Railroads & Trolley Lines of Geneva, N.Y.

by Bud Smith

for The Geneva Historical Society

17 February 1987


Geneva's First Railroad: The Auburn and Rochester

The 1870s: The Rail System Grows

The 1890s: Packer Expands the Lehigh Valley

Trolleys Run on the Streets of Geneva

The Rochester and Eastern connects Rochester to Geneva.

Decades of Challenge, Opportunity, and Decline for The Lehigh Valley

Merger, Collapse, and Conrail


The first steam railroad in the world was opened in England in 1825, but railroad construction was not an assured success in that country until 1829. In this country, between 1826 and 1830, steam railroads were projected in South Carolina and Maryland, with very few miles of road actually constructed. The first railroad in New York State, the Mohawk and Hudson between Albany and Schenectady, was opened in 1831. These railroads were pioneers and encountered the difficulties incident to all new enterprises. Scattered and imperfect records show some of the problems that were encountered and solved by those initiating that gigantic system of railroads, upon which the existence of the greater part of the world would depend for over 100 years.

Within the Geneva area, we had nurseries, foundries, glass factories, brick factories, farms, orchards, and many more industries for producing the items needed to survive. The market was primarily local, especially for perishables, because travel by wagon or canal boat was slow. Goods would spoil before reaching their market. Larger and heavier items had to be shipped piecemeal and assembled at their destination.

Railroads changed all this. They were faster, traveled greater distances, and could carry heavier loads intact. They opened new and previously inaccessible markets. This meant more business for local merchants, and conversely, brought in goods ordinarily unobtainable.

Geneva’s First Railroad: The Auburn and Rochester

The first railroad in Geneva was the Auburn & Rochester. It was incorporated in 1836 and finished in 1841. It ran from Auburn through Seneca Falls, Waterloo, Geneva, Vienna (now called Phelps), Manchester, Canandaigua, and Victor to Rochester. Its charter granted the railroad container a rather curiously drawn provision with reference to the canal problem. The railroad was seen as a financial threat to the recently completed Erie Canal. For this reason, a provision was added to the charter to insure the business income of the canal. It restricted the railroad from competing with the canal boats when the canal was navigable. This provision was ineffective since it provided no penalties if the railroad didn’t comply with it.

The original estimate for building the Auburn and Rochester had been just about $1.5 million. By 1848 the actual cost amounted to just over $2.5 million. It would seem our ancestors also knew about cost overruns. By 1843, with the construction of 10 such railroads connecting with each other, Genevans could travel west to Buffalo and Niagara Falls and east to Albany.

In 1850 the Auburn and Rochester consolidated with the Auburn and Syracuse Railroad to become the Syracuse and Rochester Railroad. In 1853, all the roads connecting Albany to Buffalo were consolidated into the New York Central Railroad. The 1850s also saw a proposal for constructing a railroad from Geneva to Sodus Bay.

The 1870s: The Rail System Grows

A road from Geneva to Ithaca was first discussed in 1853. The rest of the 1850s and 1860s had virtually nothing tangible as far as railroad proposals or construction in Geneva. The 1870s and 90s however, were quite a different story. The 1870s saw six railroads proposed, of which three were built.

The Geneva and Ithaca was incorporated in 1870 and completed in 1873. It connected with the Ithaca and Athens Railroad that had been finished in 1871. This gave Genevans a rail route to New York City via a tie with the Erie Railroad at Waverly. Both railroads failed within a year and were reorganized in 1874 as the Geneva, Ithaca, and Athens Railroad. The railroad again failed within a year. With funds from Asa Packer’s Lehigh Valley Railroad, it was reorganized in 1876 as the Geneva, Ithaca, and Sayre Railroad. Packer, who had vast coal interests in Pennsylvania, was building an expanding rail empire to move that coal. He saw in the Geneva, Ithaca, and Sayre a valuable connection between his railroad at Waverly and the New York Central at Geneva. The merger would open new markets for his coal.

1871 saw the incorporation of the Geneva and Southwestern Railway to connect Geneva with Naples. The villages of Naples and Middlesex were bonded for the money needed for construction, which started in 1872. The line was surveyed, grading of the right-of-way started, cross ties purchased and some bridges built. A financial panic in 1873 caused abandonment of the project. For the next six years, efforts were made to revitalize the project, even to consolidating with other proposed railroads to Hornellsville and Salamanca, but to no avail. Both villages lost their investments.

