactical shut down essentially closed all of the mill activities in the area known as Uppertown, and by so doing, essentially destroyed many of the investments that had already been made there. Hostilities grew amongst the people of Lockport, putting a divide amongst the villagers, all in a struggle to gain possession of the traffic that was so desperately needed for business. To historians, this was referred to as “The Water Controversy of 1829.”

In 1830, an American by the name of Peter Cooper, introduced “Tom Thumb,” the first steam locomotive built in the United States. In 1831, a few businessmen from Lockport petitioned the State to develop a rail road from Lockport to Kempville (present day Olcott), but were denied. Just two years later, the talk of “railroading” in America was still pretty quiet when Lockport’s own, Washington Hunt and Asher Torrence, conceived the idea of creating a road of rails connecting Lockport with the Seventh Wonder of the World. Their concept was to find a quicker and better connection between Niagara Falls and the Grand Erie Canal, and by so doing, would bring even more travelers into their section of town.

1851 Map of Lockport – Annotated with Pertinent Properties
In 1835, all preliminary obstacles to the new rail road were overcome, and they hired 300 Canadian, Scotch, and Irish workmen to begin laying the 24 miles of track, each of them working from sunrise to sunset for 6 shillings a day. They built a primitive form of what were called “Strap” rails, which consisted of oak beams with a strap of iron, about two and a half inches wide and half an inch thick, on top. In 1836, the depot in Lockport was completed, positioned on the canal bank near the end of Chapel Street, and the Lockport & Niagara Falls Rail Road (L&NFRR) was born, the first of its kind to be incorporated in New York State.

The Lockport ticket office was located in the Lockport House Hotel and rail cars would stop directly in front. Opposite the hotel, canal side, were the docks where packet boats continued to line up as they flowed through Lockport. Washington Hunt was a lawyer who owned property directly next door, and immediately became President of the company. He had been appointed the first Judge of Niagara County at the age of 24, and would later become the Seventeenth Governor of NY State.

In April of 1837, as the line opened up, the passenger cars were first pulled along the rails by horses, and the cars were simply an adaptation of the already present stagecoach. However, by years end, the “Strap Rail Road” would incorporate the new steam locomotives, and become one of the first steam-powered systems in the United States.

Two engines were received at first, both manufactured by a company called Ketchum, Rogers and Grosvenor, in Patterson, NJ, and they weighed in at 9 ½ tons each. One was proudly named “DeWitt Clinton” after the late NY State Governor, and the other, “Major Jack Downing,” named after a very popular fictional character of the time. They would each burn chunk wood being carried by a small trailing car, while pulling up to three passenger cars behind.

Drawing of the “DeWitt Clinton” (CONTRIBUTED)

Passengers headed to Niagara Falls would board along Market Street, and then the train would begin a gradual ascent up and across the Cady Street Bridge. From there, the mechanical wonder would hiss and throw sparks as it struggled to climb up the escarpment, across Clinton Street and along Gooding. The rails were so primitive that many travelers felt uneasy, with the cars lurching from side to side and front to back, much like the ride on an older wooden rollercoaster, with the engineer remaining focused on pushing the limits of the puffing boiler.

Those early years of the “Strap Rail Road” were full of interesting stories, and thanks to the work of Raymond Francis Yates, in 1895, we have a first hand interview with the late Mr. Stephen Sult, a Lockport man who lived on Fayette Street, and who spent his entire adult life working with the railroads of Western New York.

When the road opened, the road master position was offered up to this Mr. Sult. Sult was a jack-of-all-trades, and because they didn’t feel that the road could operate in the winter, he spent the off-seasons constructing nearly all of the freight cars that were needed for the company, and built the first eight-wheel coach to be used on the rail system.

Each of the two engines made two trips a day for $1 per trip - a bargain since the old stagecoach that ran to Niagara Falls charged 6 cents per mile, or a total of $1.44 for the 24 miles.

The primitive rail system was constantly in need of repair, and when problems arose, Mr. Sult explained that it was usually at an inopportune time. As an example, then President of the United States, Martin Van Buren, felt adventurous enough to take the new train, and this is Sult’s recollection of the incident…
“One time though, we dumped out the President of the United States. He had come up on the packet boat on his way to Niagara Falls, taking the train at Lockport. About a mile this side of Suspension Bridge, a spread rail ditched the train, and the car the President sat in tumbled over on its side and the passengers were pitched together in a heap.

The train was going so slow that nobody was hurt. The President crawled out without a scratch, and didn’t look as if he was mad any. He helped tip the car back, climbed in, and on they went just as if nothing had happened.”
There were a total of 4 different engines used by the L&NFRR with the youngest one being manufactured in 1843, in Lockport, at the Torrence Foundry and Machine Shop, located on Market Street between the Thompson Flour Mill and Exchange Street. This newest engine was called the “Independence,” and it was the first and only steam locomotive engine ever to be manufactured here in Lockport.

In 1847, with 3 engines working at all times, plans were in the works to extend the tracks to Rochester. Even with faith in the future of the line, bankruptcy was lingering close around the corner, and it would soon become necessary to merge with another.

On August 26, 1851, the old L&NFRR was taken over by the Rochester, Lockport and Niagara Falls Rail Road, with changes in the overall route soon forthcoming. Ironically, with all the bad memories of Uppertown versus Lowertown, Hunt’s original concept was starting to backfire, and his property was now going to be avoided completely, with the new line running along the escarpment and over a new canal bridge on the site of the present steel trestle. In 1851, Mr. Sult helped to take up the road that he had built just 14 years before.

Many of the Lowertown residents were thrilled at the change, many lighting bonfires in celebration that the hissing dragons would no longer be spooking their horses or creating nightmares for their children. The local press was quick to show the gratification of all those involved, finally free of the noise and sparks of the L&NFRR. However, the focus on new business was now centered on the railroad line on top of the escarpment, and those with easy access to it, and Lockport’s industry had to readjust their focus. Relocating the railroad also meant relocating business, and Uppertown became the main commerce center once again.

It would only be about a year, in 1853, before the newly organized Rochester, Lockport and Niagara Falls line would sell out to the rapidly expanding NY Central and the Hudson River Railroad (NYC&HRR). Fortunately for some of the properties on Market Street, they were still in close proximity to the expanding line, and that is where the Western Block Company would soon make their own international mark.

Until next time,

+Dr. Scott Geise, a local businessman, has an active interest in Erie Canal and Niagara County history. His column, "Historically Relevant," appears on the first and third Saturday of each month. Please feel free to share any historically relevant stories that you may have hidden away somewhere.

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