Buffalo Central Terminal and the Railroad Passenger
In the 1880's Buffalo was a bustling gateway city for commerce to and from the
west. Many community leaders wished to have a Union Station serving most of the
area's railroads to centralize and simplify passenger train services at one
location. An East Buffalo location was proposed for a "Grand Union Station" in
1889. This location, known as the "Fillmore Site" would be selected by the
New York Central for their Central Terminal in the early 1920's. A true "Union
Station" was never built, although several area railroads shared space in the
Exchange Street station for many years in the beginning of the 20th Century.
In 1925 the New York Central RR (NYC), the City and the Grade Crossing and
Terminal Station Commission signed an agreement to allow Central Terminal to be
built in its present location, 2-1/2 miles from the downtown business district.
Construction of the 17 floor combination office and terminal building was begun
in 1927 and completed in 1929. The Grand Opening of the facility on Saturday,
June 22, 1929 was highlighted by a noontime Chamber of Commerce luncheon for
2,200 people, the largest event of this type held in Buffalo up to this point in
time. Band music, speeches, flags and bunting completed this gala celebration.
At 2:00pm the crowds hurried down to the platforms to watch the departure of the
2:10 eastbound Empire State Express. Approximately 200 daily trains began using
Central Terminal that midnight.
A quirk of fate would make this the apogee of the Terminal's history. The
great Stock Market Crash of 1929 was only a few short months away.
Between 1929 and 1933 the NYC's gross operating revenue fell over 50 percent.
Net revenue fell by an astonishing amount, nearly 80 percent. Costs skyrocketed
while the average person's disposable income plummetted, contributing to the
drop in passenger revenue from over $130 million in 1929 to a little more than $53
million in 1933. This did not bode well for Buffalo's grand new terminal. It was
readily apparent to all involved that the new terminal's facilities far exceeded
present and future requirements.
The railroads were entirely on their own when it came to maintenance and
capital improvements while the Federal Government was actively subsidizing the
other forms of transportation.
Auto, bus and air travel
were quickly eroding passenger revenues at a time when people didn't have a lot
of extra money kicking around. To add injury to insult the outrageous taxes paid
by the railroads to federal, state and municipal governments were being used
to pay for their competitor's infrastructure. Thus, at less than 5 years old,
Buffalo's Central Terminal was effectively an obsolete facility.
To illustrate the effect of the depression and erosion of traffic by alternate
forms of transportation, a discussion of the downtown station situation serves
as a fine example.
The New York Central had agreed in 1926 to build an additional Buffalo station
to satisfy the city officials who believed that the East Side location was too
far uptown to effectively service downtown Buffalo. This promised downtown
station was never to be built. In an effort to reduce the negative feeling that
this left among many prominent Buffalonians, the NYC originated and terminated
several eastern trains at the Exchange Street depot. The New York Central
clearly had no interest in providing any extensive facilities in the downtown
area as the following statement by William F. Jordan, the engineer in charge of
the Central Terminal project. "I might say that there will be a downtown
station that will take care of commuters. Its location has not been determined,
but Buffalo has little of that kind of business, and it is growing less and
less." As the 1930's dawned The Central had not only downgraded their old
Exchange Street station to local service only, but had also closed off some
areas and wholly neglected others. A quote from Truth in August 1931
stated "Instead of the hurrying throngs of people keeping the old doors aswing,
the place is deserted." In these hard times NYC management was not about to
spend its money further duplicating local passenger facilities which were
obviously grossly underutilized. To underscore this fact the company razed
their Exchange Street station in 1935, leaving only the platforms to serve
The sad state of affairs in the 1930's may appear to be the beginning of the
end for Buffalo's Central Terminal, but the art deco masterpiece had yet to
see a high point in passenger train travel, World War Two.
The country anxiously looked on in 1939 as war brewed in Europe. Despite the
separatist policies of the Federal Government, many felt that the United
States was on an irreversible path into World War Two. Military oriented
production was on the rise and the lion's share of this traffic was routed via
the rails. As the depression ended and the country geared up for war many a
railroad was hauled up by its bootstraps into profitability. The offical entry
of the U.S. in WWII brought with it a rising tide of both freight and
passenger traffic. Gasoline rationing once again made passenger train travel
attractive, helped along in no small part by the shortages of raw materials
such as rubber and metals. The country was at war and to feed this leviathan
effort the railroads were called upon to double and triple their traffic
levels in the name of National Defense.
Between 1941 and 1944 the railroads carried 91 percent of all military frieght
and 98 percent military personell. Freight traffic rose from 373 billion
ton-miles in 1940 to 737 billion ton-miles in 1944. Revenue passenger miles
soared from 23 billion in 1940 to 95 billion in 1944, a figure American
railroads would not approach again. The financial windfall to the railroads is
readily apparent, but there was a downside to all this prosperity for the
railroad passenger. Because of the dramatic rise in overall traffic during
these years most railroads were stretched near to capacity. Couple that with
the wartime production restrictions on new passenger equipment and you have
millions of railroad passengers traveling aboard a rag-tag fleet of obsolete
equipment. The railroads had to make due with any rolling stock that was
lying around. Car shops repaired rickety old passenger cars at a furious pace to
provide the much needed space for all those motorists who could not obtain
gasoline for their vehicles. Many riders vowed to never again travel by train
once hostilities ended. It is ironic that the railroad's reward for doing
everything within its power to serve the nation was to have the railroad
passenger eschew train travel forever.
