Bath & Hammondsport Railroad
In today's uncertain world what has seemingly been a local institution can quickly disappear and become history. Railroads are a good example of this rapid transition from something to nothing.
One local "institution" that has been a part of the Hammondsport scene for some 120 years is the Bath & Hammondsport Railroad. And since its reason for existence has primarily been the now-declining wine industry, its future is somewhat in doubt.
The old cliche "nothing lasts forever," certainly applies to railroads which have all but disappeared from the Finger Lakes Region. What few railroads remain are merely fragments of their former glory—a "momentary" reprieve from the scrappers at best. A mixture of shortlines and branchline railroads once made for interesting train watching in this region. But changing times and economics have, for the most part, swept them away.
The old Bath & Hammondsport has survived depressions, recessions and floods, receiverships and bankruptcies, but has somehow continued to operate, almost without interruption, since 1875. That in itself is an achievement for private enterprise.
Over the years, the B&H has occasionally found itself featured in magazines and newspapers…even a Dick Tracy comic strip! Once it appeared in a Ripley's-Believe-It-Or-Not-look-alike featured in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle called "Only in New York State" by Gerald Maloney. In it was a sketch of old steam locomotive No. 11 pulling a caboose, the caption of which stated "New York State's most unique railroad is the Bath & Hammondsport R. R. It has one engine, one caboose and nine miles of tracks."
Of course, it might be unique as far as this region goes, but there were many similar shortlines with a meager roster of equipment spread throughout the country. The stable of rolling stock of the nearby Prattsburgh Railroad was just as meager, if not more so.
Other feature stories appearing in area newspapers in many instances poked fun at the little railroad. In many cases the railroad had the last laugh…it's still running and the majority of the publications have long since ceased publication. One old headline reads "Bath-Hammondsport Railroad Is Doing Well, Thank You, Even If Locomotive Has to Run Backward On Its Return Trips."
Numerous more serious studies have been made of the line over the years. A major portion of the late William R. Gordon's book, Keuka Lake Memories is devoted to the line. Decades ago, trains and railroad magazines carried feature stories about it.
Even though not much has been written about the B&H in recent years, it has not yet been consigned to the bone yard.
The Bath & Hammondsport has always been a favorite among railroad buffs from near and far, chiefly because it has had a personality all its own. In the 1940s the railroad catered to the buffs by operating excursions for the National Railway Historical Society and other groups.
The B&H certainly doesn't lack for scenery and few railroad stations in the country have been so widely reproduced in photos and paintings than the Victorian depot in Hammondsport near the shore of Keuka Lake.
Through the years, as long as it was used, the brightly-painted caboose was a rolling advertisement with "The Champagne Route" written across its exterior.
Tracing the history of the B&H, it was originally conceived and built as a three-foot narrow gauge railroad. Although the line was chiefly financed through private interests the village of Bath subscribed $40,000 in bonds to aid in construction. The town of Urbana subscribed for another $40,000 in bonds.
The railroad connected with the then-six-foot gauge Erie Railroad at Bath. This allowed Hammondsport wine merchants to tap a much wider market than they were able to do prior to the coming of rail transportation.
From the beginning the railroad handled considerable traffic and for many years proved a good investment. It operated as a six foot gauge for 14 years when it was rebuilt to standard four-foot, eight and one-half inch standard gauge. The Erie had standard gauged its tracks a few years earlier. In 1903, the Erie got control of the B&H and it remained under the Erie diamond logo until 1935.
In the early days the B&H had an interesting series of locomotives, most of which were acquired second hand—a common shortline practice. (In fact, it was more unusual for a short line to purchase a new locomotive fresh from the factory.)
The early locomotives carried such names as "C. D. Champlin," "Johnson Robie," "Pioneer," "Frank" and "G. W. Nichols." In most cases locomotives were named for directors or officers of the railroad company. Finally this practice was discarded for the less colorful but more practical numbering system. Over the years the B&H had 15 locomotives, but not more than one or two at any given time.
Passenger service in the early days was also a profitable business. Trains connected with Keuka Lake steamers and practically every local organization in Bath, ranging from Sunday School groups to fraternal orders, chartered excursion trains to Hammondsport, and then aboard the steamboats for a ride up the lake.
This business continued for many years until the coming of the automobile made it unprofitable, and it was discontinued in 1917—about the same time the Keuka Lake steamers ceased operation. However, a few coaches were retained for special events.
For a brief period commencing in January, 1918, operation of the B&H as well as many other railroads was taken over by the U. S. Railroad Administration as a wartime measure. This was also during Prohibition, and declining revenues when wine was suppressed made the B&H a losing prop-osition. Indeed the B&H had some lean years—Prohibition and then the Depression.
The Erie finally got rid of its nine-mile headache in 1935 after a flood in 1935 washed out more than 100 yards of right-of-way near the fish hatchery and severely damaged other parts of the line.
But it would take more than being orphaned and washed out to consign the B&H to the history books. The Erie applied to the Interstate Commerce Commission for permission to abandon the line and leased a truck line as substitute service.
At the abandonment hearing representatives of the Erie said the B&H had been operated at a loss for several years, and there seemed to be little interest expressed by the community to continue operation. But local wine company executives and coal and lumber merchants came to the rescue.
They were able to persuade the I.C.C. to stall a decision on abandonment for a few weeks. Since the community as a whole would not financially back a takeover, five Hammondsport men pooled their resources and purchased the line from the Erie. Credited with saving the line are D. W. Putnam, F. C. Taylor, C. D. Champlin, R. H. Howell and U. S. Arland. The line was reopened on the Fourth of July, 1936, with Arland as superintendent. Engine 860, a "Mother Hubbard" style locomotive acquired from the Erie, was the first engine to pass over the resurrected line.
After the line was rejuvenated and the washouts were repaired, an old-fashioned railroad celebration was held on July 25, 1936. More than 100 railroad officials were invited to the event, and to those who can remember it, it was one of the biggest blowouts in local history.
Guests arrived by special trains at Bath where they were met by the B&H's "Wine Special" with cars rented from the Erie for the special occasion. At Hammondsport they were taken to the Glenwood Club for what one journalist recalled was "a prolonged session of wining and dining in the famed Hammondsport tradition." The B&H thus had a second chance at life.
A rather ancient combination express and passenger car was soon purchased from the Erie to haul express and less-than-carload freight. The railroad then turned its attention to its motive power. The 1891-vintage Baldwin-built 4-6-0 proved too heavy for the railroad's 60 and 90-pound rails and it seemingly spent more time off the tracks than on them.
To prevent the old 860 from wandering off into the fields, Arland restricted her speed to 10 miles per hour. This seemed to solve the problems of frequent derailments. But one winter day the engineer spotted a snowbank up the track and decided to run the engine wide open through it. As might be expected, this was too much for 860 and the light rails, and she wound up in a ditch on her side. It cost nearly $2000 to right the situation, which resulted in the engineer losing his job.
© 1994, Richard F. Palmer