1872 also saw the proposal of the Geneva and Phelps Railroad to connect the Sodus Point and Southern with the Geneva and Ithaca; but nothing came of it.

In 1875, the Syracuse, Geneva, and Corning Railroad was incorporated. After a lot of discussion with the property owners on South Main St., it was finally completed in late 1877. The first trains ran on the line in December of that year. The road connected Geneva with the rich coal fields of Pennsylvania. Construction of the railroad was sponsored primarily by the Fallbrook Coal Company, resulting in the road being called the Fallbrook Line.

In July of 1878, the Geneva and Lyons railroad was completed. It connected Lyons with The New York Central at East Geneva (now Border City). The first train ran in September, bringing over 600 people in ten coaches from Lyons to Geneva at take a steamboat to Watkins Glen. The Railroad had one station, located at the crossing of State Road in the town of Phelps. In November of that year, arrangements were made to run passenger trains of the Syracuse, Geneva, and Corning Railroad and The Lehigh Valley Railroad on the Geneva and Lyons route to Lyons.

It should be noted that all railroads in Geneva at this time, except the Fallbrook, used the rails to one passenger station on East Lewis St. Thus it is not surprising to note records of altercations between opposing trains of the different railroads occurring at the station from time to time.

The 1890s: Packer Expands the Lehigh Valley

The 1880s saw no more construction until 1889. Asa Packer, founder of The Lehigh Valley Railroad, decided he had paid enough Tariff to the Erie Railroad from Waverly, where his railroad connected with it, to ship his coal to Buffalo. Packer wanted his own railroad to Buffalo. With control of the Geneva, Ithaca, and Sayre to Geneva, he was only 90 miles short of his goal. But, with the steep grades in and out of Ithaca, hauling freight on the line was out of the question. To eliminate the grades, The Lehigh Valley’s engineers proposed building an entirely new railroad, the Geneva and VanEttenville Railroad, bypassing Ithaca. Designed with easier grades to haul coal and merchandise tonnage, it diverted from the existing mainline at VanEttenville, cut across the hills to the east shore of Seneca Lake, and then ran north to rejoin the mainline at Geneva Junction.

Simultaneously, construction was started by The Lehigh Valley on the Buffalo and Geneva Railroad. This railroad was to connect the Geneva and VanEttenville railroad with The Lehigh Valley’s existing property at Lancaster, N.Y. Upon completion in 1892, The Lehigh Valley had trunk line status from New York City to Buffalo through Geneva.
In 1892, the Middlesex Valley Railroad was incorporated. Construction utilized the graded right-of-way of the never-built Geneva and Southwestern Railroad. When completed in 1894, it connected Naples with The Lehigh Valley at the Geneva station on Sherril St. The Lehigh Valley acquired the Middlesex Valley the following year by buying up the entire capital stock of the railroad. The Middlesex Valley, however, kept its corporate title until 1903, when it became the Naples Branch of The Lehigh Valley.

In 1897, a railroad called the Seneca County Railroad was opened from the Lehigh Valley at Geneva Junction to Seneca Falls. It was extended to the village of Cayuga in 1904. This Seneca Falls Branch of The Lehigh Valley was the last new Railroad to be constructed that had connections with Geneva.

Trolleys Run on the Streets of Geneva

The early 1890s also saw the organization of three trolley lines: The Geneva Surface Railway Company, incorporated in 1891; The Geneva & Waterloo Railway Company, incorporated in 1893; and The Waterloo, Seneca Falls, & Cayuga lake Railway, incorporated in 1894. The organization of these three companies was the first step in linking Geneva, Waterloo, and Seneca Falls with an electric railway.
The Geneva & Waterloo was the only one of the three to operate. It was controlled by the Brush Electric Company of Cleveland, Ohio which also operated the electric utility in Geneva, called the Geneva Brush Electric Light and Power Company. Located at 547 Exchange St., this company became the source of power for the Geneva & Waterloo Railway.

