New York Central Railroad began planning for a major depot in Buffalo, NY in 1925. At the time, Buffalo had almost as many trains passing through it as Chicago, and the region seemed poised for a massive industrial boom. Not only that, but its place between New England and the Midwest and population of 573,076 (1930) seemed to guarantee a long career as a passenger rail center.
Architects Fellheimer & Wagner saw their designs take shape in 1927, and they created an art deco masterpiece. A 17-floor office tower with a city-facing clock rose from aside the passenger terminals with other integrated office buildings, including extensive post office buildings for rail mail. The most stunning feature of the interior was to be a cavernous waiting room with huge arches on each end full of windows and metallic detail. The concourses, ticket offices, wooden benches and newspapers were made to be showered with light. When I visited, however, most of the windows were boarded.
New York Central planned for 10,000 passengers to pass through the terminal every day, finding their way to work, family, and vacationland through the arched portals of Buffalo Central Terminal, which the building would come to be known.
There was a big problem, however, which nobody had foreseen, and it can be expressed through a pair of dates: June 22nd, 1929 and October 29th, 1929. The first date was the grand opening of the train station, attended by 2,200 Buffalonians. The second date marks the Great Crash, which many economists use to mark the beginning of the Great Depression. In the coming years, half of American banks would fail and almost a third of the country would be without work.
While the Second World War helped to bring the United States out of the economic trough and filled the benches in the waiting rooms of the depot with freshly uniformed soldiers, the golden age of railroading was already over.
After the war, it was clear that Buffalo Central Terminal was in completely the wrong location. It was too far from downtown Buffalo, missing business traffic, and it was too far from the suburbs, missing the sprawling population centers showing Post War growth. In the meantime, passenger airlines and automobiles were quickly displacing the need to travel by train. In 1956, the building was put on the market for $1,000,000 but it did not sell.
Aside: BCT, as seen from Amtrak’s Empire Builder
In 2005 I took the Amtrak from St. Paul to Buffalo (Depew) on my way to Toronto. The first time I saw the abandoned train terminal is from the old mainline that still passes Buffalo Central Terminal.
New York Central Railroad merged with Pennsylvania Railroad in 1968 to form Penn Central, but the new owner of the complex declared bankruptcy just two years later. Amtrak took over the terminal as part of the liquidation, but they, too, left the depot on October 28th, 1979.
Since the 1980s, the link between the waiting rooms and concourses has been demolished and much of the complex has fallen into disrepair. Thankfully, however, a dedicated group of locals acquired the terminal in 1997. In the intervening decades, Buffalo Central Terminal was stripped of many of its Art Deco trappings, like its lights and central clock.
The building has steadily been renovated, including roof repairs and the purchasing of interior features that have made their way into the antique market. There is a possibility of reopening the terminal, in part, as a train station. In 2016 twice as many riders used Amtrak as in 1972, its first year of operation. Unlike most places I have documented, I have a lot of hope that Buffalo Central Terminal will find new life.