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buffalo central terminal history buffalo central terminal and the railroad passenger buffalo's first true railroad passenger station was built in 1848 on exchange street in downtown buffalo. it was a relatively small brick building that was added to or changed on at least 5 occasions during its use. it was built by the new york central and hudson river railroad, a part of cornelius vanderbilt's railroad empire which would eventually become the new york central railroad. in the 1880's buffalo was a bustling gateway city for commerce to and from the west. many community leaders wished to have a union station serving most of the area's railroads to centralize and simplify passenger train services at one location. an east buffalo location was proposed for a "grand union station" in 1889. this location, known as the "fillmore site" would be selected by the new york central for their central terminal in the early 1920's. a true "union station" was never built, although several area railroads shared space in the exchange street station for many years in the beginning of the 20th century. in 1925 the new york central rr (nyc), the city and the grade crossing and terminal station commission signed an agreement to allow central terminal to be built in its present location, 2-1/2 miles from the downtown business district. construction of the 17 floor combination office and terminal building was begun in 1927 and completed in 1929. the grand opening of the facility on saturday, june 22, 1929 was highlighted by a noontime chamber of commerce luncheon for 2,200 people, the largest event of this type held in buffalo up to this point in time. band music, speeches, flags and bunting completed this gala celebration. at 2:00pm the crowds hurried down to the platforms to watch the departure of the 2:10 eastbound empire state express. approximately 200 daily trains began using central terminal that midnight. a quirk of fate would make this the apogee of the terminal's history. the great stock market crash of 1929 was only a few short months away. between 1929 and 1933 the nyc's gross operating revenue fell over 50 percent. net revenue fell by an astonishing amount, nearly 80 percent. costs skyrocketed while the average person's disposable income plummetted, contributing to the drop in passenger revenue from over $130 million in 1929 to a little more than $53 million in 1933. this did not bode well for buffalo's grand new terminal. it was readily apparent to all involved that the new terminal's facilities far exceeded present and future requirements. the railroads were entirely on their own when it came to maintenance and capital improvements while the federal government was actively subsidizing the other forms of transportation. auto, bus and air travel were quickly eroding passenger revenues at a time when people didn't have a lot of extra money kicking around. to add injury to insult the outrageous taxes paid by the railroads to federal, state and municipal governments were being used to pay for their competitor's infrastructure. thus, at less than 5 years old, buffalo's central terminal was effectively an obsolete facility. to illustrate the effect of the depression and erosion of traffic by alternate forms of transportation, a discussion of the downtown station situation serves as a fine example. the new york central had agreed in 1926 to build an additional buffalo station to satisfy the city officials who believed that the east side location was too far uptown to effectively service downtown buffalo. this promised downtown station was never to be built. in an effort to reduce the negative feeling that this left among many prominent buffalonians, the nyc originated and terminated several eastern trains at the exchange street depot. the new york central clearly had no interest in providing any extensive facilities in the downtown area as the following statement by william f. jordan, the engineer in charge of the central terminal project. "i might say that there will be a downtown station that will take care of commuters. its location has not been determined, but buffalo has little of that kind of business, and it is growing less and less." as the 1930's dawned the central had not only downgraded their old exchange street station to local service only, but had also closed off some areas and wholly neglected others. a quote from truth in august 1931 stated "instead of the hurrying throngs of people keeping the old doors aswing, the place is deserted." in these hard times nyc management was not about to spend its money further duplicating local passenger facilities which were obviously grossly underutilized. to underscore this fact the company razed their exchange street station in 1935, leaving only the platforms to serve downtown commuters. the sad state of affairs in the 1930's may appear to be the beginning of the end for buffalo's central terminal, but the art deco masterpiece had yet to see a high point in passenger train travel, world war two. the country anxiously looked on in 1939 as war brewed in europe. despite the separatist policies of the federal government, many felt that the united states was on an irreversible path into world war two. military oriented production was on the rise and the lion's share of this traffic was routed via the rails. as the depression ended and the country geared up for war many a railroad was hauled up by its bootstraps into profitability. the offical entry of the u.s. in wwii brought with it a rising tide of both freight and passenger traffic. gasoline rationing once again made passenger train travel attractive, helped along in no small part by the shortages of raw materials such as rubber and metals. the country was at war and to feed this leviathan effort the railroads were called upon to double and triple their traffic levels in the name of national defense. between 1941 and 1944 the railroads carried 91 percent of all military frieght and 98 percent military personell. freight traffic rose from 373 billion ton-miles in 1940 to 737 billion ton-miles in 1944. revenue passenger miles soared from 23 billion in 1940 to 95 billion in 1944, a figure american railroads would not approach again. the financial windfall to the railroads is readily apparent, but there was a downside to all this prosperity for the railroad passenger. because of the dramatic rise in overall traffic during these years most railroads were stretched near to capacity. couple that with the wartime production restrictions on new passenger equipment and you have millions of railroad passengers traveling aboard a rag-tag fleet of obsolete equipment. the railroads had to make due with any rolling stock that was lying around. car shops repaired rickety old passenger cars at a furious pace to provide the much needed space for all those motorists who could not obtain gasoline for their vehicles. many riders vowed to never again travel by train once hostilities ended. it is ironic that the railroad's reward for doing everything within its power to serve the