With rare Alco FPA's on the point, the New York & Lake Erie excursion train approaches Milepost 36 near Gowanda, New York, on September 8, 2013. Infrequent schedules made this appearance a rare treat for local railfans.
In search of Big Foot
By Otto M. Vondrak/photos by David Scheiderich
Short lines have a charm all their own, and there are many reasons we are drawn to them. It could be interesting territory, like a signature trestle or some downtown street running. Perhaps it’s the specialized type of traffic carried, such as timber products or iron ore. More often than not, for many the draw is motive power. A large number of short lines depend on the secondary market for their equipment, resulting in vintage diesels getting a second lease on life long after the Class I’s have deemed them surplus. In the northeast, there’s a pretty good chance this means Alcos. More than 40 years after the American Locomotive Company plant in Schenectady closed down, their locomotive products continue to earn a living day in and day out on a number of smaller railroads throughout the east (and sometimes the west, such as Arizona’s Apache Railway, which we profiled in the September 2013 issue of Railfan & Railroad).
Even though I have lived in New York State nearly my entire life, there are still many corners I have not yet thoroughly explored. Not more than two hours away from me is an area that defies definition, tucked under Buffalo and the eastern shore of Lake Erie to the north, bordered by Pennsylvania to the south and west. Through this region ran a number of Erie Railroad lines, as management changed its mind several times over about where to establish a Great Lakes port, and how it would fit in to their New York-Chicago trunk route. As a result, by the time Conrail was established, there were a number of small branch lines in the area that became candidates for new operators. The New York & Lake Erie was established in 1978 to operate the former Erie route between Gowanda and the connection with the so-called Southern Tier main line at Waterboro. Included was a 12-mile branch from Dayton to Cattaraugus. The tracks are owned by Cattaraugus County, and are out of service below Conewango Valley.
At one time, the NY&LE operated a regular passenger excursion season along with their freight operations. The railroad quickly became known for their eclectic collection of Alco locomotives, some painted in an attractive rendition of C&O’s blue, gray, and yellow, with passenger cars painted to match. Like any short line, business went through the usual ups and downs until flooding in 2009 knocked out a good portion of the line through the valley. The excursion season was abruptly cancelled, though freight continued to operate as needed. In my mind, the NY&LE had achieved Big Foot status: Everyone had heard of it, some knew its current whereabouts, and yet others had actually snapped a rare photo of it.
Some rumblings about possible September excursions were heard as early as this past June. Crews continued to clear brush and make other repairs to the southern end of the line. Soon, the NY&LE’s official Facebook page sprang to life and announced a series of weekend excursions to celebrate the filming of the Robert Redford feature The Natural on the railroad 30 years ago. What’s more, the NY&LE’s rare FPA’s would be pulling the trains. This was all the encouragement I needed to go exploring.
Just as the sun broke through the clouds, the NY&LE excursion train arrives at South Dayton, New York, on September 8, 2013. NY&LE 6758 is a rebuilt FPA-2u originally built as Canadian National 6755 in 1955, while trailing unit 6764 is a FPA-4 originally built as CN 6764 in 1958. The paint scheme is reminiscent of the old Erie Railroad.
Sunday morning dawned bleak as I plotted a course west from Rochester with my friends Dave Scheiderich and Joe Nugent. The forecast called for clearing as the day went on, so we crossed our fingers and forged ahead. We passed through Buffalo and headed south for Hamburg. We turned off the Thruway and headed east through the heart of Seneca Indian Territory towards the railroad’s headquarters at Gowanda. This was the second day of excursions, and attendants met us at the entrance to the station parking lot. Since we didn’t plan on staying long, we parked at the edge of the lot. The train was parked at the station ready to take passengers, with the two FPA’s idling away at the head end. Sure, their paint was a little faded, but there they were! They do exist! The skies had not yet cleared, and the locomotives were roped off from the public, so we decided to scout the line for locations.
Doing some homework using Google’s satellite views, it quickly became clear that the number of photographic opportunities would be limited due to the “tree tunnel” effect covering most of the line. Still, we identified a few crossings and other locations that we thought would pan out. The excursions would be running between Gowanda and South Dayton, following U.S. Route 62 for part of the way.
Our first stop was the crossing at Maltbie Road, where a number of fans had already gathered. By this time, the sun was ducking in and out of clouds, making choosing an exposure challenging. Soon we heard the unmistakable blaa-a-a-at of the air horn signaling the approaching train. We lined up our shots with the old Erie milepost indicating 36 miles to Buffalo. Shutters fired in a happy cacophony as the train rumbled past. As the train was moving a little quicker than we expected, we hopped into our cars to give chase and find our next location.
The topography of the area can be frustrating to a railfan, as the railroad takes the high route while the local roads make their own way hither and yon through the valley. It’s very easy to lose sight of the train, but we had good maps to rely on (weak 3G signal out here, so the iPad wasn’t going to be much help)
We arrived in South Dayton and were surprised to find a nicely restored wood frame passenger station alongside a large grain milling complex near the small town square. It felt like this scene could have been lifted from the Erie main line somewhere in Indiana or Ohio instead of New York. Fans and locals alike began to congregate, and we all did our best to maintain a semblance of a photo line as we prepared for the train’s arrival. We soon heard the FPA’s “lost cow” chime off in the distance, and the townsfolk began to gather. A small carnival celebration had been set up alongside the depot, complete with period 1930s vehicles to mark the anniversary of the filming of the movie. To say the whole town turned out for the event would be an understatement.
Both endgines were "chasing" each other as NY&LE 6758 prepares to couple back onto the train while 6764 runs around to the other end at South Dayton, New York, on September 8, 2013.
Soon a headlight was in view and we all took our positions. The lead unit was literally chasing a cloud shadow as it arrived, but the exposure was sunny none the less! Shutters fired as we captured a number of angles as the train was spotted to unload passengers. The railroad arranged to operate two short round trips between South Dayton and Dayton while the passengers from Gowanda enjoyed a three-hour layover at the festival. To operate these trains, one locomotive was placed at either end of the train, forming a delicious FPA sandwich. The pull-pull operation meant the trains could be operated safely without time-consuming runaround moves at each stop. First the two FPA’s uncoupled from the train. They ran a few hundred feet south to the end of the runaround track. They uncoupled, and the north-facing unit took the siding. With a hostler in each unit, both locomotives rolled north back towards the train. In a move I can only describe as “The Great Alco Chase,” it was a sight to see these two vintage locos “racing” each other neck and neck down the line.
Having already filled our memory cards and burned through a roll of film, we plotted our next steps. We decided to chase one of the short turns and then find lunch at a fire department chicken barbecue we passed on the way down. (If you are ever traveling through western New York, I highly recommend this style of regional cuisine. Ask for extra butter on your salt potatoes). We positioned ourselves ahead of the train at Dayton, but a miscommunication put us one crossing too far north to catch any of the action. Dejected, we headed for the VFD but were told they had already sold out in the first hour (this is a common trait to these events).
With two strikes against us, we didn’t feel like we had the spirit of Roy Hobbs in us, so we decided to call the game and spend the rest of the day exploring around Buffalo (which also netted us some of that city’s famous chicken wings). We had a great morning chase with some rare Alcos and got to explore some new territory with friends... What could be better? Well, the nearby Arcade & Attica is back in steam and the fall colors are starting to emerge...