The Portageville Railroad Bridge is a steel arch railroad bridge over the Genesee River in Livingston County, New York.
The New York & Erie Rail Road (NY&E) was chartered on April 24, 1832, to connect the Hudson River at Piermont west to Lake Erie at Dunkirk. Construction began in 1836, opening to Dunkirk on May 19, 1851.
The Buffalo & Rochester Railroad (B&R), part of the New York Central Railroad, completed a new alignment between Buffalo and Batavia in 1852. The B&R sold their former alignment, from Buffalo to Attica, to the Erie’s Buffalo & New York City Railroad (B&NYC), a reorganization of the Attica & Hornellsville Railroad. The B&NYC completed a new alignment from Attica southeast to Hornellsville on November 17, 1852, giving the Erie access to Buffalo, a better terminal than Dunkirk.
The Erie proposed a wooden trestle bridge over the Genesee River just above Upper Falls as part of the alignment. It was planned to be erected in 50-foot sections so that any wooden member could be taken out and replaced without disturbing the remainder of the structure. 10 In late 1849, work began to assemble materials for construction, including one-million linear feet of pine lumber and 106,280 pounds of iron, all of which arrived by canal or highway.
Superstructure construction began on July 1, 1851, with the new span opening on August 16, 1852, 1 at a cost of $175,000. 8 A dedication ceremony, with speeches by New York Governor Washington Hunt and President Loder of the Erie Railroad, was held on August 25. 11 At 234-feet-high and 800-feet-long, with 13 stone piers, it was the largest wooden bridge in the world. 8
In the early hours of May 6, 1875, the wooden bridge was destroyed in a fire. 2 10 Only the concrete abutments remained.
The Erie Railroad moved to quickly replace the wooden bridge with an iron and steel structure. A contract for a wrought iron bridge was let to the Watson Manufacturing Company of Paterson, New Jersey 11 on May 10, just four days after the fire. 10 Construction began on the second crossing on June 8, 1875, opening to traffic on July 31 3 at a cost of approximately $88,000. 11 At 820 feet long and 240 feet high, it was one of the highest crossings in the eastern United States. 3
Increased weight of locomotives and railroad cars necessitated the replacement of the bridge’s iron structural members with steel in 1903. 9 The bridge was again renovated with an additional 200 tons of steel to the towers in 1944. 10
On April 1, 1976, the Erie Railroad’s Buffalo line was folded into Conrail’s Southern Tier mainline. 12 Norfolk Southern Railway (NS) began operating the entire Southern Tier route on June 1, 1999, through a lease agreement. NS acquired the route through a merger on August 27, 2004.
In a 2008 inspection report by NS, cracks, missing rivets, and extensive corrosion were noted. 13 Structural gaps between the lateral columns and pier foundations were also found. A fatigue analysis found that all bottom chord members and diagonal members of the structure, except for two in the center panel of each deck truss, showed levels of fatigue beyond an acceptable range.
A detailed inspection of the bridge by NS in September 2009 revealed broken rivets and structural cracks that required an emergency closure of the crossing. 13 Emergency repairs were completed and the bridge reopened to traffic within three days. A 24-hour vibration and stress monitoring system was installed shortly after, a first for NS.
Since 1999, NS spent $850,000 in ongoing repairs to the bridge to keep it operational. 13
In 2008, the state of New York provided $1 million towards preliminary engineering and environmental review for either the repair or replacement of the Portageville Railroad Bridge on behalf of NS. 9 12
Activities of the preliminary engineering and environmental review stage included a project scoping meeting in October 2008, the publication of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement in November 2012, a public comment period from November 2012 through February 1, 2013, and a public hearing in January 2013. 12 In July 2013, it was determined that Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality improvement program funds could be made available to support the construction of the project.
For NS, the goals of the project included: 12
- The reduction or elimination of the need for extensive ongoing maintenance towards the circa 1875 bridge.
- The ability to increase capacity on the Southern Tier mainline by utilizing standard 286,000-pound rail cars (Cooper E80) over a rehabilitated or new bridge.
- The ability to match FRA Class 4 speeds over a rehabilitated or new bridge.
Several alternatives were considered: 12
- Alternative 1: Do nothing. It was found not to be feasible due to the structural deterioration of the bridge that would eventually require the crossing to be closed to all rail traffic.
- Alternative 2: Retrofit and rehabilitation of the circa 1875 bridge. It was found to not be feasible as it would require rail traffic to be rerouted for 18 months, costing an additional $22 million in operating costs and five-hour service delays during construction. Additionally, the load-carrying capacity would not be increased to Cooper E80 standards, and fatigue and corrosion would continue to degrade the structural elements of the bridge.
