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.


  1. You can do it!

    The fact that the bridge was never opened again after its opening is a huge plus — you can model it as it looks without worrying about also making it operable!


  2. I expect you intend to make full use of Central Valley bridge components for this. You should check out their line, they have a lot of new girder parts of various weights and styles.

    The parts are designed with scratchbuilding in mind. The components that come with their truss bridge kits are all over-length and have to be cut appropriately; you are practically scratchbulding the bridge from plans as it is.



  3. I was going to mention Central Valley. Possibly also some Micro Engineering parts, in particular the approach bridge spans.

    I have built a couple of the Walthers single-track truss bridges. They’re not as nice, so if you’re going to go to all this trouble, use the better quality components from CVMW. Walthers also made/makes a bascule bridge but Google couldn’t find the instructions to it. These instructions could be worth studying if you can get hold of them.


  4. Hi Hunter,
    Wow! Cool project. The bridge looks similar to structures I passed under while in the Coast Guard, on the Illinois river. Some of them were bascule, some were vertical lift. Almost as fun as passing through the rivers lock and dams!!

    Best, Scott


    1. I have many more photos of this bridge, and I’m planning to take another field trip to take even more. I’ve estimated the part that lifts to be about 125 feet long. I think the overall length of the fixed and lifting parts, minus the deck girder sections on either end, to be about 200 feet. This is a manageable size without too much compression.


  5. I can say a few things about this bridge, but they probably won’t have any bearing on your model. I was born & raised in Town of Tonawanda, just about 3 miles from this bridge… I’ve had an interest in trains all my life, and i still love them at 54 YO… Me and several friends used to crawl around on this bridge every day, jumping from it into the canal, and swimming back to shore. The concrete “block” is actually hollowed out to the size of a small bedroom. The operator’s cabin has been trashed by vandals or scrappers. I’ve walked the top beams, and they are wider than city sidewalks. The best part, though, was sitting somewhere up above when a train went across. The whole bridge shook and trembled like an earthquake. It really was a cool place to hang out, climb around, swim, drink beer. Oh, and plenty of little nooks and crannies to hide from the cops, as we were obviously trespassing on railroad property. Good Times…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s