[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Road of the Century

Alvin F. Harlow

Creative Age Press, Inc.,
New York, 1947

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p66  Chapter IV
The Birth of the New York Central

From the very beginning of the history of the twelve little railroads, there were instances of collaboration, of teamwork, signs that the companies increasingly thought of themselves as parts of a whole, fractions of a unit. Those instances were of all sorts, and the efforts did not always produce results, as we have seen. There was the time in the summer of 1843, for example, when the roads east of Rochester tried to formulate an agreement to own their passenger equipment in common, but it did not work out. Later in the same year the Utica & Schenectady and the Tonawanda wanted the other roads to discontinue Sunday operation, but could not get full agreement.

In advertising, the chain was from a very early date commonly spoken of, even given a name, as a unit. A poster time-card of 1843, issued in Buffalo, is headed, "Buffalo & Albany Rail Road. Three daily lines (trains), Through to Albany in 25 Hours." The thru fare was then $11.50. A poster of 1846 issued by the Attica & Buffalo Railroad is headed, "Eastern Rail Road," and announces three trains a day from the lake port, at 5.30 and 9.30 A.M. and 5.30 P.M., respectively, with the running time cut to twenty-four hours.

The companies gradually succeeded in harmonizing their relations among themselves, with the exception of the Schenectady & Troy, whose squabbles with its two immediate neighbors were notorious. Finally, in 1847, commissioners were appointed to arbitrate the chronic quarrel. They ruled that whenever the Utica & Schenectady and the Albany & Schenectady owned cars jointly, they should permit the Schenectady & Troy to acquire an interest in them, too. The U. & S. and the A. & S. must give the S. & T. a track connection at Schenectady, equal terms of  p67 accommodation to passengers and equitable freight rates. The U. & S. was to permit no one in its employ or along its line to solicit business to go via either Albany or Troy. (This was a shot at the S. & T., which had been particularly pernicious in that respect, provoking counter-measures by its neighbors.) Advertising, ruled the commission, must show no bias. But the U. & S. would not be required to hold a regular train at Schenectady more than fifteen minutes, waiting for a connection from either Albany or Troy.

But the S. & T. was not popular and in February following this commission award, all the companies between Albany and Buffalo entered into an agreement, by the terms of which the Albany & Schenectady bought all the baggage, mail and emigrant cars of the other roads, and agreed with all the others to supply them with such cars for five years for a compensation of twelve mills per mile. As for the Utica road, it sold not only its baggage, rail and emigrant cars but also its passenger cars to the A. & S., which in turn agreed to supply it with all such cars, including passenger cars, for five years. This took the Utica road out of the terms of the commission award as to the ownership of passenger cars, though leaving the other clauses still in force. It was a slick countercheck to the Troy road, devised by an Albany lawyer who was also a director of the Utica & Schenectady. Much of the animus here of course lay in the commercial rivalry between the cities of Albany and Troy rather than in enmity between the railroads.

Naturally, some one of the little roads was under attack now and then from another part of the line as not being up to par. The Buffalo Express, early in 1847, charged that the Auburn & Rochester was the worst-managed road in the chain, and that mail failures to arrive on time were chiefly attributable to it. Rochester papers and the Canandaigua Republican sprang to its defense, claiming that the trouble was east of Auburn. In the past nine days, said the Republican, the train had been able to leave Auburn only once on schedule, and then it reached Rochester on time. Twice it left Auburn fifteen minutes late and made up the time. In all other cases, it had to wait from one to four hours for the eastern connection; train service across the state still left much to be desired. Said the editor:

The average running time from Auburn to Rochester is five hours, thirty-one minutes, notwithstanding it has been obliged  p68 to lose time at meeting places, being in consequence of the delay, an irregular train. The trains from Rochester to this place run with such precision that some of our citizens set their clocks by it, and so far from being a badly managed road, we doubt if there is a better one in the country. The agents and engineers are not only men of experience and understand their business perfectly, but are also gentlemanly and accomodating to a degree that excites general attention.

