rail route

The Great Gorge Railroad route, depicted in Cutter’s Guide to Niagara Falls and Adjacent Points of Interest, ©1897. It’s essentially the same route as the proposed Niagara Falls & Whirlpool Railway Company route, except that the NF&WRC tracks were to be built closer to the river’s edge. (Image from the Library of Congress)

Last week Niagara Discoveries examined the “Shadow of the Rock” attraction on the American side of Niagara Falls. While researching that story, an article was found in the Lockport Daily Journal dated January 10, 1886 (originally from the Buffalo Evening News), headlined “Railway Behind the Falls.” It starts off relating plans for the proposed Niagara Falls & Whirlpool Railway (NF&WRC), a three-mile route that would take passengers from the Inclined Railway at the base of the American Falls to the Whirlpool and back again, a doable but difficult proposition. The article then veers off, asking the chief engineer of the project, J. E. Shields, “But why should a train of cars halt here? What is the matter with running the line around behind the falls to the Whirlpool on the Canada side?”

The author then proceeds to outline a plan for a narrow-gauge steam railroad starting from the Whirlpool to the Inclined Railway, “where the trains will enter the ‘Shadow of the Rock,’ and pass behind the American Falls, the ‘Bridal Veil,’ ‘Cave of the Winds,’ and ‘Horseshoe,’ reappearing at ‘Table Rock,’ whence they will proceed leisurely along the water’s edge to the Whirlpool on the Canada side.” Though not specified, it is presumed that a tunnel would have to be cut through all three waterfalls as well as Luna and Goat islands. The author concludes by inviting the “Canadian capitalists” to “join in the enterprise,” but fears that “the road cannot be built and equipped in 70 days, as now projected. It may take 80 or 81 days, but the public can wait.”

That was the flight of fancy for the Niagara Falls & Whirlpool Railway; the reality was somewhat more mundane.

On January 6,1886, a week before the above mentioned article was published, articles of incorporation were filed in Albany and Lockport to form the Niagara Falls & Whirlpool Railway Company. Thirteen men, eleven from Buffalo, one from Brooklyn, and one from Terre Haute, Indiana, were named directors of the corporation and capital stock was listed at 1,000 shares of $100 each for a total of $100,000. By March all the stock had been taken and a survey of the route was planned by Engineer Shields as soon as most of the ice was gone. This was accomplished by the end of April and Shields reported that “the engineering difficulties are not as great as he [had] supposed.” The New York Times of April 21, 1886, reported that “the great difficulty appears to be in the popular idea of the value of the land along the line of the road,” adding that President of the Board, Col. Ensign Bennett of Buffalo, says “the lot owners appear to think it is worth more than land on Main Street in Buffalo.”

Another point of opposition came from those who questioned the building of a railway in an area known for rock slides. Engineer Shields answered their objections with the mathematical principle of the “Doctrine of Chance.” Figuring in the length of the track line, the size of the rocks, the rate of their fall, the time the train would spend on the track, the length of the coach, the seating capacity of each car, as well as other factors, he concluded that there would be a 1 in 609,108 chance of a sizable rock hitting a coach and a 1 in 4,872,864 chance of a rock hitting a person sitting in that coach.

A year went by with no progress made on construction due to property owners who challenged the company in court. Some protested the amount offered for compensation while others questioned the legality of “eminent domain.” Among the property owners who fought the company were some of the most prominent names in Niagara Falls history: Porter, Witmer, Buttery, Townsend and the DeVeaux College. The NF&WRC cited the General Railroad Act of 1850 for justification in taking the properties for “public use,” but in 1888 the Court of Appeals of the State of New York heard arguments over the definition of the term “public use.” While attorneys for the company invoked the right of “eminent domain for public use” as defined in the 1850 Railroad Act, lawyers for the property owners objected that this particular railway was not for “public use” since it was a private company, it would not carry freight, it could not connect with other railroads, and it would have limited patronage and a limited season for operation.

The appeals and counter appeals continued for several more years. In 1890, the NF&WRC withdrew an appeal only to reinstate it two days later. On the day in between, Mrs. Jane Townsend, who also had an offer from the Niagara Falls Power Company, took advantage of this short window and transferred her property to that company instead.

A year later, it was reported that the capital stock in the Niagara Falls & Whirlpool Railway Company had dropped from $100,000 to $30,000. It was also announced that the NF&WRC would consolidate with the Niagara Falls & Lewiston Railway Company to build an even longer, two track railroad at the base of the gorge that would operate between those two places. In 1895, it would become known as the Great Gorge Railroad.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.

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