Providing a Century of Economic Support to the Community
The Sodus Point Coal Trestle
As early as the 1850s, local Sodus Point businessmen realizing the advantage of Sodus Bay as a commercial port, proposed construction of a dock for exporting and importing goods. In 1852, recognizing the increased demand for coal, the Sodus Point and Southern Railroad Company was organized and construction was begun on a railroad line that would connect the coal fields of central Pennsylvania with Sodus Point by way of a section of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It was not until 1873, however, that the Sodus Point and Southern Railroad line was completed with its terminus at the west end of Sodus Bay. Here , a small, heavily constructed dock was built that was 400 feet long and stood 40 feet above the water. It had two sets of rails on top that ran to its outer end with two coal pockets under each set of rails. Coal pockets were structures into which the coal was dumped from the cars. Manually operated coal chutes would carry the falling coal to the boats hold. When a boat arrived, a coal car was placed over the top of a pocket and the doors at the bottom of the car were opened to permit the coal to drop into the pocket and run down the chute into the boat’s cargo space.
In 1884, the Pennsylvania Railroad acquired the Sodus Point and Soutern Railroad Company, which was experiencing financial difficulties.
When the dock first started operations coal was shipped only to Canadian ports. By the turn of the century, coal was being shipped to American ports as well. Between 1892 and 1927, well over three million tons of coal were loaded.
Original Coal Trestle. Photo courtesy of Richard Palmer
In 1927, because of an ever increasing demand for coal, the dock was completely rebuilt with heavy yellow pine timbers and was extended to 800 feet in length and 60 feet in height, with eight pockets and chutes. In addition to the work on the new trestle, the company added a storage yard for up to 12,000 cars. Because the size and capacity of coal boats jumpted from 2,500 tons in the 1870s to 13,000 tons in the 1960s, it was necessary to maintain a dredged channel 21 feet deep and 150 feet wide from the present day pier to the trestle, as well as a 700 foot turning basin at the loading area.
In the early 1950s 6 “shakers” were added to the trestle. Those fitted over the tops of the cars and shook them until all the coal dropped into the pockets. Prior to that, men had to climb into the cars with shovels and loosen the coal by hand.
Photo by Henry Zerbe showing the six shakers on our coal trestles in the 1950s
Also build solely for use by boats travelling to the trestle was a channel leading from the harbor entrance to the trestle. It was 21 feet deep, 150 feet wide, and one half mile long. This channel terminated in a 700 feet turning basin which had been dredged to a depth of 21 feet. Imagine boats so huge that a channel of that size had to be built in order to accommodate their entrance into the bay.
Yearly tonnage shipments increased from 32,174 in 1872 to 2,401,676 tons in 1956. However, in the mid 1960s when boats were being built that could carry 25,000 to 28,000 tons of coal, the Sodus Point coal trestle, with its antiquated coal dumping operation and small coal storage area, found it could not compete with other more modern facilities and the operation closed in 1967.
After the trestle had lain dormant for nearly three years, a businessman purchased the property with the idea of dismantling the trestle and using the lower section as a marina with 125 slips for pleasure boats.
The dismantling project progressed well for over three weeks. Then, on a windy day in November 1971, while men were working with an acetylene torch near the outer end of the trestle, a bolt that had become red hot dropped onto a dust covered timber below. The result was a fire that virtually destroyed the trestle. Demolition work continued, however, and today the site is the location of a large and modern marina.
Beginning as a small coal dock, expanding to a large coal trestle and finally a marina, the Sodus Point coal trestle property continues to aid the economy of Sodus Point. The spirit and technology of the people who envisioned the bay as an active commercial port have been preserved.
This information is courtesy of the Sodus Bay Historical Society
Wonder what a coal shaker sounds like? Click the link below….