Construction began in April 1904. The mainline in Geneva ran from Jay St. north along the east side of Pulteney Street to Hamilton Street where it moved to the center of Pulteney, north to Milton Street, east to Main Street, south to Seneca Street, east to Exchange Street, north to Lewis Street, west to Genesee Street, and north on Genesee Street to the Lehigh Valley station. The line was single-tracked except through the business section on Exchange and Seneca streets. On Friday, June 29, 1894, trolley cars ran on the streets of Geneva for the first time.

The New York Central Railroad would not permit the trolley line to cross its tracks on Exchange Street. The Geneva and Waterloo, however, built the line north on Exchange Street and east on north Street to Border City. On July 30 a trolley was run to Border City by using horses to pull it across the New York Central tracks, after which it continued under its own power. The railroad relented the following month and the trolley line was finally able to build the crossing at the railroad tracks. Construction of the rest of the line to Waterloo commenced in early 1895 and the railroad again sought to keep the trolley from crossing its tracks on North Street. The matter went to court and the trolley line got its crossing.

In March, The Geneva and Waterloo Railway, with the never-constructed Geneva Surface Railway and The Waterloo, Seneca Falls, and Cayuga Lake Traction Company, were consolidated into The Geneva, Waterloo, Seneca Falls, and Cayuga Lake Traction Co. The company commenced service between the villages in its long title in September, 1895. People going to Waterloo, Seneca Falls, or Cayuga Lake Park, boarded the trolley on Seneca Street at Linden. The company owned 17.75 miles of track, 21 trolley cars, 4 trailers, and five work cars. Proposals of extending the traction company to Auburn were mentioned from time to time, but no construction was ever started.

On 26 July 1909, by order of the New York State Supreme Court, the name of The Geneva,Waterloo, Seneca Falls & Cayuga Lake Traction Company was changed to The Geneva and Auburn Railway. The Geneva and Auburn failed in 1912 and sold at a foreclosure sale in 1913. A new company, The Geneva, Seneca Falls and Auburn Railroad was incorporated as a reorganization. Business kept dropping off, due to the automobile. The trolley had to follow the rails and a schedule. The auto didn’t! October 1925 saw Geneva’s local service canceled. The service between Geneva and Seneca Falls struggled on until December 28. The next day the buses took over, these being noted in The Geneva Daily Times as the “new era in transportation.”

The Rochester and Eastern connects Rochester to Geneva.

Between 1900 and 1910, 4 trolley lines were proposed: The Rochester and Eastern in 1900, from Rochester to Geneva; The Geneva, Phelps, and Newark in 1905; The Geneva to Penn Yan in 1909; and the last one connecting Geneva with Clifton Springs, Manchester, Port Gibson, and Palmyra. The Rochester and Eastern was built but the other three, which were all proposed by the Rochester and Eastern to expand its territory, never were, although the line to Palmyra had a right-of-way surveyed.

The Rochester and Eastern was organized in 1900 and chartered in 1901. Approval to construct and operate the line was granted by the New York State Railway Commission in late 1901, after much discussion and opposition by the steam railroads. Construction began in 1902 and the 43 mile long trolley line between Rochester and Geneva was completed in June 1904. Service was hourly at first and then shortened to every forty minutes. The Rochester and Eastern entered Geneva on west north and ran east down Castle Street to the station, which was located on the north side of the street, halfway between Geneva and Exchange Streets.

Though a great deal of package freight and perishable express was carried by The Rochester and Eastern, most revenue came from excursions. Geneva was widely promoted for its park, recreational facilities, steamboat rides to Watkins Glen, as well as its trolley connection to Cayuga Lake, where you could take a steamboat ride to Ithaca. People would flock to Geneva by the thousands on weekends to travel, play, and sightsee. Special theater trolleys ran on week nights, bringing people to see the shows at The Smith Opera House.

1905 saw the introduction of postcard advertising of The Rochester and Eastern to promote their business that was running twenty-one trolleys a day to Geneva. That year also saw The Rochester and Eastern sold to The New York Central Railroad in June. In 1909, The Rochester and Eastern was merged with all the traction companies throughout the state into the New York State Railways.

After World War I, the steamers were gone. Trucks could deliver freight anywhere and automobiles could take you anywhere, anytime. They weren’t tied to a schedule or twin steel ribbons between communities. Rochester banned the trolley from its streets in 1922. They were in the way. The Crash of 1929 and The Great Depression finished what the automobile and truck had started a few years earlier. The last run of The Rochester and Eastern was 31 July 1930.

