Mendon — The Early Years
The Lehigh Valley Railroad Station
The former LVRR main line was less than a half mile from my house and the depot and freight yard at Rochester Junction would have been easily visible if it were not for a large hill to the south. I recall, prior to the end of railroad operations on March 31, 1976, lying in bed at night listening to diesel locomotives pulling consists of freight cars as they passed through the Junction.
In September 1892 the LVRR completed the construction of a double-track main line between Geneva and Buffalo allowing its trains to run on Lehigh-owned tracks from Jersey City to Buffalo. Previously the connection between Waverly, New York, and Buffalo had been on the tracks leased from the Erie Railroad. (Author's note: Although the LVRR advertised that its tracks now ran 447.6 miles from New York City to Buffalo, the railroad never owned a station in the former city. The actual eastern termination point was Jersey City, N.J. Passengers were transported from that city to Penn Station in New York City.)
A thirteen-mile single-track spur was built running north from Rochester Junction to downtown Rochester. The first depot in that city was replaced in 1905 by one cantilevered over the Genesee River on steel beams resting on stone piers. Fortunately, the building has been preserved and is now the home of the Dinosaur Restaurant.
Another spur line continued south from the Junction through the villages of Honeoye Falls, Lima and Livonia Center terminating at the north shore of Hemlock Lake. Prior to being purchased by the City of Rochester for a watershed, Hemlock Lake was a thriving summer-resort community ringed with cottages, some of them owned by local residents.
Small depots were constructed in the hamlet of Mendon and in Honeoye Falls. The largest and most important depot was built in Rochester Junction in 1896, replacing an earlier one that had been moved to be the LVRR station in the village of Lima. In several years what had been a tranquil rural valley, known as Surrine Hollow, had become the site of a major LVRR station. At the peak of the railroad's activity in the early 20th century, numerous passenger trains, many with Pullman cars attached, stopped at Rochester Junction each day. In the freight yard over sixty cars would be lined up awaiting switching procedures.
During the day farmers arrived with wagon loads of farm crops that were passed through a door on the north side of a storage building and later through a south door directly into freight cars. In the summer of 1895 a new road, appropriately called the "Junction Road," was constructed to allow direct access to Rochester Junction from the farms to the east of the station.
Drummers (salesmen) would arrive by train at the Junction and from a livery, hire a horse and buggy in which they would drive to their customers. The livery was also used by local people who took the train to Rochester for business or shopping and needed a place to leave their horses. (Author's note: I had the good fortune to purchase the livery sign from an elderly man who had worked as a carpenter at Rochester Junction in the 1920's and had saved the sign when it was being discarded after the close of the livery.)
The livery was next to the Terry Hotel, a large frame building across the road from the LVRR freight yard. The term "Hotel" is somewhat of a misnomer as it did not offer rooms for overnight guests. It was the location of the Rochester Junction post office from January 1902 until September 1917 when the facility was transferred to the LVRR depot. The primary purpose of the Terry Hotel was to serve railroad employees as a bar and restaurant and as a store where they could buy clothing and other items required in their work.
Near the Terry Hotel was the ball field used by the Rochester Junction baseball team. Following a home game the team and its supporters would retire to the Terry Hotel to celebrate a victory or to lament a loss.
In the beginning, steam locomotives were used to haul passenger cars from the Junction to the depot in downtown Rochester. In 1920 they were replaced by two gas-electric engines, known as "Doodlebugs." These engines were retired on September 6, 1950, and passengers were then transported to the city by the Valley Bus Company until January 7, 1957.
A 1928 LVRR schedule lists eight trains a day stopping at Rochester Junction to discharge and board passengers. The best known of these was the famous Black Diamond Express, "modestly" advertised by the railroad as "The Handsomest Train in the World." The name was in recognition of anthracite coal and its importance to the freight division of the LVRR. The Black Diamond made its inaugural run on May 18, 1896. It was also known as the "Honeymoon Express" due to its popularity among newly-married couples headed for Niagara Falls. Although its running time was slightly longer than New York Central's Empire State Express, the Black Diamond offered alternate first class accommodations between New York and Buffalo, with an armchair view of the mountainous terrain of eastern Pennsylvania and the Finger Lakes country of upstate New York.
On May 11, 1959, due to lack of patronage, the eastbound Black Diamond made its last run through Rochester Junction. Only one passenger boarded the train and its arrival was witnessed by a few school children and retired railroad employees. This event marked a sad day in the history of a once proud railroad.
