All of the dirt dug up at the Wells rail spur is being turned into art

One hundred years ago, a tiny Canadian community in upstate New York began a project that would take them more than a century to complete.

In 1874, a man named David Wells began work on a train station that would connect his tiny community to the rest of the world. Construction on the spur line that would power the station – and a warehouse for railcar imports – started in October 1875. From then until December 1877, 3,800 men labored at dawn and dusk to complete the route. By the time it was all said and done, Wells’s endeavor had become one of the largest and most complicated railroad undertakings in history.

Ninety-four years later, New York is digging up the dirt that it buried a century ago. For the first time since Mr. Wells’s was completed, engineers are using excavators to break up the ground in the quest to uncover the multimillion-dollar land-use project.

But before crews begin to dig up the tracks that carry Amtrak and freight trains to and from Buffalo, the land behind the station needs to be investigated. Over the next few months, engineers will dig tens of thousands of cubic yards of dirt to examine its condition.

If all goes well, the soil unearthed in the excavations will ultimately be carted to an upstate landfill.

The archival documentation of the Wells rail spur is a treasure trove for officials with New York and Canada’s Transportation Department, which is scheduled to announce in January 2019 the design for the approximately $1 billion to be spent on the project. The roughly 600-acre site is located near New York’s Thruway interchange in Rochester.

The station project is aimed at providing more direct service between Canada and Buffalo and enabling the growth of New York’s industrial and agricultural economy.

For Canada’s Transportation Department, a key part of the Wells rail spur is the investigation of a petroleum storage facility. Concerns have grown about climate change, air quality and security in the wake of catastrophic incidents at such facilities that have harmed the public and environment.

Meanwhile, for New York officials, the Wells station serves as a reminder of the regional, national and global implications of rail investments.

In its hopes to make the re-emerging facility operate without environmental issues, the New York State Department of Transportation must ensure that the site’s operational infrastructure is sound and meet a variety of standards — including geologically stable, land use regulations and strict emission controls.

The New York State Legislature created the state’s Rail Corridor Fund in 2014 to fund “mitigation” projects that support new passenger and freight rail lines in Western New York.

Because the Wells railway was not a major freight facility, the New York State Department of Transportation, through this fund, intends to have just one steel rail car undergo battery testing, as well as other environmental improvements.

Just a decade after Mr. Wells’s 95-mile railway was laid through the rugged territory of the Adirondacks, it transported 137,500 tons of grain. But as nearby rail lines to Albany and Cleveland were built, the Wells railway dropped off the regional map. The line was abandoned in 1942.

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