The varying privileges accorded to the railroads in the matter of carrying freight illustrate the interesting vagaries of lawmakers. Of the eight earlier railroads, the Utica & Schenectady until 1844 could carry passengers only, no freight whatsoever; after '44 it might carry freight only when Erie Canal navigation was suspended, paying tolls to the state, the same as on the canal. Another company, the Auburn & Rochester, might haul both freight — without paying tolls — and passengers, but might not carry freight "in such a manner as to lessen the income on the Erie canal" when it was navigable; which must have posed quite a nice problem in accounting. The Syracuse & Utica and the Auburn & Syracuse might transport freight the year around, but during the months of canal navigation, the former must pay tolls to the state, while the latter paid tolls throughout the year. Then there were four roads, the Mohawk & Hudson (Albany & Syracuse), the Tonawanda, Attica & Buffalo and Schenectady & Troy, that were permitted to carry freight at all times and paid no tolls. This was the case until an act of July 10, 1851, relieved all the companies from the payment of the onerous tolls.

As to passenger fares, the Mohawk & Hudson was unrestricted, the Schenectady & Troy was allowed six cents a mile, the roads from Schenectady to Auburn, as well as the Lockport & Niagara Falls and the Tonawanda (unrestricted until 1844) were allowed four cents, the Auburn & Rochester began at three cents but was soon raised to four. But a legislative survey in November, 1847, showed that they were all charging a little less than their ceiling rates; in fact, the Schenectady & Troy was collecting less than two and a half cents per mile.

Legislative moves to reduce fares were begun in 1843 and 1845, each time bringing remonstrances from the railroad companies which were effective in checking the legislation. The remonstrance of 1845 is a long and interesting document signed by all the companies but the Attica & Buffalo and presents a fine picture of railroad limitations of the period. Among other things,  p69 it points out the advantages of having many companies instead of one, because the directors, mostly men of the country along the line, all had at heart the good of their local communities, which were thus better served than if one board in a remote city governed the whole. It reminds the lawmakers that for lack of funds to do better, all the roads but the Schenectady & Troy are still using strap rails and a flimsy structure generally. It goes deeply into the matter of operation:

Many have the mistaken idea that an engine might be started at Buffalo and run through to this city (Albany) continuously, and that from this arrangement great benefits would follow. . . . Experiment has shown that about 100 miles daily service is a fair use of an engine and of men; and such use is more discreetly and properly derived if it is not continuous. Both the engine and the men can more profitably perform the service if there can be a rest at the end of 50 or 80 miles to examine the engine, to allow it to cool for such purpose, and thus have the requisite time to repair and to guard against accident.

It might be added that the hundred-mile limit for an engine's run continued on most roads until well into the twentieth century. Present-day locomotives would of course scorn such weakness. The document admitted that the line as it then stood, with its strap rails, was flimsy, "unfinished and not equal to the public exigency," and should be replaced as soon as possible. Another complaint was then taken up:

It has been objected that we stop over night in winter, that we thus delay passengers and the mails. This again, we feel assured, is matter with which the petitioners are not fully acquainted. . . . We have considered this to be in all respects the most proper course; and we submit that the manner in which the line is operated in winter . . . has been such as to entitle it to commendation rather than opprobrium. The travel is very limited in winter. . . . The route is so long that it cannot be run through continuously in the day time. In the night the engineer can not detect any failure in his machine as in the day time. Generally in winter it requires two or more engines to overcome the snow. These can not be worked so well in unison in the night as in the day time. In winter by reason of the cold, the liability of the engine, of the axles and wheels to break, is much greater than in the summer. All these considerations make it very certain, we believe, that our course in not running in the night in the winter best consults the safety and comfort of passengers. . . .

