Not a single cannon was fired, nor a life lost in the conflict known as the Gauge War. It was a conflict of commercial advantage which involved the rights of local government and pitted the citizens of Erie County against Buffalo, Cleveland and New York during the era of railroad development and growth in Pennsylvania.
Earliest railroad activity along the Lake Erie shoreline began in the 1840s, with local investors forming the Erie & North East Railroad. Finished in 1852, this 19-mile section of 6 foot gauge track ran from the City of Erie near 14th Street east to the NY/PA border where it connected with the 90-mile 4’8.5” gauge track of the Buffalo & State Line (New York Central). To the west of the E&NE was the Franklin Canal Company Railroad. Owners of the Franklin Canal Company took several liberties with their contract with the state of Pennsylvania and built a 30-mile 4’10” gauge track connecting the E&NE with the Cleveland, Painesville and Ashtabula Railroad which began at the OH/PA line. Due to the difference in track gauge, passengers and freight traveling along Lake Erie were forced to change cars twice within the county, once at the NY/PA line and once in the City of Erie.
For the City of Erie, this disruption in rail travel was part of a plan. In an effort to spark industrial and economic growth at the point of the harbor, Erie planned to cut off Buffalo which connected to New York City via the Erie Canal, and connect the Erie harbor to the Atlantic seacoast through Philadelphia via the Sudbury & Erie Railroad. Key to the success of this plan was the incompatibility of the E&NE with the Ohio and New York rail systems which necessitated stoppage within the City of Erie.
By April 1853, railroad interests in Ohio and New York realized the value of uninterrupted rail travel along Lake Erie and felt pressure from stakeholders to improve efficiency of operations and dividends. They began to buy up stock in the E&NE with the intent to standardize the track gauge in Erie County and enable continuous travel from Buffalo to Cleveland. Coincidentally, at the same time the PA General Assembly repealed the 1850 Gauge Law which forbade use of the Ohio 4’10” gauge east of Erie. To the satisfaction of the Ohio and New York railroads, standardization of gauge along the lake shore was now possible.
Erie & North East stakeholders underestimated residents’ willingness to wage war against the railroad to protect their commercial interests and the rights of local government. The City of Erie passed an ordinance in July declaring the 4’10” gauge a public nuisance east of State Street, and the railroad’s request to allow gauge change was rejected in November. When the railroad began making necessary changes to the E&NE tracks December 7, 1853, the City of Erie and Harborcreek Township responded immediately. Erie Mayor Alfred King deputized 150 “special police” who quickly set to work removing the rails and bridges. In Harborcreek, the township commissioners used the change to justify destroying the railroad where it interfered with Buffalo Road, the primary public highway through northeast Erie County. In the three places where the rails crossed Buffalo Road and hindered wagon travel, Harborcreek Township commissioners ordered the rails removed and the railbed plowed under. Destruction to the rails in Erie and Harborcreek created a 7-mile break in travel and during the next two months passengers and freight were transferred between Harborcreek and Erie by stages, wagons and sleighs.
To Erie’s opponents, the City’s resistance was an act of foolishness which disrupted travel, commerce and mail. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune and onetime Erie resident, called for a boycott of all Erie hospitalities by travelers who were forced to cross the 7-mile “isthmus of Erie.” He and others argued that the city’s sole ambition was to protect its trade of peanuts, popcorn, candies and pies which were sold to travelers. (For this reason, the Gauge War was also referred to as the Peanut War.) Luckily for Erie, President Franklin Pierce resisted pressure from the New York and Ohio railroad interests to suppress Erie’s resistance with federal troops.
December 17th the E&NE procured an injunction from the federal district court in Pittsburgh, but the threat of imprisonment did not deter those committed to nuisance abatement and repeat removal of tracks and bridges continued with the support of local government as well as PA Governor William Bigler. In his annual message to the assembly in 1854, Governor Bigler explained,
It so happens that PA holds the key to this important link of connexion between the East and West, and I most unhesitatingly say, that where no principle of amity or commerce is to be violated, it is the right and the duty of the State to turn her natural advantages to the promotion of the views and welfare of her own people. (Pennsylvania Archives, Fourth Series, Papers of the Governors, Volume VII, 1845-1858, pg. 651.)
A confrontation between Harborcreek residents and railroad officials and laborers on December 27th stands out among the rest. While Harborcreek Township officials supervised the destruction of the E&NE tracks for the fifth time in three weeks, a train full of railroad officials, tracklayers and laborers arrived from Buffalo. During the confrontation that followed, Harborcreek farmer William Davison was felled with a pick, George Nelson received a gunshot wound to his head when one of the men from New York drew his pistol, and, if it weren’t for the misfiring of the pistol, William Cooper may have been the first casualty of the “war.” In retaliation, Harborcreek men stormed the train, and the Buffalo men fled the impending riot on the train with which they arrived.
After January 1854, a series of court decisions and legislative acts tipped the balance of power in the railroads’ favor, and by late 1856 a track of continuous gauge connected Cleveland to Buffalo; the passage of trains through the “isthmus of Erie” was uninterrupted.
The change in gauge did not stunt growth of the City of Erie as residents had feared; during the late 19th and 20th centuries, Erie became a commercial and industrial center on the Great Lakes, even though it would never reach the size of Buffalo or Cleveland. The Gauge War remained a topic of serious debate for many years after, and today is an oft-cited example of confrontation between the railroads and the local communities that they served.