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The Orphan Rochester Subway


Car 60 posed for photos near Lyell Avenue during a fan trip in the mid-1950s. Car 60 was often chartered by the Rochester Chapter NRHA for use on fan trips as it became clear that the Subway could stop running at any time.
Based on an Electric Railroader's Association map by Vitaly Uzoff and Chas. Yingling. Artwork by Otto M. Vondrak, 2008.
A late 1930s traffic jam staged by the Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester's local daily newspaper) in an effort to show how useful the Subway could be. This entrance was at the corner of Exchange and Broad Streets.
The Subway entrance at Exchange and Broad Streets. Circa 1940s
The Subway's electric freight motor hustles some cars through the Winton Road station. Circa 1940
The underground station at West Main & Oak Streets. This was the only other station located inside the subway tunnel. Circa 1940
Wartime crowds and commuter trains seen at City Hall station. These cars are painted in the older "green scheme." Circa 1944
Car 60 at an unknown location somewhere in the city. After the war, all cars were painted in this red and cream paint scheme, similar to the transit buses that were also operated by Rochester Transit Corp at this time. Circa 1955
Car 52 at Driving Park Station, with the bridges for the B&O and NYC Charlotte Branches seen in the background, circa 1955. Those bridges are still in place today.
Car 52 and an unknown car at rest near the shops at General Motors loop. In this early 1950s picture, it is pretty clear to see that the Subway is in decline. Weedy right of way and beat up trolley cars let us know that the end is near.
Car 60 in an unknown location near Highland Ave. This car is almost at the end of it run where it will turn on the Rowlands loop. Car 60 was donated to the Rochester Chapter NRHS in 1956, and is currently undergoing restoration.
Car 64 turning on the Rowlands Loop, near Brighton and Pittsford. At one time, this was also a junction with the Rochester, Syracuse & Eastern interurban line.
Court Street station site, the only surviving outdoor station. Structure on left was an elevated access road to the old Lehigh Valley yard and the old Barge Canal terminal. July 2000
Detail showing the old trolley guards that used to protect the trolley poles from being damaged on the concrete in case it jumped off the wire. The only evidence of a trolley operation here! Otto Vondrak, July 2000
Court Street station, after many years of neglect and vandalism. Otto Vondrak, July 2000
Court Street, detail showing where signal conduit was placed on the wall. Otto Vondrak, July 2000
The ruins of the Court Street station. You can see evidence of the wooden canopy and station platform. This was the other end of the subway tunnel, making a right turn under the Rundel Library and heading south for a bit here before turning east again. There was also an interchange with the Lehigh Valley railroad not far from here. Otto Vondrak, Winter 2000
The portal at Oak Street. The city filled in the western portion of the Subway cut in 1976. The fill starts just behind the photographer, and the right of way can be clearly traced all the way to the former General Motors (now Delphi Systems) plant. Otto Vondrak, Winter 2000
Adaptation of official City of Rochester drawing of a typical Subway shelter. There were no manned stations, all fares were paid for on the train. Drawing by Otto M. Vondrak, 2003.
View showing cross-section of the butterfly canopies used on the Rochester Subway. Drawing by Otto M. Vondrak, 2003.
These notices were posted in anticipation of the end of passenger service in the Subway on June 30, 1956. Rochester Transit Corp substituted the No. 25 bus in place of the Subway (also Route 25) for years afterwards. RTC continued to operate electric-hauled freight until 1957, then the responsibility was turned over to the B&O and the NYC. Collection of Otto M. Vondrak.
Animatus Studio has released a documentary DVD entitled "The End of the Line"

Article by Otto M. Vondrak.

