GREAT GORGE ROUTE
&
THE NIAGARA FALLS PARK and RIVER RAILWAY


1895 -1935

 

The Great Gorge Route Pamphlet - Front CoverThe Great Gorge Route Pamphlet - Back Cover

the front and back covers of the Great Gorge Route Souvenir Pamphlet

 

 

 

William Bickle operating a Great Gorge Route Car

William H. Bickle is the motorman operating the Great Gorge car in this photograph . Bickle owned a 100 acre farm on the north side of Thorold Stone Road between Montrose Road and Kalar Road in the City of Niagara Falls.
This is where he raised three daughters and one son.
 He passed away in 1954 at the age of 75 years.

 

 

 

In January of 1886, the Niagara Falls and Whirlpool Company was formed to build a railway from Prospect Point to just north of the Whirlpool.

The plan was to build a narrow gauge rail line along the American side at the base of the Niagara Gorge just above the river. The railroad bed was designed to be only ten (10) feet wide.

Before construction could begin, the company went bankrupt. Two Buffalo businessmen Captain George M. Brinker and  George A. Ricker reorganized the bankrupt Niagara Falls and Whirlpool Company. The company was renamed the Niagara Falls and Lewiston Railroad. This newly formed company had expanded the original planned railroad to extend from Niagara Falls to Lewiston.

The new railroad would become one of the most expensive and difficult ever constructed. The first phase called for the laying of a single track.

The rail bed was constructed in seventy-five (75) days, beginning on April 11th 1895. During the first half () mile, 100,000 cubic yards of rock were thrown into the Niagara River. The railroad would extend a distance of seven (7) miles. Of this distance, only seven hundred (700) feet was on level ground. The rest of the rail bed consisted of curves and grades as steep as nine (9%) percent.

 

Great Gorge Route along the Whirlpool Rapids

The double track rail bed of the Great Gorge Route

courtesy of Detroit Publishing

 

The  Niagara Falls and Lewiston Railroad was opened on August 25th 1895.  This electric railroad became an instant marvel of engineering technology. Its attraction rivaled the Falls of Niagara. The Niagara Falls and Lewiston Railroad provided the public with an unparalleled view of the mighty Niagara River including the mountainous waves of the Whirlpool Rapids. The public's acceptance of such an exhilarating experience only hastened the laying of a second track.

In order to improve service, the Great Gorge Route purchased land Lewiston in order to allow passengers easy connections from the trolleys to the New York Central Railway and Lake Steamers. Lewiston had become the Port of Entry into the Niagara Frontier in 1811 and continued through 1963.

Lewiston had become a transportation center and enjoyed a resurgence of development. With the Great Gorge Route from Lewiston to the Niagara Reservation State Park at Niagara Falls, came passenger steamers from Toronto, Montreal and other cities which were soon docking at Lewiston with tourists going to visit the Falls.

The second track was completed in 1896. The  Niagara Falls and Lewiston Railroad could now operate cars in both directions at the same time at a much greater frequency.

In 1888, the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park Commission was in desperate need of money. They realized that most visitors to Niagara Falls were visiting only the American side because of the excellent transportation link of the Great Gorge Route from Lewiston. Without a similar transportation link to Queenston, the Parks Commission were unable to attract the volume of tourists and money that the Americans were able to.

Although the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park was to be free, it was also to be self supporting. Any monies being generated at that time wasn't nearly sufficient to meeting the operating expenditures. Improvements were needed to make it easier for people to get to the park. The train station was two miles away and the only railway to the Falls led from Lewiston which was a major transportation hub. The Canadian sites were not being visited.

The Commissioner's felt an electric railway running from Queenston to Queen Victoria Park would provide this missing transportation link enabling convenient and economical means of getting to the Canadian side of the Falls. It was hoped that when this link was established that some of the steam boat passenger service business could be attracted from Lewiston.

On December 4th 1891, the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park Commissioners signed an agreement granting a railroad franchise to E.B. Osler of Toronto and R.B. Angus to operate the "Niagara Falls Park & River Railroad Company" to build and operate a railway from Queenston to Chippawa with the right to develop hydro electricity to power the railway. For this franchise, the Niagara Falls Park & River Railroad agreed to pay the Parks Commission $10,000 per year over the life of a forty year contract.

Construction on the railway began in 1892. Soon after construction began, engineers realized they had voltage problems at the Queenston end of the line. The company's powerhouse located at Table Rock generated direct current at 600-660 volts. This voltage wasn't adequate enough to reach Queenston. To bridge this problem , the Niagara Falls Park & River Railway build a steam driven electric power generator just south of the Queenston docks.

On May 24th 1893, the railway featuring a single rail line was open to the public. The rail line was very successful. The Niagara Falls Park & River Railroad Company carried 354,000 people during its inaugural season.