 p70  Many of the officials very early began looking far beyond their own territory. In 1830 it was being predicted by some that Cincinnati would eventually become the chief city of America. St. Louis had its partisans, too, but few saw much promise in the swampy village of Chicago, then little more than a frontier trading post. But a few years sufficed to alter the view of far-seeing men. When Illinois launched its internal improvement program, in the middle 1830's, Chicago figured largely in the scheme. With a canal connecting Lake Michigan at that point with the Illinois River, the whole Mississippi Valley down to New Orleans was seen as tributary to the dream, sending its products east over the safe inland route via Chicago and the Great Lakes — with the great West and Northwest beyond Chicago adding their quota to the cargo. But eastern railroad builders had a better idea still; connect Chicago with the East by rails, and give the lakes the go‑by! On January 28, 1845, the Utica & Schenectady directors, palpably reaching out into the little-known, passed a resolution delightful in its vagueness:

The Superintendent was authorized to contribute Fifty Dollars (provided the entire line to Buffalo will contribute in the same proportion) to be paid to ––––– Miller towards improving the road between Chicago and Peoria in view of the benefit to be derived from the southern travel to New York by the interior route.

But the executives of those small railroads were shrewd men who thoroughly appreciated the vast importance of their western connections, whether by rail or water, at Buffalo and thereabouts. When the law freeing them of the necessity of paying canal tolls was passed in 1851, they hastened the replacement of light rail with heavy iron, and some of them began buying shares in new railroad corporations to westward, with the idea of extending their territory. The Syracuse & Utica invested $63,200, the Rochester & Syracuse, $105,500 and the Buffalo & Rochester, $94,500 in stock of the new Buffalo & State Line Railroad, which was creeping from Buffalo along the lake shore towards Erie and Cleveland, and was destined to become just another section of the New York Central. And from the Michigan Central Railroad, then building under the skilful hands of a group of down-east Yankees, came a delegation to meet the New York executives at Niagara Falls in May, 1851, in behalf of the Great Western Railway of Canada. John M. Forbes and John W. Brooks of the  p71 Michigan Central were there, also Zachariah Chandler, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Henry Ledyard and other citizens of Detroit; whilst among the New York delegates were Presidents Gibson of the Rochester & Syracuse, Wilkinson of the Syracuse & Utica, Corning of the Utica & Schenectady and John T. Norton of the Albany & Schenectady.

The Great Western was planned to run through Canada north of Lake Erie from the suspension bridge which Roebling was then building across the Niagara just below the Falls, to Detroit. Canada, it appeared, simply could not produce the $5,000,000 estimated as necessary to build the road, which was frankly admitted by the New York companies to be of prime importance to their prosperity — a near-air‑line from Boston to Chicago. "No line of roads," they said, "can be built from New York or New England to the valley of the Mississippi which will be so short or straight, with such easy grades,"

That the Great Western was a foreign project, its track entirely on foreign soil, made no difference. The international boundary was as faint and shadowy a line then as now. The result of the negotiations was that five of the Albany-Buffalo chain subscribed for $500,000 worth of G. W, stock, the Utica & Schenectady topping them all with $200,000. Many other shares were sold in the United States. As a part of the arrangement, Nathaniel S. Benton of Little Falls, N. Y., a director of the Utica & Schenectady, was appointed auditor of the Great Western, to supervise its financial affairs. The road was built and later became a part of the Grand Trunk system.

That year, 1851, was a milestone in the history of the Twelve Railroads. In May, after fifteen years of struggle, the New York & Erie completed its line to Dunkirk, on the lake just below Buffalo, and became a real competitor. Only a short water trip on Lake Erie, and then you could go by rail from Cleveland all the way to Cincinnati. But the Buffalo & State Line, in which the little railroads were interested, was pushing its railhead down towards Dunkirk, and on October 1 the Hudson River Railroad was completed from East Albany to New York City. Except for the ferry at Albany, traffic now sped over rails all the way from New York to Buffalo.