Decades of Challenge, Opportunity, and Decline
for The Lehigh Valley

In the beginning, Geneva was an important termination point of many small railroads. They were dependent upon Geneva’s business. As time went on and the giant rail systems across our country took shape, Geneva became, for the most part, just another town on a railroad map full of towns. Service, after the building up and consolidation of the 1890s, and except for the trolleys, was provided by two railroads: The Lehigh Valley and The New York Central.

The railroad’s fortunes depended for a large part on coal, merchandise, and passengers. This was visible to the public. What wasn’t visible was the influence of people working behind the scenes like Asa Packer of The Lehigh Valley and Ezra Cornell of The Ithaca and Athens who wanted to build; Franklin Cowan and Archibald McLeod of The Reading Railroad who wanted to monopolize and control; and financiers like Anthony Drexal and J. Pierpont Morgan who wanted to guide and manipulate. The railroads’ fortunes were also guided by cut-throat coal competition, disasters, strikes, federal, state, and local legislation, a depression, 2 world wars and last, but by far the most devastating, the invention of the automobile.

The anthracite rate wars between the railroads date from just after The Civil War. They were the cause of the first cartel in the United States formed by the anthracite carriers. The rate wars kept profits minimal in spite of increases in tonnage hauled. What should have been a highly lucrative business was more like an accommodation to the coal companies, just to keep their business. Thus the usual way of making profits was cutting wages. This led to strikes in 1877, 1893, and 1922. It also led to the formation of the railroad unions.
Due to the strike in 1893, a national financial panic the same year, and being strapped by the cost of expansion, The Lehigh Valley ceased paying dividends on their stock although, in spite of this financial weakness, the Lehigh inaugurated The Black Diamond Express on its 50th anniversary in 1896, nine and a half hours from Jersey City to Buffalo.
In 1897, J.P. Morgan financed the Lehigh’s indebtedness. The railroad replaced old equipment with new, rebuilt wooden bridges with steel and concrete, standardized their locomotives to 4 basic types, ballasted road beds, and laid heavier rail system-wide. They provided fast passenger, merchandise, and milk train service. By the eve of World War I, The Lehigh Valley was a financially sound, modern,standardized rail system, with 1454 route miles.

By 1915, east-bound wartime traffic had all port terminals paralyzed. The railroads had to put an embargo on just about all traffic except munitions. This and the lack of ships and the resulting stockpiling at The Lehigh Valley’s New Jersey Black Tom Island Terminal led to disaster. On 30 July 1916, fire destroyed 24 warehouses, six piers, 100 barges, and 85 freight cars. The accompanying explosions broke plate glass windows in Manhattan and were heard in Connecticut. The disaster cost The Lehigh Valley millions in damage claims, including those demanded by France and Russia for munitions lost. This and confusion over priority traffic caused the federal government to take over control of all railroads in the country in 1917 by the United States Railway Administration (USRA). It set priorities, schedules, standardized locomotive design, and gave railroad employees a forty-one percent wage increase.

The railroads were in sad shape after World War I because of the heavy wartime traffic. Post war rebuilding and modernization was hampered by many problems. The Lehigh Valley had more than it’s share. In 1920, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) found The Lehigh Valley in violation of the Panama Canal Act of 1912, which forbade railroad ownership of water-bound common carriers. In 1922, the Supreme Court forced The Lehigh Valley to sell its Great Lakes fleet. It was also found in violation of the 1906 Hepburn Act, which forbade railroads from shipping interstate mining products they had either direct or indirect interest in. The Supreme Court also found The Lehigh Valley in violation of the Sherman Antitrust act and the railroad had to divest itself of it’s vast subsidiary, the Lehigh Valley Coal Company.

The transportation act of 1920 canceled the USRA and set up the ICC as the planning agency to solve the problem of too many railroads. This overabundance of railroads caused too much competition in the northeast. The ICC was to coordinate the merger of the railroads. However, it never developed any master plan and the railroads were left to develop on their own.