In 1894, the Niagara Falls Park & River Railway expanded to two tracks along most portions of the route. In 1895, the track was also extended 1.5 miles south of Chippawa to Slater's Dock (opposite north end of Navy Island) to allow for passenger steam ships from Buffalo and other Upper Great Lake cities.

The first trolley cars built for the Niagara Falls Park & River Railway were build by the Patterson and Corbin Company of St. Catharines. The most rail cars were 28 feet in length and were open sided to provide easy access and observation. Later, trolley cars were build in the companies own shop located just south of the Spanish Aero Car at Colt's Point.

 

Great Gorge Route

a Great Gorge Route Trolley southbound bordering the Whirlpool Rapids

courtesy of Detroit Publishing

 

By 1896, the railway carried 499,015 people and had generated a handsome profit despite expansion costs.

In 1899, Captain John Brinker had said that the Niagara Falls and Lewiston Railroad had cost him $800,000 and as a result he could no longer afford to continue. As a result, during the summer of 1899, Brinker sold the railroad to General Francis V. Greene of New York City and Herbert P. Bissell of Buffalo.The railroad became the "Niagara Gorge Railroad Company".

In 1902, the Canadian "Niagara Falls Park & River Railway "(Queenston - Chippawa Railway) was sold to the Niagara Gorge Railroad Company (Buffalo Railroad Company). This Canadian route was linked to the pre-existing Niagara Falls and Lewiston Electric Railway. The two rail lines were connected at the Queenston - Lewiston Suspension Bridge and the Upper Steel Arch Bridge (Honeymoon Bridge) to begin a new international service. The two merged railroads became known as the "Great Gorge Route" or "Niagara Belt Line".

The new company was called the International Railway Company.

Electric Trolleys carried patrons along this six mile long looped belt line. The cost of each trip was $1.00 and patrons could board at any point along the loop.

The loop began at the Canadian end of the Upper Steel Arch Bridge. The rail line followed a route on the top edge of the gorge in a southerly direction past the grandeur of the American Falls to the Table Rock at the Horseshoe Falls. Here the tracks made a 180 turn and returned through Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park in  a northerly direction past the Clifton Hotel and the Upper Steel Arch Bridge.

The railway followed the top edge of the Niagara Gorge to its northern extent where the rail line crossed into Lewiston, New York via the Queenston-Lewiston Suspension Bridge. From Lewiston, the railway ran southerly in direction following a rail bed at the base of the gorge only feet above the torrent of the Niagara River.

As the trolley crossed under the Whirlpool Bridge, the rail bed began a slow gradual rise to the top of the gorge and the Upper Steel Arch Bridge.

The Great Gorge Route provided patrons with the most magnificent view of the Niagara River and the Whirlpool Rapids.

 

Great Gorge Route

The Great Gorge Route bordering the Whirlpool Rapids

courtesy of Detroit Publishing

 

Open sided trolleys were used in the summer. The seats went completely across the width of the trolley. Access to the trolley was gained by using a running board which ran along the length of each side of the car. The conductor walked along the running board of the moving trolley collecting fares.

The sides of the trolley had window type blinds which could be pulled down by the rider to shade themselves from the sun, if it rained or became too cool.

After five years of operation, the Great Gorge Route was running trolley cars through the gorge every fifteen minutes apart, from 7 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week. The Great Gorge route closed seasonally between March 1st and April 30th during the Spring thaw when most rock falls would occur.    

The Great Gorge Route operated ten months of the year. During each year, the Great Gorge Route was carrying an average of 200,000 passengers.

In 1909, the fare was five cents for any distance not exceeding 3 miles between Queenston and Chippawa. Children under 10 years were charged 3 cents. School students could buy eight tickets for 25 cents which could be used for any five miles during school hours. By 1930, the adult fare was ten cents and children's fare was five cents. 

Erosion of walls of the Niagara Gorge became the biggest enemy of the fledgling railroad. The Great Gorge Route was being disrupted by rock fall after rock fall.

In March of 1899, a one thousand ton rock fall near the American Falls disrupted service by sweeping away yards of the track bed. In attempt to counter the frequency of the rock falls, engineers planted quackroot grass.

The rock falls and landslides were a costly expenditure requiring regular repairs and preventative maintenance. It wasn't long before these repair expenditures soon began to eliminate any profit.

Amazingly, in forty years of operation and carrying thirteen million passengers, not one car, passenger or employee was ever struck by a falling rock.

On September 6th 1901, United States President, William McKinley with his wife and entourage rode on the Great Gorge Route from Lewiston to Niagara Falls. Hours later, President McKinley was assassinated at the Pan Am Exhibition in Buffalo.

 

Great Gorge Route and the Big Rock

a Great Gorge Route Trolley southbound passing the Giant Rock along beside the Devil's Hole Rapids

courtesy of Detroit Publishing

 

On February 12th 1906, the Whirlpool shop and car barn located on the Canadian shore burned to the ground destroying all but one rail car. The loss was estimated at $125,000. The Canadian shops and barns were never rebuilt. All maintenance was transferred to the American shop and barns located just north of Prospect Park.

