Bascule Bridge at North Tonawanda

One of the most interesting and challenging structures that I will have to build for my layout depicting the town of North Tonawanda is the bascule bridge over the barge canal. The bridge was built as part of a track re-alignment project undertaken by NYC between 1917 and 1922. The bridge carried the NYC Niagara Branch, double-track at this point, which was NYC’s direct connection between Niagara Falls NY and Buffalo NY.

An interesting fact about the bridge is that it was only opened once. It seems that a government transportation authority insisted on provisions for the expansion of the barge canal to accommodate higher vessels. In response, NYC built a bascule bridge instead of a fixed structure. I’m told that on the day the bridge was put into service, there were some dignitaries present to witness the opening and closing of the bridge. It was never opened again.

The bridge is oriented north-south. To the south of the bridge, the Lehigh Valley gained access to the NYC Niagara Branch which LV used to access its own yard in Niagara Falls NY. The small NYC yard and connection to the paper plant at North Tonawanda are about a half-mile north of the bridge.

I photographed the bridge in 2013. After studying the bridge, I decided against building a model of it, on the grounds that it would be too difficult. Lately, I’ve been reconsidering my previous position because it is the single most identifiable landmark that establishes the setting of my layout. Without it, visitors might simply have to take it on faith that the layout represents North Tonawanda. With that in mind, I’m gearing up to have a go at it. Having never scratch-built a structure like this, I’m spending some time thinking about how to approach it. So far, my friend Chris Vanderheide is helping me plan the build. I can use all the help I can get.

Here are a few of my photos of the bridge. They provide a general overview of the structure’s layout.


Looking east along the Erie Canal.

In the first photo, above, I can see some basic sub-structures that might simplify construction. The concrete pier in the barge canal is the hinge point of the bridge. The truss on the right is the part that lifts, so it’s rigid. The apex of the triangle to the left of the hinge on the pier provides the fulcrum between the concrete counterweight and the rigid truss that draws upwards.

Taken from the north side of the canal, looking at the west side of the bridge, minus the counterweight.

Taken from the north side of the barge canal, looking at the west side of the bridge, minus the counterweight.

Taken from the north side of the canal, west side of the bridge, looking up at the concrete counterweight.

Taken from the north side of the canal, west side of the bridge, looking up at the concrete counterweight.

At north and south ends of the bridge, there are short deck girder bridges that carry the tracks over roads that parallel the barge canal on both sides. The tracks approach the bridge on large earth fills from the north and south. On the north side of the canal, the North Tonawanda side, the fill provides a convenient grade separation for a couple of residential streets, which I also plan to model.

I have plenty of photos of the general layout of the bridge, but these show the overall structure. I believe what stands ahead of me is an estimation of the overall dimensions of the structure so that I can decide whether to compress it or build it proportionally.

I recognize this as a long-shot, but if anyone has information pertaining to this bridge, I’d love to have access to it. Drawings would, of course, be ideal, but anything else would be helpful and greatly appreciated, including how NYC and Penn Central managed rail traffic in the area around the bridge. I’m also interested in advice on how plan for and undertake this project. I’m looking forward to hear what you have to say.

Layout Progress – Track Plan and Ties

I was able to start laying track for my industrial layout.  I’ve put down all of the ties on half of the layout, and most of the ties on the other half.   The track plan is the result of many hours examining topographic maps and aerial photos of the International Paper plant that once existed on Tonawanda Island NY.  A paper plant is a pretty difficult thing to try to squeeze onto a 12-foot long shelf, but I’ve moved ahead with my plan.  If it doesn’t work out, I’ll take a chainsaw to it and burn it on a camping trip.

In the photo below, you’ll see I’ve built an a siding for a building flat to represent the warehouse-end of the mill.  The lead will hold about 4 50′ boxcars, but I might designate two spots for loading and two for empty cars ready to be moved to the loading spots.

IMG_0217The track next to the shipping track will be a storage track, and it holds about 4 50′ boxcars as well.  I anticipate using that track to get cars out of the way for switching moves, and for short-term storage of empties ready to be spotted for loading.  Alternatively, I could run this area like a mini-freight shed, with loading going through the cars on the track nearest the building into the cars on the far side.   The aerial photos show that there might have been such an arrangement at the mill.

The next track out from the backdrop is the “main” into the plant.  The tail track from the runaround siding is in the foreground.  The runaround will easily hold five 50′ boxcars and a caboose.  Penn Central assigned a crew to switch the plant and some other industries in North Tonawanda, and they typically rated an Alco S2 and a caboose.

The track closest to the edge of the benchwork is for unloading coal destined for the power house. This track also runs off the edge of the layout, suggesting that it leads to the actual storage pile and unloading equipment.  The lead will be able to hold three 50′ cars, but will likely only see two hoppers spotted there at a time.  The plant consumed around 150 tons of coal per day, but they had a huge stockpile on the south side of the plant. I’ll model the edge of the pile next to this lead.

Off in the distance, at the far end of the layout, the leads for woodchips and tank car unloading will come off the runaround track on the left.  Those leads will disappear into staging in the midst of some buildings and the digester tanks.  Those will probably accomodate three tank cars and four or five woodchip cars. The “main” snakes its way around the white cardboard box, which is coincidentally positioned approximately where the paper machine building will be located.  That building will have spots for boxcars of inbound stuff.   And that’s everything I’m able to fit.