Although very little evidence still exists to prove that the first steam railroad in Niagara County ever operated, Lockport and Niagara Falls Railroad (L&NFRR) was considered a milestone in transportation when it began in 1837.
The impetus for the railroad was to provide Erie Canal packet boat passengers an easy and direct route to Niagara Falls without the hassle of taking a slow and uncomfortable stage coach. Passengers could disembark at Market Street near Chapel Street, get on the train, go to Niagara Falls, return to Lockport later that day and catch a packet boat to Buffalo.
The idea for the steam railroad began in 1833, when a group of prominent Lockport and Niagara Falls businessmen formed a corporation to construct and operate a steam railway between the two villages. A petition for incorporation was presented to the New York State Legislature five times before it was finally authorized on March 22, 1834.
John Hopkins, a civil engineer from Pennsylvania, was hired to survey the 24 mile right-of-way as well as provide specifications for the tracks. Overseen by hired contractors, about 300 laborers worked 12-hour days for six months to construct the 24 miles of grading and track over two seasons in 1835 and 1836.
It was called a “strap” railroad because 2 ½ inch iron straps were laid on top of 7-by-5-inch oak rails supported by sills (ties) 8 feet long and 10 inches wide. Although the right-of-way was leveled and graded, the tracks often sank into the ground and had to be propped up. Derailments were common occurrences and the trains could not run between December 1st and April 1st due to excessive frost heave.
When the railroad was ready for operation in the spring of 1837, there was no locomotive available to pull the two passenger cars. For the first four months, the cars were drawn by horses along the track. The cars were very similar to stagecoaches. When a locomotive was procured, the train became known as “The Little Tea Kettle on Wheels.”
Although the purpose of the railroad was to get people to and from Niagara Falls faster than a stagecoach, two people challenged that claim. One story relates how a Mrs. Storrs of Lockport bet she could walk to Niagara Falls faster than the train if given an hour’s head start. When the train arrived at Niagara Falls, Mrs. Storrs was waiting on the porch of the Cataract House.
Another story tells how George Rector, a stagecoach driver, bet Alva Hill, the train engineer, $50 he could get to Niagara Falls ahead of the train in his stagecoach. With both vehicles starting near the Frontier House in Lewiston, the stagecoach made better time up Lewiston Hill but once on level ground, the train caught up to the stagecoach and they were alongside each other for awhile. About a mile from Niagara Falls, Hill took a curve too fast and derailed the train. Rector won the bet.
Another incident occurred in 1839, with President Martin Van Buren. The president was in Lockport on a tour of the county and took the “Strap” to Niagara Falls. When the train was a mile from Suspension Bridge, the passenger cars derailed, dumping the presidential party to the ground. Fortunately, no one was hurt and the men, including Van Buren, picked up the cars, put them back on the track and finished their journey.
Unfortunately, the L&NFRR did not turn a profit for its stockholders. Constant repairs ate away any revenue. In 1842, the Buffalo & Attica Railroad opened, linking Buffalo with Rochester and eastern cities. Ridership on the L&NFRR declined as fewer people took packet boats on the canal.
To compete with this new rail line, the L&NFRR proposed building an extension from Lockport to Rochester. After numerous delays, the line to Rochester was built but operated under a new company, the Rochester, Lockport and Niagara Falls Railroad (RL&NFRR), incorporated in December 1850.
On Aug. 25, 1851, the last L&NFRR train ran the old route from Lockport to Niagara Falls. For 1½ years the RL&NFRR operated as an independent company until July 1853, when it became the Niagara Falls Branch of the newly consolidated New York Central Railroad. The route of the old L&NFRR was mostly abandoned with the new RL&NFRR bypassing Lewiston, the Tuscarora Reservation, Pekin and Lowertown in Lockport. Residents and businesses in Lowertown rejoiced at the end of the L&NFRR after years of enduring noise, steam, sparks and frightened horses.
After the abandonment of the LNFRR line, much of the right-of-way reverted back to farmland and disappeared over time. There are, however, two structures that still exist from the strap railroad.
In the NCHS publication “The Old Lockport and Niagara Falls Strap Railroad,” Raymond Yates included photographs of two homes in Pekin once used by the railroad. One was a passenger station and the other a freight house. Remarkably both of these buildings are still standing today. They sit across from each other on Town Line Road in Pekin just south of the Upper Mountain Road overpass. They are both private homes and are in good condition despite their age.
Although it is possible other evidence may still exist, it is likely that these two homes are the only link we have to a brief, 180-year-old chapter, in Niagara County history.
Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.