Railroad fever gripped the nation during the latter decades of the nineteenth-century. As the New York and Pennsylvania timber and tanning industries burgeoned from dreams of endless forest and mineral wealth, many towns in the region clamored for a train link to the outside world. Industrialism gained a heavy hand throughout the rural East.
The New York & Pennsylvania Railroad (The NYP, or the “Nip,” as it’s been known) was an obscure short-line railroad 57 miles in length with an on-again, off-again history. Its origin can be traced to the 1870s and a junction with the Erie Railroad in Canisteo, New York. Its problems were rooted in the national economy as well as in local threats of floods, wash-outs and abandonment.
A railbed had been laid from Canisteo south for 15 miles until its funds ran out. Two decades later it was joined by the Olean, Oswayo & Eastern Railroad that had swung northward out of Potter County, PA, setting a stage for the end of muddy horse roads and the problems stemming from dramatic seasonal events.
Influential businessmen and property owners helped to make the railroad possible. Three locomotives, two passenger cars and 23 flat cars brought visions of a booming economy to the agricultural district. A first thru-train left Oswayo, PA in 1896, transporting passengers to the Barnum & Bailey Circus in Hornellsville, NY. The railroad offices would be moved from Pennsylvania to Canisteo. A local poetaster sang to Progress, “There’s grain upon the hills,/ And lumber in the woods,/ The cars will carry them away,/ And bring us back our goods….”
Sawmills, tanneries, glass-works, chemical producers, and agriculture flourished for a while… “The rocks are cleft, the trees are felled, the stumps are blown to flinders;/ The grade is laid, the ties are made, there’s little now that hinders.” In 1903 The NYP leased mineral rights between Rexville and Whitesville, NY to Standard Oil, but despite industrial potential, it was hay, milk, potatoes, and fertilizer that sustained the railroad’s ledger.
Additionally, the railroad often carried schoolkids, mail, and people eager for activities in the larger towns and cities. It was never noted for its speed. A passenger might step from a moving train, grab a handful of blackberries then jump back on most casually, but the train compensated by accommodating special needs. It could wait at the station for a late ticket-holder or even stop along the line if someone flagged it down.
Throughout its history, The NYP was plagued with difficulties. A weak infrastructure was unable to withstand the yearly floods. Accidents occurred on a regular basis, often staging photo-ops for the curious and vain. The snow and ice curtailed months of operation. Once, a car broke loose from a Rexville siding and rolled away through Greenwood, following its downstream track till stopping, finally, in distant Canisteo.
Fuel became expensive. Stockholders disputed power and control. Plans to terminate were drawn and redrawn until 1919 when purchase came from the New York & Pennsylvania Railway Company. The new organization scrimped and saved and trimmed its labor force. Booster groups appealed to farmers and community members to help save the industry, to no avail. Ironically, The NYP’s final transport hauled supplies for road construction– tools to nail down its own coffin.
Daily passenger service ended in 1923. The Great Depression offered a glimmer of hope for a merger, but the Flood of 1935 delivered the final blow. The last freight was run in April 1936. The NYP’s fate was similar to that of many small railroads at the time. The company dismantled and sold its scrap to a business in Japan.
Nature has reclaimed the path formed by The NYP. Slight traces of this former economic backbone can still be witnessed through private property– the trees and brush and backyards near my home ground in New York.
A green railbed of the Baltimore & Ohio, a neighboring track in Potter County, PA, offers an opportunity to walk and fish the headwaters of the Genesee. In fact, between the river and the rail today, I had my senses loaded with not only trout and wildflowers, but also an eagle, a bear, and a bundle of migrating warblers.
Couldn’t have asked for more.