Search Historical Newspaper Collections

History of Railroads in Erie County, Pa.
From: History of Erie County, Pennsylvania
By: John Elmer Reed
Published ByHistorical Publishing Co., Topeka - Indianapolis 1925


The increasing traffic from Buffalo westward along the lake shore, stimulated the popular desire for a better means of transportation than that of the stage-coach, or even the steamboats of the day. Accordingly in 1831 a gathering of interested citizens at Fredonia, New York, discussed the matter, with General C. M. Reed, P. S. V. Hamot and Thomas H. Sill from Erie in attendance.

On April 12, 1842, Charles M. Reed, John A. Tracy and John H. Walker obtained a charter for the first railroad company in the county called The Erie and North East Railroad Company, and books for the popular subscription to its stock were opened on Oct. 19, 1846. Its stock was taken up largely in Erie. By the spring of 1849 the route was surveyed under the supervision of Milton Courtright, who had been on the force of engineers on the old canal, and contracts for the construction of the new railroad were let on July 26, 1849, the road extending from Erie to the New York State Line at Northville, the present State Line.

Two companies in New York State had been projecting lines in that state up to the Pennsylvania line, and the Erie and North East Railroad Company contracted with the Dunkirk and State Line Railroad for a connection at the state line, both of which roads were planned with a six foot gauge, which would have made Erie the terminus of the railroad from Buffalo, for the gauge of roads from Ohio to Erie carried the Ohio standard guage of four feet eight and a half inches, which necessitated a reloading of cars at Erie. The road west from Erie had been built by The Franklin Canal Company, which had been originally chartered to repair the Franklin division of the old canal, and by an amendment of their charter were authorized to build a railroad on the route of the canal from Franklin to Meadville, and thence north to Erie and south to Pittsburg. By a liberal construction of their charter powers, they assumed the right to construct their road from Erie to the Ohio State Line; but it was of the narrow width gauge.

The railroad companies found the change of gauge at Erie a most serious impediment to travel, and efforts were initiated to change the roads to make them of a uniform guage. The first train over the Franklin Canal Company's road west of Erie, left Erie for Ashtabula on the morning of Nov. 23, 1852.

On Nov. 17, 1853, the Erie and North East Company and the Buffalo and State Line Company entered into a contract to change their guages to four feet ten inches, thus planning to make a practically uniform guage from Buffalo to Cleveland. On Dec. 7, 1853, work was commenced to carry this agreement into effect, and was completed Feb. 1, 1854, when the first train arrived in Erie from the east over the newly changed guage. The people of Erie resented the plan, for they had hoped to make Erie the lake terminus of the New York lines, and saw in the installation of the new and uniform guage the death knell to their hopes. They were filled with indignation, and resolved to prevent the change if possible.

The railroad situation became the general topic of conversation, on the street, at social and business gatherings, and in all public and private functions. At last the city councils were moved to the following:

"Whereas, The joint resolution granting to the Franklin Canal Company the right to cross the streets of the city with their railroad where the same is now located, is not sufficiently guarded and restricted to protect the rights of the city; and whereas, the city council will at all times be ready to grant all the facilities in their power to railroads terminating here, when the same will promote the interests of this city, when the policy of such railroad companies shall become settled and fixed with regard to width of track, etc., therefore,

"Resolved, etc., That the joint resolution granting the use of the streets of the city to the Franklin Canal Company, passed Nov. 12, 1852, and also the resolutions passed March 14, 1850, granting the Erie & North East Railroad Company the use of State Street from the depot to the lake on conditions therein named, for railroad purposes, be and the same are hereby repealed."

And here is the reason that the New York Central Railroad Company today is not operating a railroad up and down the main street of Erie.

However, the railroads stood pat on their determination to effect the proposed change of grade, and many of the cool-headed citizens who were opposed to the change, believed that counsel would still win the day, held the more violent in check; even succeeding in obtaining council's passage of the following in hopes of peaceably effecting their purpose:

"Resolved, That the city councils will give all the aid in their power to the Erie & North East Railroad Company in procuring ground in the canal basin for depots, etc., in case they will run their road to the dock."

More or less conferences, discussions, and meetings continued to be held until Mayor King called a public meeting at 9 o'clock in the morning of July 19, 1853, which was marked by the most intense excitement and fervid oratory. That evening councils adopted a lengthy resolution prohibiting the railroads, entering Erie from the east, from using any other guage than six feet; and prohibiting the Franklin Canal Company from using any other guage on their road leading west from Erie, than four feet and ten inches, and providing for police action and penalties in case of violations. In the meantime the citizens were on the alert, noting any and every sign which would seem to indicate an attempt to alter the guage. Many exciting meetings took place, not all of them inspired by the prudence and good sense which should have prevailed, and many resolutions of'councils were adopted bearing on varidus angles of the situation, until Saturday afternoon, Nov. 26, 1853, when councils were suddenly convened on the report that the railroad company had spotted the ties all along the way, and would effect the change that night. A resolution was adopted after a half day of earnest discussion, as follows:

"Resolved, That the mayor be instructed to call out the police force of the city to remove the bridges from the streets of the city, now used by the Erie & North East Railroad Company at any time that he, the mayor may deem necessary, in order to preserve the present railroad guage, and to preserve the peace of the city, in accordance with the ordinance of July 19, 1853. Also any bridge or obstruction crossing any street used by the Western Railroad Company within the limits of the city."

