Today is not a day which will go down in infamy. Nor will it be marked by any special observances.
But May 5 is a day which has significant importance in Genesee County’s history.
It is the 175th anniversary of the day railroad service began in Genesee County, and a day railroad buff Lynn Heintz of Batavia thinks should be remembered.
“The railroad is a big part of our local history, which young people today don’t realize,” Heintz said. “We all need to do our part to preserve that history.”
Railroads played a large role in the nation’s development, particularly in opening up the West, and at one time provided hundreds of jobs in Genesee County.
According to Heintz, railroad occupations in Genesee County included engineers, firemen, conductors, brakemen, switchmen, crossing tenders, tower operators, station agents, freight agents, track repairmen and signal maintainers.
Information Heintz supplied from “Historical Sketch of Village of Batavia,” written in 1889 by William Seaver, notes that establishing a railroad in the area initially received opposition from nearby canal towns, who feared the competition a railroad would create. Several applications to build a railroad were defeated before an application made to the legislature in 1832 was approved, incorporating the Tonawanda Railroad Company.
Length of the road from Rochester to Batavia was just under 32 miles, and was completed at a cost of $375,000.
An article in The Daily News heralding the 150th anniversary of the railroad, says the Tonawanda Railroad began running to Wardville (now Bergen) in the summer of 1836. It wasn’t until May 5, 1837, it was continued into Batavia.
However, Seaver’s book says the first train of cars arrived in Batavia on the fourth of May 1837 in charge of conductor John Fisk.
Heintz said he thinks this might have been a trial run before the official train carrying the dignitaries arrived on May 5.
The book further describes the passenger depot as being on the northeast corner of Ellicott and Jackson streets.
In 1842, the railroad was extended to Attica and connection was made with the Attica and Buffalo Railroad in December of that year.
A second passenger depot was built in Batavia in 1843 on the west side of Jackson Street, with a large addition on the west side known as the Railroad Motel. It burned down in 1888.
Also in 1843, the first through train from Rochester to Buffalo passed through Batavia on the Tonawanda Railroad.
At the time of the 150th anniversary of the railroad in Genesee County, Heintz said the original route of the Tonawanda has been used for passenger and freight service since, and is believed to be the third oldest route in the United States and the second oldest in New York state to provide continual service.
All of the lines between Albany and Buffalo were consolidated in May 1853 under the name of the New York Central Railroad Company.
By 1924, Buffalo was the No. 2 railroad center in the United States, providing 20,000 full-time jobs and with 11 railroads operating in and out of the city. Five of those ran through Genesee County.
There were also 48 railroad stations in Genesee County at one time. The last regularly scheduled passenger train in the county stopped in Batavia in March 1985.
The last passengers boarded a special train in Batavia in March 1986 for the last run to Albany. Genesee County historian Susan Conklin was on that train.
The 999: 'Admiration of the gods'
No mention of the railroad and Genesee County is complete without remembering Batavia’s claim to fame as the location where the legendary 999 broke the world’s speed record May 10, 1893.
A May 8, 1993, story in The Daily News describes the run with engineer Charles Hogan of Batavia at the controls.
The engine was built with the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago in mind, where it was reported if it were possible to build an engine capable of doing 100 miles per hour, it would merit a place of honor.
The 999 was built under the leadership of William Buchanan.
Hogan is quoted in the The Daily News saying the 999 was a beauty.
“Her frame gleamed like a black satin coat. She was the regular Class I type engine, equipped with high drivers for speed.
“Everything about her was designed for speed, with no pains spared to beauty,” he said. “Bands, pipes and trimmings were highly polished; her brass shone like a mirror; her cab was beautifully painted and across the tender in gold leaf letters 21⁄2 feet tall was written ‘Empire State Express.”’
The article continues, saying “Uncle Charlie” stepped aboard the 999 in Syracuse for the 150-mile run. Reporters and railroad officials packed the buffet car, having heard on this day’s run there was to be a “race to command the admiration of the gods.”
The train sped toward Batavia, billowing black smoke and kicking up a cloud of dust as it roared through town, the paper reported.
From Corfu to Crittenden, the 999 was clocked at 112.5 miles per hour.
It was an event no human had ever witnessed before, and old 999 became the most famous steam locomotive in history, putting Batavia on the map.
More than 100 years later, a piece of that historic engine is believed to have come “home.”
Martin Phelps, longtime Batavia firefighter and railroad buff who founded the Medina Railroad Museum, has been given the bell from the 999.
Several years ago, Gerard Monahan Jr., the son of former New York Central conductor Gerard Monahan Sr. of Croton-Harmon contacted the Railroad Museum to say he had the bell from the famous engine.
His father happened to walk into a railroad yard in West Albany during the early 1930s and saw workmen with torches dismantling the 999. The cowcatcher, kerosene headlight and marker bells had already been removed. The only souvenir left for Monahan was the brass bell.
The workers unbolted it, but damaged the rusted mounting. Monahan took the bell and had it remounted.
A short time later, it was decided not to scrap the 999, but put it back into service, Phelps said. The seven-foot-high drivers (wheels) were removed and replaced with 60-inch drivers and the engine was back in business hauling a passenger train from Utica to Watertown.
Monahan’s son, a railroad engineer who lives in Vancouver, learned about the Medina Railroad Museum when visiting his wife’s mother in Medina. He decided that was where the 999’s bell should be.
He agreed to donate it to the museum if they would pay shipping to get it to Medina. The museum had it shipped to Toronto, where they went and picked it up. It occupies a place of prominence in the museum, with pictures of Hogan with the 999, the original copy of his union papers and stories of the engine.
The 999 made news one more time — again in May — of 1952 when, following a reenactment of its record-breaking run, it was retired from service.
It has been restored and is on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.