The iconic vista of the Portage Bridge high over the Genesee River is unforgettable for any visitor to Letchworth State Park. It’s certainly a favorite place for me. And if you’re lucky enough to see a train cross the bridge—that’s a special treat. However, people have been amazed by the bridge, which is now in its third iteration, since 1852, or 169 years. It’s a destination of longstanding, one that captured imaginations and was a photographer’s dream subject, even in those early years.
The First Bridge
Expansion of the Buffalo & New York City Railroad system prompted plans to lay track from Attica, New York, to Hornellsville, a distance of 60 miles. It was to bolster the New York Central and Erie Railroads lines as train travel became more popular. This new “road” entailed crossing the Genesee River at Portage, and the bridge’s designer, Col. Silas Seymour (1817-1890), had the project of a lifetime. The bridge was to be 800 feet across and 234 feet from the riverbed to the track. Col. Seymour, a civil engineer, designed the bridge so that any piece of timber could be removed and replaced without any danger to the stability of the structure. Seymour went on to have a notable career with several railroads and was the New York State Engineer and Surveyor from 1856-1857. And in 1852, he was the engineer of the world's largest wooden bridge.
The railroad gave the contract for the bridge construction to Lauman, Rockafellow, and Moore. The work was commenced on July 1, 1851, although the gathering of the timber and other materials had begun two years before. It was a massive project, and the contractors advertised for 100 bridge builders, 100 masons, and 800 handymen who could drive iron bolts and handle timbers. The highest wages were promised, ranging from $1.25 - $1.75 per day.
Lauman, Rockafellow, and Moore hired a large group of Irish immigrants to begin the work, but they were disgruntled over the wages within days and went on strike. A day’s work was often 15 hours, making the hourly wage just 8 cents. No wonder they were angry. The contractors ignored the strike, hiring a contingent of Germans, which set a riot into motion on July 7, 1851. The Germans were working on the bridge’s foundation at the riverbed when Irishmen began rolling boulders on them from the banks above. The Wyoming County Sheriff’s Office was sent for, and eventually order was restored, although a deadly riot ensued between law enforcement and the Irish first. The following morning twenty arrests were made, and several of the rioters were seriously injured. Those arrested were transported to Warsaw for trial, except for two who died. One man was discovered below the falls with a gunshot wound to his head (hmmm), and another succumbed to injuries received in the violent uprising. The judge released all the rioters after their trial. Most of the Irish crew immediately left Portage after the incident, and the contractors hired a new workforce.
By the end of July 1852, plans to celebrate the bridge’s completion were in full swing. Pedestrians could now walk across the magnificent bridge to enjoy the views of the canyon and beyond. However, everyone was talking about the amount of material used to construct the bridge. It was mind-boggling.
The stone abutments in the river reached 30 feet, the trestles 190 feet, and the trusses 14 feet. Estimates said that the bridge could carry 3,100 tons as well as its own weight without difficulty. The structure was tested on August 14, 1852, with its first successful train crossing.
On August 25th, the bridge was dedicated with an impressive array of dignitaries and invited guests on hand. Excursion trains from Buffalo and Hornellsville transported hundreds to the celebration at special fares, promising a same-day return in the evening. Thousands gathered to gaze at the engineering wonder and watch as the “first” train crossed the bridge filled with VIPs. Governor Washington Hunt, railroad executives, George B. Chace of Castile, and railroad investors were some of those first passengers.
George B. Chace, a wealthy Castile farmer and successful investor in the railroad, provided a 3,600-pound ox for the feast served from the large mess hall constructed for the workers. The menu was spectacular with several courses, a vast selection of boiled fish (salmon, two kinds of trout, striped bass) and lobster, roasted and boiled meats--beef, chicken, turkey, ham, lamb, mutton. Side dishes were rice, mac and cheese (it was macaroni au gratin on the menu), and pork and beans. For dessert, there were pies, rice pudding, ice cream, and that perennial favorite, calf’s foot jelly. There were also fresh fruits, nuts, and raisins. The banquet was catered by Bloomer’s Restaurant in Buffalo, which was considered the best restaurant in the city. Long tables were set up through the woods to accommodate the vast crowds. Governor Hunt and Lt. Governor Patterson spoke, as did a great many others that day. Between speeches and all that food, people must have been almost comatose by the end of the festivities. The articles written about the occasion were romantic, with flowery descriptions of the scenery and the activities. It really was the most significant event to happen in Wyoming County at that time.
In 1853, the Cascade House was built near the depot at the east end of the bridge. Excursion trains regularly ran, catering to the tourist trade, and the hotel was well situated to provide accommodations for those who wished to linger in Portage.
Numerous repairs were made as the years passed, and talk of replacing the bridge began to circulate in the early 1870s. An iron structure would be less maintenance and safer, proponents argued. While the discussion went nowhere because the public loved the wooden bridge, a destructive fire forced an immediate decision the night of May 5 and early morning of May 6, 1875.
Watchmen were responsible for checking the bridge for any sign of fire every time a train crossed over. On May 5, 1875, at 10:40pm, William T. Davis performed his routine check after a westbound train made the crossing. The watchman found no embers or cause for concern. He left at midnight—the end of his shift, and the next watchman, Pardon Earle came on duty. He began his safety check of the bridge after an eastbound train passed around 12:50am. Walking west, he saw nothing to alarm him as he completed the inspection, and the watchman began his return eastward. Earle glanced back toward the west again, shocked to see a small blaze on the decking. He ran to stomp it out, and his foot went right through the deck. Rushing back to get the hose and hook it up to a water pipe, he found that the faucet wouldn’t turn on. It may have rusted shut from disuse. At that point, there was no other recourse but to sound the alarm to the neighborhood. Unfortunately, there was no way to save the world’s largest wooden bridge.