Additional Information about the Coal Trestle
From the 1972 Hoffman Paper ”A History of the Coal Trestle at Sodus Point” by Susan Yancey VanAcker
“Imagine yourself on a hot, sticky day in summer about 60 years ago in the small village of Sodus Point, New York. A loud rattling noise can be heard, a noise so intense that it sometimes shakes the windows in your house. When the wind is exactly right, it is possible that amounts of tiny grains of coal dust may be blown into your backyard and land on the hamburgers which you are sizzling for a summer supper. You may be disgusted with the coal dust, but you realize that it is coming from what is probably the greatest economic asset of Sodus Point — THE COAL TRESTLE.”
People in Sodus Point either loved or hated the coal trestle and there were few people in the middle.
“The cottagers never really liked the coal trestle. To them it was always a nuisance because of its dirtiness and because of the everlasting clangor of the shakers. Many of the people complained about the shakers because they were so loud. As a matter of fact the noise was so loud it could be heard for distances of five miles or more when the wind was right. The noise sometimes made it difficult to sleep if they were operating at night. (Editor’s note: I have also talked to people that had difficulty sleeping after the Coal Trestle burned down because the shakers lulled some people to sleep). The Railroad received numerous complaints from local people, cottagers and year rounders both. They were anxious that something be done about the noise. The railroad did nothing. Finally the people became so upset that they drew up a petition asking that the noise be stopped or at least controlled. After receiving the petition, the railroad installed walls made of chicken wire and covered with insulation along the sides of the trestle to deaden the sound of the shakers.
Mr. Stuart Sill, a former local marina owner, said that some of the businesses which were not as messy as the coal shipping business felt that the coal trestle was bad for their enterprises. It scared the people away from this area because the breeze sifted the coal dust over everything when the trestle was in operation. However, Mr. Sill mentioned one thing which the people in the area liked about the trestle business; the railroad paid a large amount of taxes over the years. When those taxes stopped being paid by the railroad the burden was placed on the townspeople”
It should also be noted that hundreds of local people owed their livelihood to the trestle. These folks and their families were the most ardent supporters of the trestle. When the coal shipping business stopped, it caused real economic hardships locally.
“The coal dock was used solely for the purpose of shipping coal. No other commodities were shipped from the trestle. Two types of coal were shipped from the dock: bituminous or soft coal as the trestlemen called it, and anthracite, called hard coal by the men working on the dock. The bituminous coal was used for such activities as making asphalt and tar, burning in large factories, and for manufacturing chemicals. Anthracite coal was used for burning in equipment such as household furnaces for heat. Much more bituminous coal was transported from this dock than was anthracite coal. The cars carrying anthracite coal handled only 25 to 75 tons.
Coal shipped from this dock all came from the mines in the Clearfield coal district of central Pennsylvania. The coal trestle at Sodus Point was the northern terminus of a branch of the Penn Central Railroad which originates at Williamsport, Pennsylvania, 165 miles to the south. Via this railroad, connections are made with other branches reaching the Clearfield coal district. Boats loaded at this dock would take their cargo to ports such as Toronto and Hamilton in Canada, or sail down the St. Lawrence to Prescott, Canada and other ports on the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario between Montreal and the Welland Canal. When the dock first started operations, coal was shipped only to Canadian ports. By 1941, coal loaded at the Sodus Point trestle was being sent also to the American ports of Ogdensburg and Oswego, where it was used at the Niagara Mohawk Power Plant.
“In its heyday, the trestle usually functioned for about eight months of the year. The navigation season at Sodus Bays averages 247 days in length, with the earliest seasonal opening date of record being March 25th and the latest closing date of record being December 19th.” Many people in the area recall that the first day of the season was quite a festive one. To celebrate it, the captain of the first boat on the harbor received a new hat from the railroad and had his picture taken with the station agent. The moment that boat was secured at the dock, the men on the gangs started the task of loading it with coal.
It is difficult to describe an average work day at the trestle, because these men worked when the boats arrived to be loaded, not an eight to five schedule which most of us are accustomed to thinking of as an average working day.