In 1914, spotlights were added to illuminate the Whirlpool Rapids at night.

Accidents plagued the Great Gorge Route.

On March 12th 1907, an avalanche of ice just north of the Whirlpool Bridge killed a conductor and eight passengers.

In 1910, two trolley cars crashed head-on at the upper end of the Whirlpool Rapids. Both cars derailed causing injuries to two passengers. This accident occurred at a single track trestle at Swift Drift located near the head of the Whirlpool Rapids.

In 1913, a garbage chute for dumping refuse into the Niagara River located under the rail bed of the Great Gorge Route at the north end of Niagara Falls, exploded directly under the rails, showering passengers in a passing trolley with tons of semi liquid sewage. Passengers sustained this indignity without any physical injuries.

On July 15th 1915, a trolley car carrying a Sunday School group from Toronto travelling down the escarpment along the Canadian shore at Queenston derailed, rolled over and crashed into a tree. Thirteen persons were killed, 60 - 70 people were injured and eleven seriously. A rain storm had interrupted a church picnic at Queenston Heights. One hundred and fifty seven (157) people crowded onto Trolley # 685 for the ride down the escarpment to the Queenston Docks. The trolley had a maximum capacity of eighty-four (84) people. The extra weight sent the trolley down the escarpment fast than normal. As the motorman applied the brakes, they didn't work because of the wetness. At a sharp curve at the base of the escarpment near the river, the trolley derailed. The trolley motorman and the general manager were arrested for "slack observance of rules". Those charges were later withdrawn. The cause of this accident was attributed to a broken brake rod.

On July 1st 1917, twelve tourists died, and twenty four tourists were injured when a trolley filled with passengers derailed and plunged into the Niagara River at the upper end of the Whirlpool Rapids just below the Whirlpool Bridge. The cause of this tragic accident was as a result of heavy rains undermining the rail bed. The trolley rolled down a thirty foot embankment coming to rest upside-down on several submerged rocks before rolling on to its side and into the raging river. This incident was exasperated when a customs officer had alerted the staff of the Great Gorge Route of the unstable rail-bed approximately thirty minutes before this accident and the trolleys were not stopped.

Every day following this accident, Great Gorge Route rail inspectors rode the belt line to ensure safety before the line was open to members of the public.

In the latter part of February 1930, a small rock slide crashed down on the rail bed carrying it and a number of power poles into the river.

The Canadian portion of the International Railway Company's "Great Gorge Route" continued until September 10th 1932  when the line was abandoned. The International Railway Company refused to renew its charter with the Niagara Falls Queen Victoria Parks Commission officially terminating the Canadian portion of the Great Gorge Route and the Niagara Belt Link. The line had become unprofitable and the number of passengers had dwindled. The automobile had made this railway slow and obsolete. Buses were now being used to transport tourists to Niagara Falls from the Queenston dock.

On September 17th 1935 at 2 a.m., five thousand tons of rock fell approximately 150 feet north of the Whirlpool Bridge, destroying more than 200 feet of track and rail bed. This was that largest rock fall to plague the Great Gorge Route. It forced the Great Gorge Route to close for business. The Great Gorge Route line along the base of the Niagara Gorge on the American side was never repaired and was never reopened.

 

   

The Great Gorge Route map

The official map of the Great Gorge Route 

 

The industrial revolution was responsible for the engineering technology which resulted in the ability to design, build and operate the Great Gorge Route and ultimately it was this same revolution which spelled the demise of this same railroad through the birth of the automobile.

Today, only few remnants of the former Great Gorge Route can be found at the base of the Niagara Gorge along the American shoreline. Portions of the former rail bed and brick supports are all that are visible today. Nature has reclaimed its own.

For the most part, nature trails along the former rail bed of the Great Gorge Route are all that remain, a faint reminder of a great moment of Niagara Falls history. Only by walking along the nature trails which follow the former Great Gorge Route can one truly understand the engineering marvel that had taken place and nature's way of reclamation The nature trails along the former Great Gorge Route provides some of the most magnificent and breathtaking views of the Niagara River and Niagara Gorge.

 

 




 

 

 

 NIAGARA FALLS THUNDER ALLEY NAVIGATOR


INFORMATION INDEX


 


HISTORICAL ARCHIVE

 


PICTURES & SLIDESHOWS

 

SITE MAP

 

Date last updated: April 13, 2013

 

 

 

 

The preceding locations and facts about them are but a few of many famous sites & attractions to be found in Niagara Falls. The best of it is FREE to see...so think of Niagara Falls when planning your next vacation. If you have questions of a current or historical nature about the Niagara Falls area or suggestions feel free to e-mail Rick at:
 

niagarahistory@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

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THE GREAT GORGE ROUTE
THE NIAGARA FALLS PARK & RIVER RAILWAY


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