A Short History
Positioned along the shores of Lake Ontario, Rochester is located between Buffalo and Syracuse, on the former New York Central (now CSX) "Water Level Route." Today, Rochester is home to several high-technology corporations, among them Eastman Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, and Xerox. Before 1900, much of Rochester's economy was agrarian in nature. Formerly known as the "Flour City" due to the amount of mills that were located along the shores of the Genesee River, the "Flower City" blossomed into a sizable upstate industrial producer. The Erie Canal, responsible for much of upstate New York's economic growth, was considered an obsolete eyesore by the turn of the century. The state legislature allocated money for relocation of the canal, and the last boat traveled through the city locks in 1919. The city of Rochester then purchased the right of way for construction of a trolley subway that would greatly reduce the amount of surface traffic in the city. Eight years after the last canal boat was piloted through the city, the Rochester Industrial & Rapid Transit Railway was opened to the public in December 1927. Known to most simply as the "Subway," it was built to serve as an interchange for the five railroads that entered the city. It was also a link to interurban lines serving the east and west. The line was operated by New York State Railways, a subsidiary of the New York Central, which made the other area railroads (LV, Erie, PRR, BR&P) very unhappy. New York State Railways was set up by the NYC in 1909 to acquire upstate interurban and trolley lines, in effect, to control the competition.

The subway was built to remove interurban traffic from the streets of Rochester. The Rochester & Eastern, which ran to Canandaigua and Geneva, entered the subway at Rowlands, and terminated at City Hall station. The Rochester & Syracuse connected with the subway near Winton Road and the connection with the NYC Auburn Branch. The R&S also terminated at City Hall station, and turned its cars at the nearby Oak Street loop. The Rochester, Lockport & Buffalo entered the subway from the west at Lyell Avenue, terminating at City Hall, and looping at Court Street. Only the Rochester & Sodus Bay had no physical connection to the new subway. Subway operation began in 1928, and the last Rochester interurban ceased operation in 1931. This left the subway and the surface lines as the remaining trolley operations in the city.

Running from the General Motors Rochester Products plant, through the city, and southeast to Rowlands, the Subway was not more than ten miles long. From its opening date, the Subway was never utilized to its full potential. The exception was the World War II era when the Subway ran four-car commuter trains at the height of rush hour. There was frustrated with the amount of return they were receiving on their Subway investment. The traveling public loved the subway, but wished it was extended farther out to the suburbs. Politically, this was an impossibility: the subway was owned by the city. How could extensions that would benefit the suburbs be justified? In the postwar era, the downtown subway stations became a home for transients and other undesirables. Deferred maintenance took its toll. The last streetcar ran in Rochester in 1941, leaving the subway as the sole trolley operation.

Red and cream cars (matching the city bus fleet) rushing through a weed-choked right of way was the rule by 1951. The New York State Thruway was under construction at this time, roughly following the route of the NYC mainline. For whatever reason, it mostly bypassed Rochester, with its only connection being with NY Route 15 ten miles to the south. The eastern end of the subway from Meigs Street was eyed as a potential route for a feeder highway designed to meet the Thruway in Victor, NY Public outcry for subway service improvements and extensions continued to fall on deaf ears. The Republican-controlled city council voted in secret to discontinue subway passenger service after 1955, and construct the Eastern Expressway in its place. The last passenger run on the Subway was Saturday, June 30, 1956. While there were no special ceremonies held to mark the end of passenger service, many took the opportunity to take a last (or in many cases, a first) ride on the trolley.

Electric freight service ended in 1957. The city of Rochester then drew up a contract with the five railroads to allow for the continuation of freight service in the remaining western end. Equipment was supplied by the New York Central, usually an RS-1 or RS-3. Crews were supplied by the railroads on a rotating basis. In 1976, the city made the decision to fill in the western end of the subway to eliminate the many crumbling bridges over the cut. The only remaining customers on the line were General Motors and the Gannett newspaper chain located in the tunnel at City Hall. By this time, freight service was the responsibility of the Baltimore & Ohio. A new connection was built from the B&O Charlotte Branch to the GM plant, while the ramp into the subway tunnel under Broad Street survived to deliver newsprint to Gannett. In 1985, CSX sold its ex-B&O lines to Genesee & Wyoming, which operated the lines under the name Rochester & Southern. Newsprint deliveries in the subway ended in 1996 when the printing plant was moved.