The recession of 1921 and 1922 caused the railroad to economize and lay-off employees. The ICC ordered automatic train control devices on all locomotives. In 1922, the United States Labor Board rolled back wages of employees closer to prewar levels, causing nationwide strikes of railroad shopmen and coal miners. With the high prices of coal caused by the miners’ strikes and the increase in use of oil and natural gas, the amount of coal traffic dropped throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

The New York State legislature in 1923 enacted the Kaufman act, which said that railroad operations within metropolitan New York City had to be both smokeless and noiseless. By 1926, diesel locomotives began to make their entrance.

After a long struggle, 1928 saw The Pennsylvania Railroad win out over The New York Central for stock control of The Lehigh Valley.

In 1933, the mortgage bonds issued in 1892 came due on the Lehigh Valley Coal Company. The Lehigh Valley Railroad had guaranteed these bonds on its subsidiary, but in being forced to divest itself of the coal company thirteen years before, failed to see that new bonds were issued, retiring the earlier ones. Thus, The Lehigh Valley Railroad had to make good on $6.5 million in bonds on a company it no longer owned. By 1934, The Lehigh Valley was over $8 million in debt to the Federal Government, had millions in interest due on other bonds, and owed the states of New York and New Jersey nearly $4 million in back taxes. More employees were laid off. The rest, including management, took wage cuts. Financial manipulation in 1939 barely saved The Lehigh Valley from bankruptcy.

Freight tonnage was cut in half during the first two years of The Great Depression. Over 100 trucking companies and 25 bus lines were taking an ever increasing portion of the freight and passenger business. Unprofitable branch lines began to be abandoned and unused trackage torn up while competition for the fast merchandise freight service demanded newer equipment and more powerful locomotives. And in 1939, in an attempt to lure passenger traffic, the railroad streamlined some of their passenger trains.

On 7 July 1935, eight and a half inches of rainfall overnight in the Finger Lakes region caused The Lehigh Valley alone more than $500,000 in damage with sixty-nine landslides, twenty bridges washed out, and tracks washed away in 287 places.

With extensive New York City harbor facilities and several large military bases along the line, World War II saw The Lehigh Valley transport 1.7 million sailors to and from Samson Naval base , move over 86,000 carloads of munitions to and from the Seneca Ordinance Depot, and haul more than 700,000 tank carloads of oil, in addition to regular traffic, by the end of 1945.

Even though it was badly worn from war traffic and debt-ridden for years, the Lehigh Valley still put on a show by decorating some of their passenger engines for the railroad’s centennial in 1946.

Diesel switching engines had begun replacing the more expensive-to-run steam engines in 1935. Dieselization of freight engines began in 1945 and of passenger engines in 1948. It was completed in 1951.

In 1956, with consistent downturn in traffic, persistent debt, and hurricane damage in 1955, the red ink began to flow and The Lehigh Valley Railroad would never show a profit again. Passenger traffic dropped to the point where a number of passenger trains were discontinued in 1959, including the Black Diamond. The Lehigh Valley Railroad, in 1961, was the first class-one railroad to eliminate all passenger service.

Merger, Collapse, and Conrail

In 1962, The Pennsylvania Railroad took total control of the Lehigh Valley. One mainline track was taken up and the local branch lines began to be abandoned. Later that decade, The New York Central Railroad and The Pennsylvania Railroad both went bankrupt and were merged in to the Penn Central Railroad in 1968. Two years later, the Penn-Central went bankrupt in June 1970 and the Lehigh Valley followed three days after. The Lehigh Valley’s trustees requested complete termination of service but the U.S. Department of Transportation postponed termination and liquidation pending development of a congressional master plan to deal with the bankrupt northeastern railroads.

Congress passed the Regional Reorganizational Act in 1973 and ordered the U.S. Railway Administration to draw up a rail system to cover the Eastern and Midwestern bankrupt railroads. Congress provided funds to maintain essential service until The Consolidated Rail Corporation System (Conrail) could be implemented. The USRA concluded that the Lehigh Valley’s position, with inadequate merchandise tonnage and crippling deficits, was untenable as a competitive trunkline railroad and could not be retained even as an alternate freight route.

On 1 April 1976, Conrail took over six bankrupt northeast railroads. The old Fallbrook Line, running north and south, was retained, as was the east-west running Auburn branch line - the route of the first railroad through Geneva 135 years before. The Lehigh Valley, except for a few small sections, became history three weeks short of its 130th anniversary.