W. P. Letchworth was awakened around 4:00am and rushed out onto the lawn of the Glen Iris to watch the terrible spectacle. The entire bridge was ablaze; the falls eerily lit up as the flames raged above, consuming the timbers which dropped into the river. The sounds were terrible—cracking and groaning as the mighty structure gave way.
An enterprising photographer, L. E. Walker hurried to the scene and was soon advertising his stereographic views of the destruction along with his previous ones of the intact bridge. Before and after photos—American entrepreneurship.
The Second Bridge
Plans to replace the bridge commenced immediately. Train travel wasn’t impeded since the railroad had three other routes to use by this time, but the crossing was an important one. There was no question that the new bridge would be iron, and architect Henry C. Brundage was hired to design it, along with civil engineer Andrew Trew. The new bridge was to have six wrought-iron towers set on stone piers in the river. The towers were of differing heights, built according to the shape of the riverbank, and iron latticework stabilized the structure to withstand high winds. The bridge would rest on these towers that were independent of each other, so the others would stand if one or more failed. The railroad nixed the idea of a comfortable pedestrian walkway and carriage-way, allowing just a narrow access walkway for maintenance. The purpose of the second bridge was merely a railroad crossing and not a tourist attraction.
Watson Bridge Works, bridge builders in Paterson, New Jersey, was manufacturing the iron for the bridge, running the foundry 24 hours a day to complete the order. There was a scare at the outset of the project when a fire swept through the complex of factories at the foundry’s location the night of June 28th. The fire started in a silk factory on the third floor above the ironworks. The water supply gave out before the firemen were able to get it under control, and the silk factories on the upper floors were destroyed. However, firefighters were able to salvage the first-floor foundry. Despite the setback, a quarter of the 1.6 million pounds of the required iron was delivered to Portage by the end of June. On July 29th, construction crews completed the last span of the viaduct. At 6:00am July 31st, the first trains successfully tested the new bridge. Trew, the project’s engineer, had several different combinations of trains and loads pass over to test the strength and stability. Declared safe, five freight trains with 100 cars each then crossed to make deliveries in Hornellsville. After that, the bridge was back in business, and the remaining work to be completed was the walkway and railing, which workers began at once. Watson Bridge Works had built the new bridge with uncommon speed with no significant delays or serious injuries to workers. It was quite an accomplishment. The cost for the new bridge was estimated at $100,000, about half the cost of the wooden bridge. The final touch was painting the bridge. The Geneva Gazette October 8, 1875 edition reported that the posts were painted black; the bridge itself was red, and the railing white. It must have been quite a sight.
Repair and maintenance of the bridge continued, and the railroad replaced the piers in 1886. A terrible train accident near the bridge on March 22, 1890, kept the popular destination in the news. The Western New York & Pennsylvania Railroad now navigated the rails there. At 9:30pm that fateful Saturday night, a fast-moving, northbound passenger train ran head-on into a southbound freight train on the curve traveling from Nunda just north of the bridge. Due to a mix up in orders between Olean and Rossburg, the freight train didn’t receive orders to give the right-of-way to the passenger train, and the passenger train received no notification that a freight train was on the track. Fortunately, there were few passengers, but the engineers, brakemen, conductor, and other train personnel—seven in total were killed. Two female passengers were slightly injured. The wreckage of the engines and 15 cars kept crews from Olean busy throughout the next 24-48 hours, removing bodies, rescuing the injured, and getting the mangled trains hauled away.
The coroner’s jury was unable to determine blame between the two dispatchers. The state railroad commission later became involved in the matter as other fatal accidents had occurred due to wrong instructions from dispatchers. Changes to improve safety were implemented, and one was that dispatchers couldn’t work more than 12 hours. What an excellent idea! Other accidents occurred near the bridge—some involved men who imbibed too much at the Cascade House and wandered onto the tracks only to be hit by a late-night train.
In 1902, there was talk of replacing the bridge again to accommodate a double track, improve the grade and move it further away from the falls. The plan never left the board room. The public likely pressured the executives to let it remain. Otherwise, passengers would lose the fantastic views on their rail journey and if that is the case, the public won. The iron bridge was in service until 2017 when the beautiful arch bridge was constructed over one of the world’s most beautiful chasms.
Author’s Note: There were a couple of tales surrounding the wooden bridge that are suspect. There was a rumor a 16-year-old boy designed the wooden bridge—that was just a good “story.” Col. Seymour designed the bridge with assistance from other engineers. The other was that several people died from food poisoning at the bridge festivities in 1852 because the beef (that huge ox) was tainted. I have been unable to find any corroboration for that particular tale. However, given that the celebration was in August, it was 1852 with no refrigeration other than chipped ice, food sitting out on tables for long periods of time, it’s entirely possible.
Democrat & Chronicle, March 24, 1890
Buffalo Morning Express, August 30, 1852
Buffalo Courier, June 30, 1875, August 4, 1875, November 1886, April 3, 1890
Geneseo Republican, July 1851
Belmont Courier, March 7, 1902
Buffalo Weekly Courier, June 23, 1875
The Evening Post, July 14, 1851
Genesee Echoes, Mildred Anderson