By Bruce E. Kelly/photos by the author
In 1978, I was 15 and living in El Toro, Calif., where new houses were sprouting up by the hundreds and the streets looked like they had been paved just yesterday. I hiked, biked, or rode the bus to catch my first pictures of Amtrak San Diegans flying across farm fields north of town, Santa Fe freights tackling the more than 1 percent hill south of town, and Southern Pacific locals working industrial branches elsewhere in Orange County.
That summer, I flew east to visit my maternal grandparents, Dr. Fred H. and Gwen Volk, in Attica, N.Y., where the houses and streets looked like they hadn’t changed in decades but remained well-kept. I borrowed a bike from my grandparents’ garage to catch my first pictures of Delaware & Hudson Alcos and Lehigh Valley Geeps passing the Attica depot, Norfolk & Western run-through SDs tackling the more than 1 percent hill east of town, and Conrail locals working the rural branch to Alexander and beyond.
Attica’s rural charm was in sharp contrast to the bustle of southern California, though the deadly riot that struck the Attica Correctional Facility in 1971 was fresh on many people’s minds. To my young eyes, accustomed to modern suburbia, everything about late 1970s Attica looked like a 1950s Norman Rockwell painting. The former Erie Railroad steam-era signal bridges, Cape Cod-style houses, and locomotives and freight cars in pre-Conrail paint schemes were things I had thought only existed in the Atlas, Life-Like, and Walthers model train catalogs in the hobby shop back home.
A&A 2-8-0 18 arrived at North Java, N.Y., on July 27, 1991, pulling alongside the Reisdorf Brothers feed plant with a special excursion that ran beyond Curriers onto A&A trackage that normally sees only freight.
In 1988, I was 25 and living just outside Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where new houses were sprouting up by the dozens to accommodate people relocating from California and elsewhere. I drove in every direction to photograph Burlington Northern and Union Pacific main lines through forests, mountains, and high desert, as well as short lines and branch lines hauling grain, minerals, logs, and lumber.
That summer, I drove east to a new life in Newton, N.J., and a new job as associate editor of Railfan & Railroad. Much of Newton and its surroundings looked similar to the Attica I had experienced a decade earlier, but with considerably more population, and with history and landmarks that predated much of the European settlement of western New York State.
Less than a year after my arrival in the Northeast, I could hear Attica calling my name. Was it because my mom’s surviving uncle, cousins, and friends still lived there? (Mom’s parents had both died in 1979.) Was it something about Attica being in Wyoming County, amid rolling wheat fields and forests, that made it seem like somewhere in the wide-open West? In June 1989, I made the first of what became yearly pilgrimages to Attica, where Conrail and D&H roamed, where pushers still shoved tonnage up the 1.15 percent hill east of town, and not far from where a quaint little tourist line still chuffed through the countryside with the word “Attica” in its name.
Rise and Decline of a Rural Rail Hub
Two hundred years before I discovered there were trains in Attica, the Revolutionary War came to an end, and white settlers began pushing into wilderness inhabited by a confederacy of tribes known as the Iroquois (or in their native language, Haudenosaunee), land that ultimately became western New York. In 1802, Zerah Phelps purchased 723 acres along Tonawanda Creek, soon building a cabin, sawmill, and grist mill on opposing banks. By 1806, some 200 other residents had joined him, and in 1837, the Village of Attica was incorporated.
Trains first came to Attica in 1842 with the completion of the Tonawanda Railroad reaching south from Batavia. That same year, heading west, the Attica & Buffalo Railroad forged a connection between its namesake points. Attica remained on the through route between Buffalo and central New York State for nearly a decade until a more direct link between Batavia and Buffalo was built. By that time, a new route south of Attica was being chartered to bring coal and timber north from Pennsylvania. Through the remainder of the 1800s, western New York experienced a flurry of rail companies being formed and foreclosed, tracks being laid and interconnected, some being abandoned and resurrected years later.
A colorful mix of SD40-2s and SD40s led CP Train 558 through Attica on November 4, 1995. This Toronto–Philadelphia symbol occasionally combined manifest with intermodal. Conrail’s branch to Alexander diverged to the right beneath the ancient, ex-Erie dual-mast signal.
At its commercial peak in the early 1900s, Attica was a significant spot on the Erie Railroad’s mostly double-tracked route between Buffalo and Binghamton, N.Y. More than 100 men were employed at Erie’s short-lived (1871–1888) Attica repair shops and rail yard. Another 100-plus folks found work when the Westinghouse Machine Co. opened its Attica Works in 1905, one of the town’s handful of rail-served industries until it closed in 1986.
Erie built a branch northeast from Attica through Alexander to Batavia, parallel to the old Tonawanda line that had become a branch of New York Central. Southward from Attica to Arcade once ran Arcade & Attica, serving dairy farms, feed mills, and creameries between the two towns and connecting at Arcade with Pennsylvania Railroad. This 26-mile short line purchased its first diesel in 1941, a General Electric 44-tonner. Two more GE center-cab diesels soon followed. In 1957, Tonawanda Creek washed out enough roadbed to force A&A to abandon the northern half of its route, never again to blow its whistle upon arrival in Attica…