At the end of World War Two the railroads embarked on a program of
modernization, both in their passenger and freight departments. The railroads
which were in good financial at the end of the war ordered huge fleets of
streamlined passenger cars and spiffy new streamlined diesel electric passenger
locomotives from General Motors' Electro-Motive Division, ALCo, Baldwin and
Fairbanks-Morse. They thought they could woo back the legions of disenchanted
passengers with flashy styling, luxury ammenities and prolific advertising. It
was not to be. America was having a love affair with the automobile and the
airlines could get the long-distance traveler to far away destinations far
speedier than the fastest streamliners. The heyday of Buffalo's Central
Terminal was now in the past and the rest of the tale is one of steady decline.
The post-war passenger service prosperity the railroads had been counting on
never happened. People had their cars back, bus and air lines were prospering
and multiplying and the average train traveler harbored many bad memories of
substandard travel conditions.
The losses sustained by American railroads providing passenger services
increased fivefold between 1946 and 1953. Almost one-third of passenger
railroad trackage was abandoned between 1947 and 1957. Passenger service losses
added up to almost half of railroads net freight revenue, their primary income
source. The railroads knew they had to cut passenger losses and concentrate on
keeping and attracting new freight customers. The government didn't like this
idea one bit. The country, states and municipalities had been getting a darned
good deal up to then. The railroads had been footing the bill for passenger
transportation and supporting facilities since the first railroad opened for
business. Basically, the governments told the railroads they had little choice
in the matter, if the government said a passenger train stayed on the schedule,
it stayed. Any businessman who makes a product for resale costing them $10.00
intends to sell that product for quite a bit more than that $10.00 in order to
stay in business. The government told the railroads that they had to sell their
passenger product costing $10.00 for $5.00 or $6.00 and that they had to keep
that product on the shelves. This is while the governments were subsidizing the
competition with the railroad's tax dollars.
So much for the railroad passenger business in the United States.....
The 1950's saw a host of passenger "train-offs" and consolidations.
Passenger train movements in the Buffalo area declined from 172 in 1943 to 124
in 1954, a 28 percent decrease. Central Terminal was quickly becoming a huge
albatross to the NYC. In 1957 the NYC paid over $370,000 in taxes on Central
Terminal. Between 1947 and 1957 ticket revenue at Central Terminal declined
almost $850,000, about 25 percent. Local passenger train service was on its last
legs. In 1957 the Central had lost over $110,000 on their five daily round trips
to Niagara Falls. The Public Service Commission allowed the NYC to abandon
Buffalo-Niagara Falls service in 1959. One through train between New York City
and Niagara Falls continued to provide some service until 1961. As the 1960's
dawned, activity at Buffalo's Central Terminal was a mere shadow of previous
This trend continued in epidemic proportion throughout the 1960's. On December
3, 1967 the New York Central's world famous Twentieth Century Limited made its last run.
On February 2, 1968 the unthinkable occured. The New York Central and the
Pennsylvania Railroad merged, forming the doomed Penn-Central system, Buffalo
Central Terminal's second owner.
Amtrak was created on May 1, 1971 to take over the vast majority of intercity
rail passenger service from the many ailing carriers. Penn-Central continued to
own Central Terminal with Amtrak as its tenant until the 1976 formation of
Conrail, a government corporation consisting of the railroad assetts of six
bankrupt and desitute northeast railroads. Amtrak abandoned Central Terminal on
October 28th, 1979 in favor of using its new Dick Road station in Cheektowaga
and the reopened (October 29, 1977) downtown Exchange Street station.
Since 1979 Central Terminal has had three owners aside from the City of Buffalo.
Anthony Fedele purchased it for $75,000 and used the terminal for several
local public functions. In 1986 Central Terminal was put up for auction as a
result of Mr. Fedele's tax liabilities. Thomas Telesco was the only bidder and
walked away with the deed for the terminal for $100,000.
While both gentleman had professed a desire to restore and/or adaptively reuse
Central Terminal, their term of ownership was marked by an 18 year period of
neglect and deterioration. Anticipated sources of funding never materialized,
tax burdens became overwhelming and cannibalization of the terminal's assetts to
generate maintenance revenue began. The vast majority of vandalism to the
terminal building occured in the 1990's. "Preservationists" gutted the building
of artifacts, vandals destroyed everything anywhere that was breakable,
arsonists tried to burn the building several times, transients made the bowels
of the once magnificent structure their temporary homes, thieves ripped out
plumbing and wiring which contained salvage metals convertible to money and
Mother Nature herself vented her wrath upon the unprotected premises. We
recommend that only the stout of heart view our current
picture archives as they depict many current scenes reminiscent of the
European bombings of World War Two.
If an estimated $12 million was not required to demolish the terminal building
it would surely have been razed by now.
Although the building and premises are in terrible shape, all is not lost. At
the end of August 1997 the terminal property was transferred to the Central
Terminal Restoration Corporation. While it will require a herculean effort to
simply stabilize the structure itself, hopes run high among the local
preservation community that there is a future for Central Terminal.
More information may be obtained by phoning or writing the Central Terminal
Restoration Corporation, 1081 Broadway, Buffalo, NY 14212, (716) 893-7222.
You are Visitor
to Central Terminal's History
The Archives of J. Henry Priebe Sr.
State University of New York at Buffalo School of Architechture and Planning
A History of Railroads in Western New York - Rev. Edward T. Dunn S.J.
Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society (BECHS) Archives
Niagara Frontier Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society
Western New York Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society
The Railroad Archives of Railfan.net
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