New book chronicles history of trolley service in region

Olean, Rock City & Bradford Railroad Company car 28 is pictured in front of the company’s office in Bradford, at Main and Mechanic streets at the turn of the century.

For the many rail history buffs in the Bradford area — and beyond — there is a new book out that you are going to want to get your hands on.

“Trolleys of the Oil Rich Enchanted Mountains” is the story of the Western New York & Pennsylvania Traction Company, its predecessors and successor, which represents the life’s work of author John Dean Wilkins, a native of this region who now lives in Gillette, N.J.

In an impressively produced self-published work, Wilkins lays out the early origins of horse-drawn trolley service in Bradford and the surrounding area, the electrification of lines and the eventual consolidation of trolley services by Wilson R. Page into what would be the Western New York & Pennsylvania Traction Company.

The hardcover book is more than 200 pages filled with more than 200 period photos from the later 1800s to the early 1900s, showing trolley cars and employees, lines and depot and maintenance buildings, from Bradford, to places like Allegany, Seneca Junction, Salamanca,  Bolivar in New York and Ceres and Shingle House (yes, the Potter County town was known as “Shingle House” at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries).

Impressive foldout maps showing the different trolley service areas throughout the region are also included.

Wilkins, who was born in Hornell, N.Y., moved at an early age to Wellsville, N.Y., “in the midst of the Enchanted Mountains.” His late wife, Margaret Sawyer Wilkins, grew up in Bolivar, a village that played an important role in the development of the railway system. Their parents were professionally involved in the oil and gas industry that fueled the need for a turn-of-the-century, efficient trolley and interurban rail system.

The book covers the beginnings of the narrow gauge network that sprang up in Bradford when the oil boom hit, and fanned out to connect Bradford to Eldred, Olean and Mount Jewett. From there, streetcars followed.

“Revenue service commenced on Monday, September 15, 1879,” Wilkins wrote of a line that transported passengers a mile-and-a-half from Main Street to the Borough of Kendall. By 1893, meetings were underway to electrify the service, rather than rely on horses.

The books tells of the saga of competition to be the first to bring electric railways to Bradford. It was July 29, 1896, when the first electric trolley service operated between the St. James Hotel and the American House Hotel in East Bradford.

The last horse car service operating in Bradford was likely on July 28, 1896, Wilkins noted.

The Olean, Rock City & Bradford Railroad is featured, along with reports of its continuing accidents. “Some of the more notable ones included April 9, 1900 — Car derails near State Line due to bad track about two weeks after the major accident. The conductor and two passengers walked into Bradford. August 12, 1901 — Car derailed at Derrick City after hitting a cow. The car went down a 20 foot embankment but no one was injured. The cow was killed.”

More features of the book include the Western New York & Pennsylvania Traction Co., and the Olean, Bradford & Salamanca Railway, as well as chapters on freight service, the roster and operating statistics.

Throughout the 224-page book are photos from the period, including of streetcars on Main Street in Bradford, passengers riding the “loop” along the Lewis Run line in the vicinity of Custer City.

The book also delves into the development of power plants to generate the needed electricity for the lines, bus services that developed in the area after the trolley lines ceased and rail freight services in the region.

“Trolleys of the Oil Rich Enchanted Mountains” can be ordered from 4th Lake Publishing, 245 Deer Path, Gillette, N.J., 07933. The hardcover book is $54.95 plus shipping of $8.

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