Historic Letchworth Bridge to be Torn Down

Dec 1, 2011

As the Norfolk Southern and Canadian Pacific Railway seeks to demolish an iconic 108-year-old bridge in Letchworth State Park, local history buffs and area residents speak out.  

Burlingham Bookstore is located on South Main Street in Perry. A small sign on the side of the building points visitors past the store and towards Letchworth State Park, just down the road.

Employee Giuseppe Gentile says there is a lot of talk around town about the park’s 108-year-old railroad bridge spanning the Genesee River gorge.  Its owners, Norfolk Southern and Pacific Canadian railways, want to tear it down.

"We sell a book here called Letchworth State Park which is the history of the bridge, and a lot of people comment on the bridge and how you can still go there and see the bridge. Being of historical value, I think they should try to figure something out to keep it," says Gentile.

Standing 200 feet over the gorge, the historic bridge provides a very scenic overlook , although it’s not particularly safe, or even legal, to be on it.  It’s fenced off with signs warning against trespassing – but the park manager says there are people who just can’t resist the view. And alienating those people, might be bad for businesses like Gentile's.  Crowds start flocking to the area when the waterfalls swell with snow melt each spring, and the crowds keep coming through the fall leaf season.

Tim Tielman is Executive Director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo, a historic preservation group leading the opposition to the railways’ plan. He says, "One of the highest valued tourists you can get is the heritage tourist. Locally they spend over $100 dollars a day.  Imagine if ten percent of that group visited the park, that's ten million dollars a year in new spending in an area that could really use it."

Spokesperson Dave Pidgeon says Norfolk Southern has heard many pleas from the public to save the bridge.  But the bridge is deemed obsolete by the state.  It’s not built to handle the weight of many modern trains, and trains that can cross need to slow way down to ten miles an hour.

Tielman admit's, "There's no question the bridge would represent in its current condition a liability issue for the freight company. Put up some guard rails, a better walkway, and you're all set. Why wouldn't you look at this opportunity?"

Norfolk Southern listed a net profit of one-and-a-half billion dollars last year and has determined it makes good business sense just to spend one million dollars to take the bridge down. "That particular line is vital to the manufacturing economy the local economy and right now the existing bridge is insufficient," says Pidgeon.

Within five years the two railway companies are hoping to construct a more modern, 39-million-dollar bridge slightly upriver – with no plans to allow the public to cross.  But they are hoping the public will help pay for it.  They’re asking the federal and state governments to foot more than half the bill.

Tim Tielman, of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo, says he’s convinced a compromise can be reached. "This is a private project that is going to have great effects on the public enjoyment of Letchworth park and its one of our greatest natural historic resources," says Tielman. 

The federal grant Norfolk Southern and Pacific Canadian railways applied for through the U.S. Department of Transportation is expected to be approved before the end of the year.