Today, few traces of the subway survive. The section that was filled in remained undeveloped, and can be traced nearly uninterrupted all the way out to the former General Motors plant. The last remaining Subway car, number 60, is currently undergoing restoration by the Rochester Chapter NRHS. Ruins of the Subway exist downtown, partially obscured by the I-490 that succeeded it. The two-mile tunnel under Broad Street is in need of serious repairs, and will probably be filled in by the city. The two stations that were in the tunnel, West Main Street and City Hall, have remained hidden from the public for over forty years. Many of the rails were salvaged by the NRHS and the New York Museum of Transportation in the 1970s. Together, they have built a short rail line at their joint museum in suburban Rush, New York. A fitting end, as the two groups are dedicated to preserving Rochester's railroad heritage.

What Might Have Been
The Subway was never really meant to die. There were several proposals in the final years that would have significantly expanded the routing of the line along existing railroad rights of way. This map is my personal attempt at showing what we could have enjoyed today. In January 1952, an ambitious proposal was published explaining an expansion to points outside the city.

One route would leave the Subway tunnel at City Hall, and proceed south along the river on the Erie to the Pennsylvania Railroad connection at Violetta Street. Then, up the Pennsy past the airport, to the Baltimore & Ohio connection at Chili Avenue. This route would lead back north into the city, connecting to the original subway near the General Motors loop.

The second route followed the B&O alignment north from the Subway to Kodak, and farther north to the beaches at Charlotte.

A third route would have used the former Lehigh Valley Rochester Branch to provide service from Court Street south to the University of Rochester. No extension was planned south, because Rochester Institute of Technology would not move to Henrietta until 1968. Expanding this route down to Henrietta would be easy enough along the old LV line, which ran in back of the Colony Manor Apartments. The orange dotted line represents new construction to serve a park-and-ride on the west side of the new RIT campus, on East River Road.

To save the costs of new electrification, it was proposed that these new routes be served with Budd Rail Diesel Cars.

This map takes into consideration that the Subway would be abandoned east of Court Street for construction of I-490. The orange line represents the long talked-about expansion to Monroe Avenue and Pittsford that never materialized.

While it is not shown on this map, service to the northwest and the St. Paul Boulevard neighborhoods could be facilitated using the New York Central swing bridge at Charlotte, and the old Rome, Watertown & Odgensburg (NYC Hojak Line) alignments. Coming down St. Paul, a new line (street running?) could serve the Amtrak station on Clinton.

Of course, since 1952, many of these routes have been compromised by development. Even the western mainline subway is fouled by an OTB parlor and several other small concerns. Much of the PRR and LV has disappeared under townhouses and other developments.

Preservation Efforts
Car 60 is currently back in the possession of the Rochester Chapter NRHS, after a forty-year absence. This is the sole remaining car from the Subway fleet. This car holds special sentimental value as it was used on an NRHS inspection tour of the line in the mid-fifties.

The car's new home is at the Rochester Chapter's newly-christened restoration shop at their museum grounds in Rush, New York.

Update June, 2006:
While few traces of the Rochester Subway exist today, local preservation groups are doing what they can to keep its memory alive. To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the end of Rochester Subway passenger service, the New York Museum of Transportation will offer a weekend of trolley rides for the visiting public on July 15 and 16, 2006. This weekend will kick off what the museum hopes to be regular trolley operations in the future. Hopefully the short trolley ride over museum trackage will offer visitors an idea of what it was like to commute to work a generation ago in the Flower City.

This story originally appeared in 2002, and was updated in June, 2006.

Otto M. Vondrak is Creative Director for RAILROAD.NET. While attending Rochester Institute of Technology, he became interested in the operations of the former Rochester Subway. He authored a feature on the Rochester Subway in the July 2000 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman. Otto is also a volunteer with the Rochester Chapter NRHS, which has goals of restoring Car 60 to full operation.

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