Between the River and the Rail

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.

remnant of an area rail bed…

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.

springs & marshes along the rail bed formed a good stage for bird observations…

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.

on the Baltimore & Ohio…

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….”

great hemlocks still remain along the river & the rail…

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.

back in those days, trout fishing was strictly for food…

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.

a wild brown from the headwaters…

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.

nature has erased the railroads from many locations…

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.

trillium– sepals, petals, leaves– in threes…


About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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21 Responses to Between the River and the Rail

  1. Bob Stanton says:

    Nice history lesson on what was once such an integral part of and influence on American culture. The remnants are everywhere. Your mention of the scrap being sold to Japan reminded me of the E.E. Cummings poem “Buffalo Bill’s…” “It took a nipponized piece of the fifth street el to remind him,” if I remember correctly.

  2. plaidcamper says:

    Walt, I enjoyed these rail trail tales (apologies) and the accompanying photographs. There is history and (wild)life out there, and from the relative confines of our city-based shutdown, we’re very much appreciating these glimpses.
    Thank you!

  3. Trout, wildflowers, bear, an eagle, all manner of songbirds. You were in a sort of paradise!

    • Every once in a while the gateway opens for us here on Earth, allowing us to see the bigger picture in the natural world, the beauty to be found in a simple quest of opening up our senses (hopefully our senses haven’t been demolished in these crazy times). Thank you, friend & fellow blogger!

  4. Brent says:

    Where were you able to research this history on the old railway through Greenwood and Rexville? And I assume most of the pictures are along the West Branch near Genesee? Interesting read!

  5. UB says:

    Looks like handfuls of trout and the net got a workout too! Interesting history, and beautiful day/s on the stream. As Harry Allaman used to say – it looked like you had “Blue Skies and Happy Trails’.
    I’ve seen that trillium up Fahnestock in the spring! Pretty flower.UB

    • Being an out-of-stater during The Call of the Wild era, I missed out on Allaman but can relate to the Blue Skies sentiment. As for Fahnestock, ah yes, triliiums & all!

      • UB says:

        If I’m remembering correctly,I think his show was ‘The Call of the Outdoors’ – WGAL, TV8, we’re with you <— sorry, couldn't help myself. Must be the times rubbing off on me Ha!

  6. Yeah, thanks for the correction. What do I know about TV. Haven’t watched it since I was a kid, but that was probably a pretty informative series.

  7. Don Tolhurst says:

    Was just introduced to your book about the triple divide. Read it and was quite surprised. I graduated Greenwood Central School in 1969. Lived on Rock Creek Road and fished it during my high school years. Last time was two years ago.
    I just returned from my annual trip to Cedar Run, Pa. have been fishing many of the same streams for 40 plus years.
    Would like to make contact with you at some point if that would be possible.

  8. Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:

  9. I am very excited about Journaling. I use three journals. How many do you use?

    • Stephaine, thanks for the inquiry. My suggestion would be to use as many journals as your artistic inclinations lead you to. As a writer, I’ve been journaling for more than four decades, and am currently working on my 39th full-length journal. Everything that I feel is relevant or important to my life goes into the journal. I usually have an entry ever day or so. Let me know if there’s anything I can help you with regarding the journal.

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