Rochester’s Rail-Trailsby Sue Freeman
Early in the 20th century many railroad and trolley lines criss-crossed the Rochester area. Pulled by steam engines, the trains hauled products to market from farms, factories and mines, and fueled an economic boom. Likewise, electric trolleys transported people to work and to exotic vacation locales such as Canandaigua Lake and Niagara Falls.
But, economic hardship befell the rail lines in several ways. The development of cars, trucks, and a system of roads, particularly the interstate highway system, competed for their freight and passenger business. The depression dampened the trade of goods. The rail lines changed ownership many times and struggled to survive. When hurricane Agnes ravaged this area in the early 1970s, it tore up many of the tracks. The railroads were too financially unstable to rebuild, so many of the rails were torn up for scrap metal. In 1980, deregulation of the railroad industry allowed companies to swiftly abandon unprofitable lines.
RG&E purchased many of the corridors for utility right of ways. Today, local towns, government agencies and volunteer organizations are purchasing the land and building recreational trails for all to enjoy on bicycle or on foot. Rail-trails are great for family outings with small children. They’re generally flat, with hard-packed dirt or cinder bases and a tree canopy providing shade, making them equally fun to walk or bicycle.
One of Rochester’s major railways was the Lehigh Valley Railroad that ran from Pennsylvania to Lake Ontario through the Lehigh River Valley. It was built in 1891 to transport cargo (mainly high-grade anthracite coal nicknamed black diamond) to steamships. It carried passenger trains between Buffalo & New York, which reached speeds of 80 mph. The Black Diamond Express was a plush train with a polished mahogany library, smoking rooms, velvet upholstery, and beveled French-plate mirrors. The Lehigh Valley Trail now runs east-west from Victor to Rush for 14 miles. In 2005 it was resurfaced with crushed stone and a bridge was built spanning the Genesee River at the western end.
Across the Genesee River the Lehigh Valley Trail meets the north-south Gesesee Valley Greenway. This trail was once the towpath of the abandoned Genesee Valley Canal (1840-1878), then the Pennsylvania Railway (1880-1960s). 26 trail miles are open from Chili to Cuylerville.
The Rochester & Auburn was the first railroad east of Rochester. It opened in 1840 and closed in 1960. An 1845 cobblestone pumphouse, used to pump water for the steam engines, still stands in Fishers – the second oldest railroad building left in the country. This rail line, now called the Auburn Trail, runs from Farmington to Fishers and meets the east end of the Lehigh Valley Trail in Victor.
Another rail line, the Lake Ontario Shore Railroad, ran east-west along Lake Ontario. It became known as the Hojack Line when a nameless farmer’s mule-drawn buckboard stopped halfway across the tracks when a train was coming. The farmer shouted “Ho Jack! Ho Jack!” to get his mule to move. The amused trainmen picked up the chant and the name stuck. Several segments of this line are now trail – a Webster segment is 3.5 miles long, Hilton has a 2.8-mile segment and Hamlin sports a 14-mile segment.
Two Electric Trolley Lines crossed through Rochester. The Rochester, Syracuse, & Eastern Trolley and the Rochester & Eastern Rapid Railway. The RS&E operated from 1906 to 1931, from Rochester to Auburn, but never made a profit. It was part of the Beebe Syndicate – a group of 12 high-speed interurban electric trains. In 1908 the fare from Fairport to Rochester was $0.15 one way, $0.25 round trip. A 4.4-mile trail on the old trolley bed is now the Perinton Hikeway Bikeway from the Erie Canal in Fairport to Egypt. Another 1.3-mile segment connects East Rochester and Fairport.
The Rochester & Eastern Rapid Railway operated from 1903 through 1930 and served towns from Rochester, through Victor to Geneva. Portions of this trolley bed form the Electric Trolley Trail in Pittsford as well as segments of the Auburn Trail in Victor.
These and many other trails are described and mapped in the guidebook “Take Your Bike! Family Rides in the Rochester Area” (www.footprintpress.com). Pick up a copy, hop on your bicycle or lace on your hiking boots and explore Rochester’s railroad and trolley history for your self. Along the way you’ll see cement pillars with a “W” telling the conductor to blow the train’s whistle. You’ll find old battery boxes, tunnels under the New York State Thruway, and an abundance of nature to enjoy.
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