The St. Bonaventure Railroad
It was a wintry day in the first week of January 1929 when the little Baldwin 0-4-0 engine first pulled onto the tracks of the St. Bonaventure Railroad under the hand of Fr. Christopher Hee, OFM. Its first journey was inauspicious as it ran out of water for the boiler and had to be filled up by a farmer with a very long water hose before completing the trip.
The 300 yard long shortline railroad ran from the heating plant, around Devereux Hall to the east, and then across State St. where it connected to the Pennsylvania RR near the overpass. The rail lines were actually in place for many years before the first, and only, engine was purchased. A connecting spur from the Olean Railway line was installed in 1891 and used for delivering supplies for daily use as well as for the construction of Butler Gym and Devereux Hall. It was extended to the boiler room after 1916. The engine was purchased after the Olean Railroad Co. folded in 1928 to fill the needed transportation for coal, among other goods.
The little engine had seen service for many years, first in Emporium, Pa., where it had done trolley duty, and then at the Armour Meat Company in Olean at their Empire Tannery. It was purchased from the latter and reconditioned in the local Pennsylvania Railroad shops from whence it made the trip to its last home.
That short trip and its interruption was typical of the life of the SBRR. The engine, or the cars it was pulling, appear to have spent much time off the rails. Francis "Griff" Griffin, long-time campus caretaker, noted that his team of horses, and a block-and-tackle, were often necessary to get everything back in order and the railroad back in action.
For over 10 years the little railroad operated with engineers Fr. Christopher, Bill Casey, Harry Jones, Jimmy O'Toole and, finally, Andy Boser. By 1940 the engine was running out of steam, quite literally. It had deteriorated to the point that it was dangerous to operate. It was sold to Olean scrap metal dealer Casper Levine. The railroad continued to see use, with the Pennsylvania RR pushing coal cars up the track to the boiler room. Finally, the tracks themselves became too unstable for the minimal use they were getting and the college switched to trucks for the delivery of coal. The tracks were sold to Dave Rose for scrap and taken up on April 28, 1947. It's worth noting that just two days before the demolition the last load of coal was delivered to campus on the old rails...and the Pennsylvania RR engine delivering it jumped the track.
This pass to the SBRR was part of the the invitation to the 1931 commencement exercises.
Fr. Tom Plassmann liked to comment that his railroad may have been short, but "it was just as wide as any other."
One of the benefits of being the president of a railroad was that
Fr. Thomas could get free passage on other railroads, a service he
was known to reciprocate to his counterparts on other, somewhat
Fall 1938 photo with Bob McCaslin '39 in the cab of the Baldwin 0-4-0
The St. Bonaventure Railroad was remembered during the Fall 2016 semester when the path of the tracks was included in these sidewalks. They run next to Juvenal Lalor Dr. between the Quick Center for the Arts and Butler Gym.
Kilmer, Lawrence W. Bradford & Foster Brook Peg Leg Railroad. Empire State Books, 1974.
Herscher, Irenaeus, OFM. "The Obituary of a Railroad." The Provincial Annals. 6.3, July 1947: 149-151.
Pellegrino, Victor C. "300 Yards of Memories: The St. Bona Limited." Olean Times Herald (August 10 1965): 18.
Last updated 09/07/2010