The Twelve were now bestirring themselves to meet competition. In November, 1850, foreseeing the Erie threat, they had reduced Albany-Buffalo passenger fares on express trains to $9, and on other first-class trains to $7.50. They would have made them still lower but for the opposition of the Rochester & Syracuse —  p72 for one company could stymie a whole proposition. Also, with heavier iron on many parts of the road, they cut the time in April, 1851, to 12½ hours — about one-half what it had been only five years before. And that included a half-hour stop "for dinner at such point as the train may arrive in proper season." Even a through freight train was assigned a schedule of twenty-seven hours. But winter still forced a revision, and in November, passenger trains carrying way mail were allowed seventeen hours, those with no way mail worries, thirteen hours.

Daily newspapers, still damp from the press, were being whisked from town to town. Joel Munsell noted in his Annals of Albany, April 1, 1851:

By a new arrangement of the rail road trains which went into operation this day, the Rochester papers were received at 7 o'clock on the morning of this date, and the Buffalo papers a few hours after they were delivered to their subscribers.

There are many good stories that might be told of the rails of those days — too many for the space we have. But there is one, related by Franklin H. Chase in his fine history, Syracuse and Its Environs, which demands admission because cit pleasantly reveals the personal touch so often intromitted in railroad operation a century past. A train trundling over the line about 1850 carried the Russian minister, Alexander Bodisco, and his bride on a wedding trip to Niagara Falls, accompanied by his suite. At Syracuse a member of party became involved in a dispute with a station employee and struck him with his cane. At that, Mr. Smith, the "collector" at Syracuse, entered the minister's car and demanded an apology.

"Do you realize that you are speaking to a representative of the Czar of Russia?" demanded the minister, haughtily.

"It wouldn't matter if it was the Czar himself," retorted Smith. "My man is entitled to an apology for the assault, and the train is going to stay here until he gets it."

Apology! The Russians were purple with indignation. The diplomat, with a wave of the hand, ordered the train to proceed. But the engineer and fireman, aware of the difficulty, simply sat down, grinning, to see the joke out. An acquaintance from Washington gave the minister a hint or two as to the vast difference between Russia and America, the diplomat swallowed his wrath, made a courteous amende, and the train went on its way.

 p73  As early as October, 1847, the minutes of the Utica & Schenectady note that "A letter was received from the Rail Road Committee of the Senate on the subject of consolidating of Rail Roads from Albany to Buffalo." This is the first mention of the matter in those minutes, and it will be observed that it was the state, not the "monopolists," that brought it up. Nothing was done at the time, but in 1851, at a meeting of all the executives, a committee was appointed to ask the state for an act authorizing any two or more companies to unite. It was now the turn of the Legislature to be dilatory and not until nearly two years later was any definite action taken. As the year 1853 opened, letters were flying to and fro, frequent conferences were mulling over the proposed union in all its phases, leaders were working on the legislators as well as on their own directors and stockholders. Far from boosting the advantages of many local boards of directors, as they had done a few years before, the talk now was all about the efficacy of one central directorate which would eliminate duplication and lost moo and cut expenses. Corning and Pruyn, an astute Albany lawyer, were two of the men foremost in the movement.

On April 2, 1853, the act of consolidation of the several companies between the upper Hudson and Lake Erie — or any two or more of them — became a law. It prescribed the name of the new corporation, New York Central, which, however, was inevitable; for a long time past the combined route had been officially and popularly spoken of as the Central Route. The law dictated all the terms and modes of effectuating the combination, the number of directors, the place of holding the first meeting, the capitalization limit — it must not exceed the combined capital of all the companies as they stood alone — the manner of settlement with the shareholders, the — in fact, if there was any possible item left unordained, we cannot discover it. But notwithstanding its comprehensiveness, the railroads were ready to accept it; in fact, they may have been glad to have the state assume all the responsibility. Indeed, Mr. Pruyn himself may have helped to draw up the bill.

