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My View: ‘Old Blue Top’ sits in the ideal location

By Timothy R. Allan

“Old Blue Top,” the Exchange Street railroad passenger station, is not much bigger than my garage. The station is a homely, humble structure that is said to have originally cost an unbelievable $7 million when it opened in 1952. Nonetheless, it served as downtown Buffalo’s “hospitality” suite.

As with so many things connected to eastern railroading, it died an unnatural death in 1962 when the New York Central stopped running trains into Canada. Yet the little brick building hidden under the Thruway was resuscitated in 1977 to accommodate those who wanted to travel by train to and from Toronto.

Last September, Old Blue Top was temporarily closed after its ceiling caved in due to heavy rains and, probably, benign neglect. This has triggered one of those customary Buffalo donnybrooks over where to build a new depot.

Keep in mind that there is another station serving Buffalo. The Depew station is owned by Amtrak, successor to the New York Central in passenger service.

The Depew station is actually larger than my garage, though not as comfortable. It does, however, proudly advertise itself as having restrooms! My garage is not restroom-equipped. But if it was a train station, I could arrange some chairs and connect a TV set so folks could pass the hours waiting for trains delayed by blizzards.

Adding to this collection, there is the Central Terminal, a once grand structure that opened in 1929 on Buffalo’s East Side. During its heyday, the Central Terminal hummed, chuffed and bustled with the comings and goings of some 200 trains a day. Passengers once swarmed through its cavernous main hall joined by 1,500 New York Central employees who occupied its 16 stories and sprawling collateral buildings.

All of that is now long gone. What’s left is, well, not much, unless you have a “thing” for hulking wrecks. Drive over there. Roll carefully into the vast area in front of the terminal. Get out of your car. Stroll around the building. Look for yourself.

Study the high weeds and scraggly trees bobbing in the restless winds. Gaze on the crumbling walls. Walk, if you dare, around the sides. Look upon the collapsing passenger platforms now bereft of all their rails and switches. Study the yawning gap that was once straddled by a graceful causeway that connected the main building to the boarding platforms. No, it wasn’t struck by a cruise missile and obliterated. It was crudely demolished because it was no longer needed.

Yes, our fading memories of loved ones going off to war – riding away in passenger cars, and, in too many cases, returning in boxes in the baggage cars – pull us backward in time. Those memories mean a lot. And the hope of a revived and vital neighborhood dazzles and enchants us still.

But here’s the real test. If, after you’ve visited the Central Terminal, you still want to restore it, then dig out your checkbook and send some of your money to the good folks at the nonprofit Central Terminal Restoration Corp.

Like the playing of air guitars, squabbles over things like this usually produce little that can be called useful. In this case, a vocal chorus advocates for the Central Terminal, others suggest Canalside or nearby. But there are stories and reasons, and then there are cold, hard facts. The fact-based reasons – rail logistics, intermodality, light rail and economics – all argue that the best site can be found somewhere east of Old Blue Top.

Yes, after all the heavy breathing, the new train station should be somewhere along the thousand yards of Exchange Street from Old Blue Top to Hamburg Street. Its singular virtue? It’s right.

Timothy R. Allan, Ph.D., a history professor emeritus at SUNY Fredonia, was once a New York Central Railroad engineer.
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