Several years later, on February 4, 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission allowed the LVRR to discontinue all passenger service. As mentioned earlier, freight service was maintained until March 31, 1976, when the LVRR was turned over to Conrail. That agency employed a railroad salvage company to tear up the tracks. In an attempt to preserve a small presence of the railroad, I purchased from the company a number of railroad ties from Rochester Junction which I used to build raised beds for my wife's flower gardens.
During the late 1940's and early 1950's, I traveled many miles on numerous railroads in this country and in Europe but I have always regretted that I never had the opportunity to ride on the Black Diamond Express or any other passenger train of the LVRR. Also, thinking back to those years, before traveling by air became popular, I have fond memories of great meals served in dining cars and pleasant hours spent with friends and, in some cases, with new friends in club cars. In the opinion of this writer, other than getting you to your destination faster (and sometimes not), modern air travel will never replace trains as an enjoyable way to travel.
Following the discontinuance of passenger service in February 1961, the depot at Rochester Junction was leased to a local campany who used it for storage. The once stately Victorian style building received little maintenance and was in a greatly deteriorated condition, when in April 1973 it was totally destroyed by a fire believed to have been set by arsonists.
I was working in my garage that Easter Sunday morning getting a lawn tractor ready for the mowing season when I heard the sirens of fire equipment in the neighborhood. I observed a column of smoke to the south and, deciding to investigate, discovered that the depot building was on fire. The responding fire departments believed that they had the fire extinguished and returned to their stations. The next morning the fire reignited and, before the firemen could control the blaze, the building burned to the ground. Since the abandonment of the depot by the LVRR, many people had been hopeful that a modern day use could be found for the structure. Today, only the Terry Hotel, now a private residence, still remains at Rochester Junction. Gone are the depot, the storage buildings, the elevated control tower and all of the other railroad facilities that once stood in the Junction.
In 1992 the Monroe County Parks Department acquired ownership of the former LVRR roadbed with the intention of creating a linear park across the southern part of the county. The Mendon Foundation, established as a not-for-profit land trust, agreed to develop and maintain a dual trail system, consisting of a ten-foot-wide multi-use trail with a stone dust surface, and a parallel five-foot-wide equestrian trail.
The Lehigh Trail extends for more than fifteen miles and provides a facility for walking, jogging, biking, cross-country skiing and horseback riding. It ends on the west bank of the Genesee River in Livingston County at the point where it connects with the north-south Genesee Valley Greenway Trail. To the east at the Monroe County / Ontario County line the Lehigh Trail joins a similar trail developed by the Victor Hiking Club. The roadbed for the spur line that many years ago carried LVRR trains from Rochester Junction to Rochester is being made into a trail to connect with the Erie Canalway Trail System at Genesee Valley Park in the city.
This article would not be complete without a final mention of my friend and neighbor Hazel Webster. Several years before her death in 1989, following an accident in which she totaled her latest Chrysler sedan, her driver's license was revoked by the Department of Motor Vehicles. Hazel had no family in the area and most of her friends had either passed away or were too old to help her. For many years Hazel had operated a proprietary nursing home for the care of older people. On pleasant summer afternoons residents of the home often sat on lawn chairs in the front yard. I often wondered if they were admiring the wonderful view of the Bristol Hills some fifteen or so miles in the distance.
Two of these residents, John and Bobby, were still with Hazel in the final years of her life. Neither of these men was able to drive a car so I took John, who by then was doing the basic cooking for the household, to the store to buy their weekly groceries and my wife drove Hazel and the two men to their various doctors' appointments.
In the last year of her life Hazel spent most of her day in bed watching television with her old dog, Shadow, sleeping on his cushion next to the bed. One afternoon John called me to say that Shadow was sick and requested that I drive him and the dog to the animal hospital. By the time I arrived at the house a few minutes later the dog had passed away. The next day Hazel was taken by ambulance to Genesee Hospital in Rochester where she told me that she would never see her farm again. As it turned out, her prophecy was correct in that she went from the hospital to a nursing home where she remained until her death several months later. I was honored to serve as a pall bearer when she was buried in the family plot in the Pine Hill Cemetery on the Rush-Mendon Road.
Hazel Webster had no children and in her will left the property to a distant relative who lived in another city. The house and farm buildings stood empty and neglected for several years. The ninety-six-acre farm was in danger of being sold to a real-estate developer who proposed tearing down all of the buildings and constructing large new houses on estate-sized lots. Fortunately a neighboring land owner intervened and purchased the entire poperty. The farmhouse, the barn complex, and the silo have been restored to their original condition and the land is still being worked by a Mendon farmer.