Committeemen from the several companies met at Syracuse ten days later to work out the details. The knottiest problem was that of settlement with the 2,951 stockholders. Stocks of the several corporations varied considerably in market price, which was not always in the proper ratio to the actual value of the properties. Some roads were over-capitalized. Obviously, a share-for‑share exchange of old stock for that of the new corporation  p74 would not be equitable. That the committee was able to work out a formula for the settlement of this question with no great dissent from stockholders must be regarded as little short of marvelous.

It finally fixed the allowance to be made for each share upon the basis of the value of the railroad property itself, and not upon the face value or market quotation on the shares. Under this formula, the stockholders of the Albany & Schenectady were allowed a 17 percent premium, or $17 additional on each $100 worth of stock; the Utica & Schenectady and Mohawk Valley, 55 percent; Syracuse & Utica and Syracuse & Utica Direct, 50 percent; Rochester & Syracuse, 30 percent; Buffalo & Rochester, 40 percent; Buffalo & Lockport and Rochester, Lockport & Niagara Falls, 25 percent.

Of course, the law forbade these premiums to be paid in stock, so payment was made in "debt certificates." No premium was allowed on Schenectady & Troy shares, "as the stock is not considered to be worth its par or nominal value." Instead, the holders of S. & T. stock were penalized 25 percent, or in other words, received only $75 for each $100 worth of their stock. But this stock was by that time in the hands of a few capitalists who doubtless understood the situation and made no serious complaint.

The stockholders ratified the agreement, but before the new company was organized, the directors of the several companies celebrated the occasion, and as it were, rewarded the legislators by giving the latter an excursion to Niagara Falls. Accompanied by "an elegant band of music" and twenty-five editors and reporters, the guests, nearly 300 in number, left Albany at 6 A.M. on Saturday, June 4, 1853, in a seven-car train drawn by two locomotives. All other trains were sidetracked, and it was planned to dash over to the Falls in seven hours and fifteen minutes, but they failed by more than an hour to make this record. By the time they arrived, dinner was ready at a hotel and everybody rushed for the tables. After dinner there were the usual long-winded speeches, including one by the eminent and verbose William H. Seward. When he sat down, it was 6 o'clock, and the chairman announced that it was time to take the cars for the return trip, so probably nobody in the party saw the Falls. Upon the return journey, the train almost achieved the day's goal, doing the distance in seven hours and forty-four minutes. The fifty-three miles from Syracuse to Utica were covered in fifty-nine  p75 minutes, the top speed being seventy miles an hour — too fast for some of the journalists aboard.

The New York Evening Mirror remarked:

Some of the newspapers boastingly say, "This will do." On the contrary, we say, it will not do; and instead of encouraging a speed that almost takes away one's breath without an accident, the Press should protest and the Legislature enact a law against exceeding a rate of locomotion by steam of forty miles an hour. Most persons would rather be ten hours in running from Albany to Niagara, than to be dashed in half that time from Albany to — some other place.

On July 6, 1853, the organization destined to play so great a part in the world's transportation history came into existence. The thirteen original directors of the New York Central Railroad Company (there were no silly superstitions running at large among those men) were Erastus Corning, John V. L. Pruyn and Ezekiel C. McIntosh of Albany, Russell Sage of Troy, Alonzo C. Paige of Schenectady, David Wager of Utica, John Wilkinson and Horace White of Syracuse, John H. Chedell of Auburn, Henry B. Gibson of Canandaigua, Joseph Field and Azariah Boody of Rochester and Dean Richmond of Buffalo. Corning's dominance is revealed in Pruyn's memoranda: "Mr. Corning held a large majority of the proxies. The Board he elected lived entirely on the line." Pruyn had favored having one director from New York and one from Boston, but this was overruled.
[image ALT: A railroad map of New York State, showing a single large railroad line from Albany and Troy on the Hudson River in the east to Buffalo and Niagara Falls in the west, and some other connecting lines, mostly parallel to it. It is the New York Central Railroad system in 1853.]

Map showing the several railroads consolidated into the
New York Central Railroad in 1853

[A slightly larger fully readable version opens here.]

