The Story of Ashford Junction

Just a few miles east of the village of Ellicottville on Route 242, an old railroad switching tower is almost all that remains of Ashford Junction, one of the busiest railroad towns in Cattaraugus County. The tower still overlooks the intersecting railroad tracks of the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh Railroad (now just the Buffalo Pittsburgh Railroad), and was once key to making sure trains could smoothly make the transition east to Rochester, north to Buffalo, or south to Pittsburgh. Now, the B&P’s trains still travel through Ashford twice a day, although they carry freight instead of passenger cars full of travelers stopping in Ashford to stay the night and prepare for the journey ahead.

According to the Town of Ashford Historical Society, Henry Frank, a Revolutionary War veteran, was the first settler in the area, which became known as the Town of Ashford in 1824. The township’s first sawmill opened in Ashford Hollow in 1826, and was followed by the first grist mill in 1833. It wasn’t long before the area drew more settlers; dry goods stores, schools, churches, and post offices became the mainstays of hamlets such as Ashford Hollow, East Ashford, and West Valley.

Although the town of Ashford was starting to grow in earnest by the mid-19th century, it was still quite removed from any major city - the closest being Buffalo, some 45 miles away. Residents connected to the outside world through the mail and the stagecoach, which was driven from Buffalo to Ellicottville until the BR&P railroad line was built. Western New York saw a boom in the coal industry throughout the 1850s, and demand continued to rise into the 1870s, when it was determined by business and civic leaders in Buffalo and Rochester that a direct route to Pennsylvania would be the most efficient way to access the region’s abundant coal resources. In the 1870s, the railway between Rochester and Pittsburgh was constructed, and at Ashford Junction, railway construction began north toward Buffalo.

On November 19, 1883, passenger service began in the Buffalo Division of the railroad, and area residents everywhere looked forward to seeing the first passenger trains stopping in their town. The BR&P built passenger stations throughout Cattaraugus and McKean Counties, and even named some of their locomotives after these towns, including Ashford, Bradford, PA, Ellicottville, Glenwood, Orchard Park, Salamanca, Springville, and West Valley.

The BR&P built five interlocking towers, including the AD Tower at Ashford Junction, which was placed in service on January 2, 1914. The passenger depot was located just a short distance from the tower, and it welcomed many passengers who were making the journey to Buffalo, Rochester, or Pittsburgh.

Of course, today’s travelers no longer need to rely on trains to travel to major cities, as cars, buses, and airplanes have turned a two-day journey by train into just a few hours. But not unlike cities with major airports, railroad junctions were busy towns that usually had several hotels, restaurants, and stores to accommodate travelers. What could passengers expect upon arriving at Ashford Station in the early 1900s? Just like today, weary travelers would be relieved to stay in a comfortable room in the three-story hotel, the Western House, which was across the street from the depot, and next door to what is now Ellicottville Country Store and Antiques.

According to Laura McLeod, owner of Ellicottville Country Store and Antiques, Ashford Junction was a bustling community in the 20th century. Along with many houses, there was a church (which is no longer standing) and a school that remains today as a private residence. Not far from the AD Tower, the conductor’s house still stands today. McLeod’s store, which was built in 1870 by E.M. Lawler, was one of three stores built right across from the railroad depot, although McLeod’s is the only store that remains today. Interestingly, McLeod’s store has always been owned and operated as such, even though it has changed ownership several times.

The original owner, Lawler, built the store and carried a variety of dry goods, including shirts, collars, suspenders, and hats, which can all be seen in one of the many photographs of the junction that McLeod has displayed throughout the store. In more than one photograph, Lawler’s automobile is proudly parked in front of his store - his was most likely the only automobile in town, as nearly everyone in Ashford still relied on horse-drawn transportation in 1914.

Lawler’s store also housed the Post Office, which visitors to the store can still see today. Harold Clark, who assumed ownership of the store in the early 20th century, served as the postmaster until 1935, when the Post Office was discontinued and absorbed by the Ellicottville Post Office. By this time, the Western House had burned down and Ashford Station saw less and less railroad traffic.

Clark owned the shop for many more years, and eventually added a gas pump and built a Harley Davidson shop on to the existing store. For years, the Harley Davidson shop drew many visitors, and in recent years was one of the oldest Harley shops in the country. Clark was also known for delighting tourists with his collection of raccoons (live and stuffed!), and McLeod still has visitors who remember the store when he owned it.

When the store was owned by the Daytons, they turned the Harley Davidson shop into a diner, which is still serving customers today under the ownership of the McLeods, who have owned the store since 2012. Although their store is all that remains of the junction’s original mercantiles, it is a great reminder of what passengers would have seen many years ago. The store has been beautifully maintained, and visitors can still enjoy the open, gallery-style second floor that is visible in one of the original photographs from the late 1800s.

Today, visitors can easily see the AD Tower from the front door of the store, although the tower may not inspire the same kind of awe that it once did. At the time, interlocking towers were the height of railroad technology, as they provided a safe way to control the movement of trains and prevent accidents. The term “interlocking” actually describes the machine inside the tower, not the tower itself; this machine was controlled by an operator or leverman. From the second floor of the tower, the operator could pull different levers, which would manipulate switches and signals through trackside pipes that could be up to a mile in length!

Each interlocking machine, and therefore each switching tower, is unique because it was custom designed for the specific section of track that it was built to control. First, the interlocking machine was built at the site, and then the tower’s frame was constructed around the machine. The AD Tower, and all interlocking towers, are two-story buildings, but not simply to provide the operator with a good view of the track. Rather, the two-story structure accommodates the sheer size of the machinery it houses. The interlocking machines were so large and complex that the inner-workings had to be on the first floor while the levers (and the operator) occupied the second floor.

Eventually, mechanical interlocking towers, such as the AD Tower, were replaced by electrical or electro-pneumatic technology, and by the 1930s, railroads began closing these towers in favor of centralized traffic control to manage train movements. Now, few interlocking towers remain in the United States, as most were torn down and replaced by remote dispatching centers that rely on computers to move trains.

There are only three towers like the AD Tower remaining in the country, and many train set towers are modeled after the one that still stands in Ashford. Today, the AD Tower is under lease to a private party and closed to the public. However, visitors today can still appreciate the tower’s distinct architecture, including the attractive Spanish Mission style tile roof, as the BR&P’s passengers once did over 100 years ago. 

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