- Alternative 3: Demolish the existing bridge and rebuild it on the same alignment. It was found to not be feasible as it would require rail traffic to be rerouted for 18- to 31-months.
- Alternative 4: Demolish the existing bridge and rebuild 75 feet south. This alternative was found to be feasible.
- Alternative 5: Build a new bridge adjacent to the circa 1875 bridge and convey the older structure to the state. It was found to not be feasible as the state declined to acquire the bridge. Additionally, two side-by-side bridges were found to be more obstructive to scenic views of the gorge than a single bridge, creating an adverse visual impact. The older bridge’s piers would also remain within the Genesee River, which would not allow it to return to free-flowing conditions and thus not compatible with the Genesee River’s status as a protected river under the federal Genesee River Protection Act and as a New York State Scenic River.
- Alternative 6: Demolish the existing bridge and rebuild on a new southern alignment that would be 4.5 miles long. This would involve diverting from the existing alignment at Denton Corners Road in Wyoming County, rejoining at Springbrook Road in Livingston County. It would require the construction of a one-mile-long bridge over the Genesee River, two shorter overpasses, and short spans over three streams. It would require three at-grade crossings. The realignment would cost approximately $250 million, which was more than three times the cost of Alternatives 2, 3, 4, or 5.
- Alternatives 7, 8, and 9 were variants of the other alternatives and were all dismissed.
Alternative 4 was selected by NS on November 29, 2011. 4 A steel arch design for the new bridge was approved in late-2014 with an estimated cost of $71 million. 5
In the fall of 2015, trees were cleared from the new bridge site and the ground was broken for the new crossing shortly after. 6 In March 2017, the construction of the new crossing began. 7
- State: New York
- Route: Norfolk Southern Railway
- Type: Steel Arch
- Status: Active - Automobile
- Total Length: 800 feet (1852); 820 feet (1875)
- Total Height: 234 feet (1852); 240 feet (1875)
- Navigational Clearance:
- Cook, Tom and Tom Breslin. “Glimpses of the Past – The Portage Bridge.” Letchworthparkhistory.com, article.
- Cook, Tom and Tom Breslin. “Burning of the Portage Bridge”. Letchworthparkhistory.com, article.
- Cook, Tom and Tom Breslin. “Pieces of the Past – A Walker Stereocard Label circa 1875.” Letchworthparkhistory.com, article.
- Sommer, Mark. “Historic Letchworth bridge is on the edge of elimination.” Buffalo News, 27 Nov. 2011.
- McDermott, Meaghan M. “New railroad bridge approved for Letchworth park.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester], 30 Dec. 2014.
- “Modjeski and Masters Breaks Ground on New Portageville Arch Bridge.” PRWeb. 4 Nov. 2015, article.
- Leathersich, Joe. “Construction begins on Portageville Bridge arch.” Malone Telegram, 22 Mar. 2017.
- Walling, H. F. “Portage.” The Erie Railway and Its Branches, New York, Taintor Brothers, 1867, pp. 41-43.
- “PORTAGE (NY) BRIDGE ON NS, nee CR, nee EL, nee Erie.” Trains, posts.
- Gross, H. H. “Steel Across the Rivers.” Railroad Magazine, 1948 Jan.
- Cook, Tim. “Portage Bridge (Old).” Bridgehunter.com, article.
- New York State Department of Transportation. Final Scoping Report. June 2014, report.
- New York State Department of Transportation. NEPA Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS)/Record of Decision (ROD). Report.
1 thought on “Portageville Railroad Bridge”
I have gone up to the park for going on 30 years and each time I have gone up, I went to the bridge and filmed it from every angle I could get to. Now that it’s coming down it breaks my heart. Of the 4 bridges that have a special connection with me, 2 are gone, 1 is being torn down, an 1 was partially destroyed by a tornado. The kinzua bridge. That being said, I understand why the portageville bridge needed to be replaced . The safety of the trainmen an their trains that crossed it are of up most importance. The replacement bridge that Norfolk Southern chose is a fine third generation bridge that we will come to love just as we did the 2 that came before her. And I’m sure I’ll film her and the trains that cross her. I hope there will be an observation place close to it so we can. I wish good luck to the ‘great American arch’ bridge. Just as her strength ties both sides of this beautiful gorge together, may she lend her strength to our great country and the company’s that built her. Our ancestors built this country into the great nation it is today and it is up to us to continue building her for our children and grandchildren to come after us. This project is but a piece in that building process. But from my point of view, it looks like a job well done. May she serve the Northfolk Southern and this country well .