The directors now proceeded to elect Corning president, Richmond, vice-president and Pruyn, secretary and treasurer. For the presidency there was but one name seriously considered. During his twenty years as the executive head of the Utica & Schenectady, Mr. Corning had become and remained the pre-eminent figure of this transportation group. A man of great business ability, though autocratic and often arrogant in his manner, he frequently rasped the nerves of his co-workers, but they endured the vexation because he had the knack of success. Throughout his two decades at the head of the U. & S., he had never accepted a cent of salary, asking only that he have the privilege of supplying all the rails, running gear, tools and other iron and steel articles used by the railroad, his profits on the same being his only recompense. No other dealer or manufacturer ever had a look‑in with the U. & S. during those decades. Today that sort of thing would of course never be tolerated. But the directors of  p77 the U. & S. must either have thought that Corning did not take too much profit, or that his services to the road outweighed his pickings, for in 1850, with much ceremony, they presented him, in recognition of his services to the company, a silver set which cost them, according to the records, $6,074.10. He now entered upon a similar arrangement for compensation with the New York Central, and it was evident that although his duties in the new post would be much more onerous, his income therefrom would be enormously larger.

Corning was lame and not at all impressive in appearance. One day after he became president of the New York Central, he was a bit slow in getting aboard a car and the conductor, who didn't know him, shouted at him, "Come, hurry up, old man; don't be all day about it. The train can't wait." A few minutes later a bystander revealed to the conductor the identity of the "old man." The conductor turned pale, worried for a while, and finally sought out Mr. Corning and apologized.

"Personally, I care nothing about it," the executive replied. "But the fact that you didn't know me doesn't alter the complexion of your act. I'll keep no one in my employ who is uncivil to travelers." And that was that for that conductor.

The New York Central set a new fashion by appointing an executive committee of five directors to take some of the work off the president's shoulders. Secretary-Treasurer Pruyn, overwhelmed by the financial affairs and accounting of the 600‑mile system, chose as his chief bookkeeper a young man of twenty-five named Edwin D. Worcester from Corning's bank in Albany, thereby starting that young man on a fifty-year career with the New York Central during which time he rose to high position and became the confidential adviser of the Vanderbilts and other executives.

The company was launched with a capitalization of $23,085,600. The building of the Rochester & Syracuse and the Buffalo & Rochester had shortened the rail distance formerly traversed between Albany and Buffalo by thirty miles, so that it now stood at 297¾ miles — only four miles longer than in 1847. The new company owned 154 wood-burning locomotives, varying in weight from fifteen to thirty-two tons.

It had begun in a gingerly way to consider the operation of trains by telegraph, introduced on the Erie two years before, and now recommended by the Legislature. W. E. Baxter (America and the Americans, London, 1855) wrote of the "excessive meanness  p78 of the station-houses" in America. "The majority of them are mere sheds, scarcely water-tight and generally not a little dirty. . . . That at Albany resembles the stables of a carter in poor circumstances." He saw some better ones in the Middle West, commenting upon the "fine" new union stations at Cleveland and Indianapolis, used by roads which were later parts of the New York Central system.

[image ALT: A photograph of a large building something like 100 meters long, seen from the end, where five double arches provide access; with a five-story tower in the middle of the long side. It is a view of the old train station of Cleveland, Ohio.]

Early Stations: above, Cleveland; below, Indianapolis

[image ALT: A photograph of a building maybe 140 meters long, seen from the end, where five double arches provide access; it is surmounted by a small belfry-like tower. It is a view of the old train station of Indianapolis, Indiana.]