This was adopted in their regular place of meeting in "Wright's Block," then located on the northeast corner of Fifth and State streets, where the excitement usually centered. On Nov. 28, 1853, councils passed another ordinance directing the mayor to remove from the streets of the city all bridges, tracks, embankments, ditches, timbers and other construction or obstructions placed in them by both of the railroad companies, and on Dec. 7, 1853, the mayor having sworn in 150 special police constables, mounted a large horse and rode at the head of his police, and followed by a determined crowd of his fellow citizens, went up State Street to the railroad bridge, where the city engineer carefully marked the location of the street lines upon the railroad structure, and men with saws carefully cut the bridge in two upon those lines. All was done systematically and according to law and the ordinance. Ira W. Hart, a railroad man, and J. F. Tracy, another, tried to order them away; but they, being fiercely attacked, were glad to beat a hasty retreat. For a long time passengers and freight had to be carted from east of town to the west side of it, the bridges being wholly destroyed across the streets. Much upbraiding of our city was indulged in by the traveling public, who suffered great inconvenience. Through the traveling public the incident was widely advertised, and Erie received much adverse notoriety through this trouble. The matter was carried to the Pittsburg courts, the railroad men in Erie were ostracised and abused, the newspaper which advocated the railroad side of the trouble was attacked, the press demolished, the type scattered about the street in front of where the Park View Hotel now stands, its publisher was assaulted, and even the building which housed the paper was destroyed.

Near Harborcreek the farmers tore up the tracks on two separate occasions, and the U. S. Marshal was sent here from Pittsburg to serve an injunction to restrain the determined people from interfering with the road; he found the rioters busy along the tracks, and had difficulty in getting the attention of the people, until Archie Kilpatrick demanded his business when the marshal informed them he had "An injunction under the seal of the United States Court," when Kilpatrick took it, and throwing it upon the ground most irreverently declared "Now it has the seal of Harborcreek," he he stamped it into the mud with his heel. He and John Jacks, Ira Sherwin and John Kilpatrick were arrested for this and taken to jail in Pittsburg, ultimately being released.

This strife engendered the most bitter feeling between the two factiOns in the city and neighborhood, which was never really allayed in that generation. The Civil War coming on a little later, helped greatly in dissipating the keenness of the rancour; but to this day there are those in the city who resent every reference to it, terming it one of the "most disgraceful things" that ever happened in Erie.

However, this struggle created conditions which served to make possible the construction of the great railroad from Philadelphia to Erie, shortly afterwards. Interest had been aroused, and that seemed to be a way to obtain railroad facilities for the sure development of the harbor at Erie, which the other railroads seemed to despise. It also served to stimulate the building of the Erie & Pittsburg Railroad. Both of those projected railroads benefitted in the settlement made by which the Erie & North East Railroad Company contributed $400,000 to the construction of the Erie & Pittsburg Railroad, while the Cleveland, Painesville & Ashtabula Railroad Company (being the successor of the Franklin Canal Company) contributed $500,000 to the building of the Sunbury & Erie Railroad (now the Philadelphia & Erie Railroad).

The guage of the railroads became standard, and the various lines are today known as the New York Central (succeeding the former Erie and North East Railroad Company and the Franklin Canal Company); while the Philadelphia & Erie Railroad is a division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, as is likewise the Erie & Pittsburg Railroad, one of the great railway systems of the country.

The passenger depot of the P. & E. B. B. was situated on the east side of the State Street Bridge over the railroad below Hamot Hospital, where the freight business of that road in Erie continued to be carried on for some years after 1864, when the passenger traffic was handled at the Union Station.

The Nickel Plate Railroad was an enterprise projected to run from Buffalo to Chicago by way of Erie, Cleveland, Fostoria and Fort Wayne. Its road bed was graded, and the rails in place in very little over a year. The company was organized in 1880, grading commenced in June, 1881, and the first train over its entire length was run in August, 1882. Experiencing some difficulty in obtaining terms for its franchise through the City of Erie, a gang of men was set to laying ties and rails in the early morning of Sunday, April 2, 1882, and before dark the line was completed through the city for the running of a train. This was done to avoid delays which would have been occasioned had the work been done on a week day when civil process would have been served to arrest the work. Regular trains started to run over this line on Oct. 23, 1882.

From time to time interest was shown in the construction of another railroad from Erie to Pittsburg, to be built on the route of the old canal, the site of which was owned by W. W. Reed, and later was the property of his sister, Miss Sarah Reed of Erie. Several promising prospects for such an enterprise fell through. At last Messrs. Huidekoper and Dick, heading a syndicate from Meadville, arranged for the old canal bed, the road was laid into Erie in November, 1891, and the following spring was opened for business. From the start it had a large ore trade through the harbor at Conneaut, Ohio, from where a line joined the main road at Cranesville. It had a connection with Conneaut Lake, and also with Meadville. It has always done a thriving business, chiefly in ore and coal, making its passenger business of secondary importance. It was understood at the beginning that this road, which was known as the Pittsburg, Shenango & Lake Erie Railroad, and later more familiarily called "The Bessemer," would have extended dock facilities at the harbor, and a fine, large passenger depot up town. Neither of these expectations have been realized. It originally terminated at Butler, but sought and obtained a Pittsburg connection over the Pittsburg & Western, and is now enjoying running rights with the Baltimore & Ohio.

Several railroad enterprises towards the south and east from Erie, have never advanced beyond the promotion stage; some others have even secured charters, and a few have done some grading.

Return to [ PA History ] [ History at Rays Place ] [ Rays Place ]

.Blind Counter