Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Niagara Portage Railway

The British Built a Railway Up the Escarpment at Lewiston in 1764 -- Often Called the First Railway on the North American Continent

  Before the English captured  Fort Niagara from the French in 1759, all shipments of furs, munitions and trade goods were packed over the Lewiston escarpment by Indians hired by the French. About 200 Indians from the local Seneca tribe were employed. At the top of the escarpment ran the portage, then only an Indian trail. The English under practical Sir William Johnson built the first portage road in 1763, widening the indian trail into a wagon road.  A railway was designed and built by British Captain John Montresor up the face of the cliff, so boats could come up the river to the head of navigation at Lewiston.  Indian labor was no longer needed on the portage. In retaliation, the Indians waylaid the first wagon train at what is now Devils Hole Park in what is called the Devils Hole Massacre.
  The railway was of enormous strength, built of crude piers up the steep bank from the wharf to the summit, where it connected with the portage road. Two sets of parallel logs formed the railway.  Two cars attached to ropes connected with a drum at the top of the rail, ran up and down the rail by counterbalanced weight. As one car went up, another came down the other track.  After the Devils Hole Massecre, the portage road was heavily fortified for it's entire length, and was the best guarded highway on the continent at that time.
  The incline in it's days was a marvelous engineering feat. From 1764 till the end of the "hold over period," about 1795, this incline was in constant use and many hundreds of thousands of tons in weight, boats, cannon, military stores, provisions and traders merchandise going West and boats and furs coming East, were  raise or lowered over it. Over it's narrow path passed the traffic of the Northwest, the vast trade of nearly half a continent. It was still in use when the Erie Canal made it obsolete in 1825.

Editors Note:  This railway was located near where Art Park is today.


Craig said...

Hi, I was wondering if any part of this survived or if it can be located on the escarpment. I was also wondering if any of the block houses were located?

Jerry M Malloy said...

From what I have read by the late 19th century no trace of the railway was evident. Maybe if modern day imaging techniques were applied, traces could be found. I'm no expert on that though. Not sure about the blockhouses. A check with the Historical Association of Lewiston and Museum (on Facebook) might give you some answers. Found some additional info on this story and will be adding to it when time allows.

cshunters32 said...

For that enclosed picture of the ship and "incline" I'd like to see the reference material that supports that picture.

Jerry M Malloy said...

The sketch you refer to accompanied the article above in an old newspaper. Other than that I don't know anything else about it.

cshunters32 said...

The sketch of the ship and incline - straight shot up may be been a post British idea as the original one via English Engineer Capt. John Montresor was in three distinct sections and drawn on maps of the time. This one is either a fabrication of bad memory or a later attempt.

The pic with the double incline would have been the 1st section from dock at the bottom of the ravine to the landing (flat plain). See Montresor's journals about it being built.

I believe some evidence may be around but where I believe it was located was just on the line of where the State and Robert Moses decimated the landscape and our history.