The History of the Erie Railroad

While not the largest of North American railroads, the Erie Railroad was a significant influence on the economic and social development of the Northeastern United States during the late 1800s and first half of the 20th century, particularly along the Southern Tier of New York State. In this article, we’re looking at the rich history of this classic eastern road. 

The New York and Erie Rail Road

The New York and Erie Rail Road was chartered in April 1832 by New York Governor Enos T. Throop. Following concerns that the Southern Tier of New York would miss out on development brought on by the Erie Canal to the north, Throops goal was to connect the cities and industries of this region to both the Hudson River and the fast developing shores of Lake Erie at Dunkirk. From here, goods would additionally be able to continue their journey by steamboat to the budding industrial upper-midwest.  

Construction began in 1836, with the line gradually coming into operation in sections until completion of the full route in May 1851. Somewhat uniquely, the railroad was built to a broad-gauge (6ft as opposed to the standard 4’ 8.5 inches) in the belief that it would provide a more stable ride. Upon completion, US President Millard Fillmore traveled the new line with his cabinet. 

In 1848, the railroad constructed one of its most recognizable and lasting legacies – a stone arch viaduct across Starrucca Creek in Lanesboro, Pennsylvania. With a length of over 1000 feet, featuring 17 stone arches, the bridge set the record as the world’s largest stone rail viaduct. It was also heralded as the most expensive – completed at a cost of $320,000 (almost $10,000,000 in today’s money). 

The Erie Railway

Due to high construction costs and general financial mismanagement, the New York and Erie Rail Road fell into receivership in August 1859, becoming the first major US railroad to declare bankruptcy. It was reorganized as the Erie Railway in 1861. 

In 1867 the railroad became the center of the Erie War, a battle for control between wealthy stockholders including the infamous Robber Baron Jay Gould, and notorious railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt. Gould would ultimately win control, with Vanderbilt conceding under threat of litigation. 

In 1869 the railroad relocated its shops and western terminus from Dunkirk to the growing city of Buffalo. The Brooks Locomotive Works seized this opportunity and purchased the former shops in Dunkirk. Their site would eventually become a production facility for ALCO locomotives. 

The New York, Lake Erie, and Western Railroad

In the 1870s, the Erie Railway began the process of re-gauging the entire route to standard gauge, citing the complications of not being able to connect with other railroads in the region. The cost of this project proved to be a financial disaster for the railroad, pushing it once again to the brink of bankruptcy. As a result, the railroad was sold in 1878 to become the New York, Lake Erie, and Western Railroad. 

Despite the upheaval caused by the sale, conversion to standard gauge continued, concluding just two years later in 1880. In the years following, the railroad forged further west to Chicago by way of lease agreements and acquisitions of existing railroads, splitting from its original mainline in Hornell, New York, where it built a major repair facility. In 1885, the railroad launched its crack long distance passenger service to Chicago, known as the Atlantic Express on the eastbound run, and the Pacific Express when heading west. This service would operate without interruption for the next 80 years.

The Erie Railroad

Brought on by the Panic of 1893, the NY, LE &W faced bankruptcy for the fourth time. The railroad was reorganized as simply the Erie Railroad in 1895.

The future looked bright for the Erie when the Van Sweringen brothers took control in the mid-1920s. The brothers achieved several notable feats, instituting operational improvements and standardization of locomotives and rolling stock, both of which helped to improve the railroads profitability They also oversaw the introduction of the Erie’s flagship passenger service; the Erie Limited, which began operation in 1929.

While the railroad survived the Great Depression, the aging brothers defaulted on millions of dollars’ worth of loans, and by 1936, both had passed within a year of each other. By January 1938, the railroad was bankrupt. Operations continued despite these setbacks, and the railroad was reorganized once again, this time quickly and successfully. By December 1941, shareholders even got a dividend!

The Erie would operate steadily over the next decade and would thrive during dieselization and into the mid-1950s. This success would be short lived however, as competition increased from air and road travel. 

The Erie Lackawanna

Following several years of talks, the Erie merged with the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad in 1960, forming the Erie Lackawanna Railroad

The new system wasn’t particularly successful, facing the same challenges as the two predecessors. This was made worse upon the disastrous merger between the Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central, both of which were important feeder systems for the EL. When Penn Central declared bankruptcy in 1970, the Erie Lackawanna by extension lost business. These events were compounded further by natural disaster when Hurricane Agnes left the railroad severely damaged in 1972. In 1976 with few options left, the Erie Lackawanna was absorbed into the government-owned Conrail system, along with Penn Central and other struggling roads.  

Lasting Legacies

Today, most of the remaining Erie trackage is operated by Norfolk Southern, with the original mainline now forming the bulk of Norfolk Southern’s Southern Tier Line. Trackage on the eastern end is leased to the New York, Susquehanna and Western, while the portion between New York City and Port Jervis, New York is jointly managed by New Jersey Transit and Metro North

The original Starrucca Viaduct continues to see use today, and the Erie’s former shops in Hornell, New York, are now home to Alstom USA, which uses the site to build, maintain, and refurbish rail vehicles. These include subway and transit cars, and most recently, Amtrak’s new Acela high speed train

Adding the Erie to Your Collection

If you’re a fan of the Erie Railroad and want to incorporate their rolling stock into your model train collection, we have what you need! Visit this link to browse our selection of Erie and Erie Lackawanna equipment in all available scales.