Because the men were never precisely sure when the boats were going to come in, they had to be on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week during the shipping season. It was not an unusual occurrence for a ship to arrive at four o’clock in the morning. It happened all the time, and trestlemen and their families were used to it. The foreman on duty would be notified by telegram of the exact time a vessel was due about one and a half hours before its arrival. He would then telephone one man from the gang on call for that particular period of time, the callman. The callman would in turn telephone the other men on the gang and inform them of the time the boat was due to arrive and that they were to report for work at that time.
It took one gang of men an average of fourteen hours to fill one boat with coal, ranging from the shortest time of just two hours to the longest time of twenty-six hours. The loading was executed by two gangs, one gang for each boat. Each gang consisted of thirteen men. There were thirteen men on the gangs before and the same number after the shake out systems were added to the dock. Even though the trestle employed three gangs during its years of prosperity, there was only enough room on the trestle for two gangs to work at once.
Each gang was composed of the following: three chute operators and ten dockmen, that included two car haul men, four men on the catwalks who handled the braking of the coal cars and walked above the cars to see that they were secured in their proper positions over the pockets, and four other men who managed the dumping of the coal cars and made sure the coal was descending the chute properly. The coal was loaded into the ships from the coal cars, which may also be called gondolas or hoppers. These gondolas were pushed up from the storage yard tracks on shore, up to to the dock by steam and diesel railroad engines. The cars were brought up six at a time, three were loaded while the other three waited to be loaded.
It was this leg of the operation that the car haul men did their jobs. After the first three cars were loaded, the car haul men pushed them back down the tracks of the trestle to the tracks below in the storage yard and then pulled the next three full cars into their place over the pockets. Next they were loaded into the mamm0th ship which lay below. When the hoppers were placed over the pockets which lie along the trestle’s sides, their bottom doors were then opened and the coal was allowed to fall freely from the pockets onto the chutes and then into the hatches of the ships, by the force of gravity. Each chute had a telescoping end, thus it was able to evenly distribute the coal throughout the hatch. Prior to the time around 1955, when the shake out system was added to the coal trestle, when the doors of the cars were opened, all the coal didn’t always escape from the car and fall into the pockets. In this case, men crawled down into the gondolas with shovels and helped the coal into the pockets.
Circa 1955 the shakers were added. These shakers fit over the tops of the coal cars and shook them until all of the coal fell into the pockets. After the ships had been completely loaded and their hatches were full, they were closed over with hatch covers made of metal or wood. The hatch covers were then covered over with canvas to prevent any water from getting inside the hatches during the ship’s journey. If an excess of water did collect in the hatches, it usually would have meant trouble for the ship. Many of the ships loaded at the Sodus Point dock became very sluggish with a large load and it was difficult for them to turn themselves around. In cases such as that, the tug-boat of Sill’s Marina would turn the giant boat around. As soon as it was headed in the right direction the boat would head out to the lake on its journey to ports where the coal was to be unloaded.
According to Mr. Buzzell, about one hundred persons all told were involved in the functioning of the coal trestle. This included not only the people working on the top of the trestle, but also the men on the railroad crew, the shipmen and the office personnel.
The trestle had one head foreman (Mr. Buzzell) and three assistant foremen. These men, unlike the men on the gangs, worked eight hour shifts — 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. , 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. , and 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. They served in supervisory capacities and also as more or less watchmen to take care of the place and make sure everything was running smoothly. In the fifties when the shakers were added, four shaker operators for each added, four shaker operators for each side of the dock were also added. These men, like the foremen, worked on three shifts a day so they had the opportunity to work with all of the thirty-nine gangmen at one time or another as did the foremen.
The men who worked on the railroad which was connected to the trestle were usually men from Pennsylvania who were up here just for a day or so until all the cars were empty and ready for the trip back to Pennsylvania. If they did stay the night, they slept in the bunkhouse adjacent to the tracks. The former bunkhouse was later the offices for Trestle Marine. It had fourteen bedrooms, known as bunkrooms.