nation was to have the railroad passenger eschew train travel forever. at the end of world war two the railroads embarked on a program of modernization, both in their passenger and freight departments. the railroads which were in good financial at the end of the war ordered huge fleets of streamlined passenger cars and spiffy new streamlined diesel electric passenger locomotives from general motors' electro-motive division, alco, baldwin and fairbanks-morse. they thought they could woo back the legions of disenchanted passengers with flashy styling, luxury ammenities and prolific advertising. it was not to be. america was having a love affair with the automobile and the airlines could get the long-distance traveler to far away destinations far speedier than the fastest streamliners. the heyday of buffalo's central terminal was now in the past and the rest of the tale is one of steady decline. the post-war passenger service prosperity the railroads had been counting on never happened. people had their cars back, bus and air lines were prospering and multiplying and the average train traveler harbored many bad memories of substandard travel conditions. the losses sustained by american railroads providing passenger services increased fivefold between 1946 and 1953. almost one-third of passenger railroad trackage was abandoned between 1947 and 1957. passenger service losses added up to almost half of railroads net freight revenue, their primary income source. the railroads knew they had to cut passenger losses and concentrate on keeping and attracting new freight customers. the government didn't like this idea one bit. the country, states and municipalities had been getting a darned good deal up to then. the railroads had been footing the bill for passenger transportation and supporting facilities since the first railroad opened for business. basically, the governments told the railroads they had little choice in the matter, if the government said a passenger train stayed on the schedule, it stayed. any businessman who makes a product for resale costing them $10.00 intends to sell that product for quite a bit more than that $10.00 in order to stay in business. the government told the railroads that they had to sell their passenger product costing $10.00 for $5.00 or $6.00 and that they had to keep that product on the shelves. this is while the governments were subsidizing the competition with the railroad's tax dollars. so much for the railroad passenger business in the united states..... the 1950's saw a host of passenger "train-offs" and consolidations. passenger train movements in the buffalo area declined from 172 in 1943 to 124 in 1954, a 28 percent decrease. central terminal was quickly becoming a huge albatross to the nyc. in 1957 the nyc paid over $370,000 in taxes on central terminal. between 1947 and 1957 ticket revenue at central terminal declined almost $850,000, about 25 percent. local passenger train service was on its last legs. in 1957 the central had lost over $110,000 on their five daily round trips to niagara falls. the public service commission allowed the nyc to abandon buffalo-niagara falls service in 1959. one through train between new york city and niagara falls continued to provide some service until 1961. as the 1960's dawned, activity at buffalo's central terminal was a mere shadow of previous decades. this trend continued in epidemic proportion throughout the 1960's. on december 3, 1967 the new york central's world famous twentieth century limited made its last run. on february 2, 1968 the unthinkable occured. the new york central and the pennsylvania railroad merged, forming the doomed penn-central system, buffalo central terminal's second owner. amtrak was created on may 1, 1971 to take over the vast majority of intercity rail passenger service from the many ailing carriers. penn-central continued to own central terminal with amtrak as its tenant until the 1976 formation of conrail, a government corporation consisting of the railroad assetts of six bankrupt and desitute northeast railroads. amtrak abandoned central terminal on october 28th, 1979 in favor of using its new dick road station in cheektowaga and the reopened (october 29, 1977) downtown exchange street station. since 1979 central terminal has had three owners aside from the city of buffalo. anthony fedele purchased it for $75,000 and used the terminal for several local public functions. in 1986 central terminal was put up for auction as a result of mr. fedele's tax liabilities. thomas telesco was the only bidder and walked away with the deed for the terminal for $100,000. while both gentleman had professed a desire to restore and/or adaptively reuse central terminal, their term of ownership was marked by an 18 year period of neglect and deterioration. anticipated sources of funding never materialized, tax burdens became overwhelming and cannibalization of the terminal's assetts to generate maintenance revenue began. the vast majority of vandalism to the terminal building occured in the 1990's. "preservationists" gutted the building of artifacts, vandals destroyed everything anywhere that was breakable, arsonists tried to burn the building several times, transients made the bowels of the once magnificent structure their temporary homes, thieves ripped out plumbing and wiring which contained salvage metals convertible to money and mother nature herself vented her wrath upon the unprotected premises. we recommend that only the stout of heart view our current picture archives as they depict many current scenes reminiscent of the european bombings of world war two. if an estimated $12 million was not required to demolish the terminal building it would surely have been razed by now. although the building and premises are in terrible shape, all is not lost. at the end of august 1997 the terminal property was transferred to the central terminal restoration corporation. while it will require a herculean effort to simply stabilize the structure itself, hopes run high among the local preservation community that there is a future for central terminal. more information may be obtained by phoning or writing the central terminal restoration corporation, 1081 broadway, buffalo, ny 14212, (716) 893-7222. buffalo central terminal's home page buffalo central terminal - nyc trains in 1944 view our thumbnail indexed buffalo central terminal picture archives railfan.net's main home page buffalonet's main home page you are visitor to central terminal's history copyright 1997 - 2002 j. henry priebe jr. sources: the archives of j. henry priebe sr. state university of new york at buffalo school of architechture and planning a history of railroads in western new york - rev. edward t. dunn s.j. buffalo and erie county historical society (bechs) archives niagara frontier chapter of the national railway historical society western new york chapter of the national railway historical society the railroad archives of railfan.net internet services donated by the blue moon online system
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