The sailors who came in on the coal ships were usually French Canadians. They played no real part in helping to load the boats. So many of them would leave the boats to pursue various activities: some went shopping, some played golf, some patronized the local bars. According to many people in the area, the Franklin House, a bar which is very near the trestle, was among the most popular with the sailors. Most of the men who worked on the trestle considered the sailors very congenial fellows and would invite them to their homes for meals.
The men who worked on the gangs were probably among the most dedicated members of the trestle staff. It is a rare person who will be on call seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day if he doesn’t truly like his job. Being a member of a gang was not an easy task. After many long hours spent on top of the trestle, the men would come down dripping with perspiration and covered from head to toe with black coal dust. It has been said that some days these men would have healthy competition between the gangs. If two gangs happened to be loading boats at the same time, one gang would try to finish ahead of the other. The gang who finished first would be on call for the next arrival and thus might be able to become a day’s pay ahead of the slow gang. Most of the gangmen lived in this area all of their lives; only a few came from Pennsylvania. These gangmen were individuals who were truly involved with their work and probably would not prefer to live their lives again in a different way.
The ships loaded on the Sodus Point coal trestle came in all sizes and shapes. The first one being a three hundred ton steamer and the last one being a thirteen thousand ton steamer. The ships started out rather small; they usually carried about one or two thousand tons. A boat called the Pat Doris was one which held one thousand tons. Mr. Buzzell even recalls that some small sailing vessels were loaded at this dock. The boats had many interesting names. An example is The Valley Camp which came from the Valley Camp Coal Company located in Prescott, Canada. Other names of Canadian boats are: Coal haven, Bay George, Ropetman, Bay Quinte, Red River, Blue River, Stadacona, and The Bay Anna. The Bay Anna, later sank in the Bay of Quinte in Canada while in transit, loaded with coal from the Sodus Point trestle. Fontana, Rand, and Scobell are names of some of the American coal boats. All of the ships loaded at Sodus Point’s trestle were lake going vessels. None of them ever ventured overseas. Mr. Perce recalls that the largest ship loaded on the Sodus Point trestle was one that held thirteen to fourteen thousand tons of coal. The employees of the coal companies in charge of shipping would liked to have seen ships larger than that size entering the Sodus Bay harbor, but the entrance to the trestle was just not large enough to handle these “big ships”. The Lake Ontario ports were considered the “small ship” ports and not able to handle the big boats which Lake Erie could.
From the time it was built through the 1960′s, the Sodus Point coal trestle enjoyed increasing prosperity each year. Tonnage increased from 32,714 in 1872 to 2,401,676 in 1956. This amount of tonnage was never reached again before the closing of the trestle. If one were to sight years of boom, undoubtedly the forties, fifties, and early sixties were the most prosperous for the trestle. During those years, three gangs of men were employed and the trestle employed many other persons who earned none less than substantial living for themselves. Mr. Arthur Reed (former owner of the trestle who built the marina) said “I can remember some summers when there were anywhere from three to six boats waiting in the bay to be loaded”. It is true that the trestle, like all businesses, suffered from the hardships of the Great Depression, but none of its employees were laid off. Each man merely worked shorter hours. Times after the depression, however, were not so slow for the workers. Mr. Buzzell remembers a time when the men worked for eighty-six hours loading the boats, with very few breaks or chances to get any rest. When they did break, it was only for a meal and a few hours sleep. With the 1960′s came the demand for larger boats and more coal. Since the Sodus Point trestle wasn’t able to handle boats over thirteen to fourteen thousand tons, less coal was exported from the dock and thus fewer personnel were needed. Around the time of 1964 0r 1965 one gang was eliminated. the trestle functioned from then until its closing with only two gangs.
It is a known fact that for all the years they were in in existence the present coal trestle and its forerunner played a great part in the concerns and discussions of many people in Sodus Point and the surrounding area. The Sodus newspaper, The Record, has many old articles which discuss the trestle, the people who worked on it, and its weekly functioning whether they were good or bad. It seems that in those days, people were just as curious about the weird looking structure as are the people of today.