The Central's connections and territory had improved prodigiously. From Albany there were now rail lines to Boston and New York, and from Niagara Falls the Great Western was pushing towards Detroit. From Buffalo, rapidly increasing fleets of lake steamers were running to Erie, Cleveland, Sandusky, Toledo, Monroe, Detroit, even to Chicago. Through those cities, rails and boats were pouring vast hordes of emigrants. Feeder rail lines had been constructed or were building out from Schenectady, Rome, Syracuse, Canandaigua, Rochester, Buffalo, Niagara. Some of these the New York Central took under lease and subsequently absorbed — the Rochester & Lake Ontario, the Buffalo & Niagara Falls, the Lewiston,1 the Canandaigua & Niagara Falls — contemptuously known as the Peanut Railroad — completed in 1854, with a six-foot gauge, connecting at Canandaigua with another six-footer which in turn hooked on to the six-foot Erie. The New York Central wanted no such menace as that in its territory, and it quickly changed the gauge of the Peanut to standard.

Rapidly growing cities, nurtured by the Central, were strung along its main line like beads. Rochester was now a buzzing hive of 40,000 population, and the hamlet which John Wilkinson had christened Syracuse some thirty years ago had become a city of 25,000. Buffalo promised to be the biggest of them all. Schenectady,  p79 now boasting 8,000 citizens, nurtured a locomotive-building plant, founded in 1848, with the Norris brothers of Philadelphia in charge. It turned out just one machine, the Lightning, for the Utica & Schenectady — a daring twenty-ton experiment with a single seven-foot driver on each side, plus a four-foot carrying wheel and forty‑two-inch wheels on the front truck; all solid forgings, the first of their kind made in America. It is said to have drawn a train of eight cars a trifle over sixteen miles in thirteen minutes and twenty-one seconds. But though it was fast, it evidently could not stand up under the strain, and was rated a failure. As such, it had much to do with the collapse of the concern which built it and which folded up in the following year.

Another year passed, and citizens of Schenectady organized the Schenectady Locomotive Works, with John Ellis, a Scotchman, at the head of it, and took over the little factory, which stood on the spot where the giant American Locomotive plant functions now. After one engine was built in 1851, the next four were turned out for the Michigan Southern, a part of today's New York Central, while the sixth was for the Albany & Schenectady. For forty years Walter McQueen was the great designer for this company, and its product was popularly known among railroad men as the McQueen engine. When, after half a century, the Schenectady Locomotive Works passed into the great American Locomotive combine in 1901, its plant became the largest of that corporation's units. Hundreds of New York Central engines have been turned out in those 112 acres of factory, as well as others for railroads all over the world.

[image ALT: A woodcut of an early locomotive of the generally classic appearance we now associate with locomotives: a long cylindrical tank-like body, a tapering funnel chimney and a cowcatcher to the front, an enclosed square cab at the rear.]

President, an early McQueen locomotive on the New York Central

The New York Central territory was producing men who did much to revolutionize the business of transportation. We have already mentioned William G. Fargo, the freight clerk at Auburn, and Henry Wells, leather worker at Batavia, who became express messengers in the early 1840's. By 1853 they had organized two of the greatest of express agencies, the American and Wells, Fargo & Company. Their services spanned the continent. Henry Wells, in ruffled shirt and (in winter) a bright blue broadcloth coat with wide, flowing sleeves, always plus a black velvet basque cap tipped with a golden tassel hanging down beside his ear, was a good story-teller whose slight impediment in speech gave piquancy to his narratives. He was a familiar figure in the larger midwestern cities. Two young men, John Webster Wagner of the Mohawk Valley and George M. Pullman of Albion, and  p80 a boy named George Westinghouse of Schenectady, watched passing Central trains with brooding eyes, all of them destined to work great changes in railroad science.

In point of capitalization, mileage — about 600 — and value of property, the New York Central now became the largest railroad organization in America. In the matter of easy grades it had unique advantages among east-west rail lines; all the others had to fight their way through mountains. The industries of its necklace of cities and its eastern divisions, and the rich earth of its western half, where not only agriculture but fruit-growing were becoming gloriously productive, foretold a prosperous future.

But it had come into being at a difficult time. The year 1853 brought forth the greatest number of grave disasters yet seen in American railroading — though none of them occurred on the Central lines, which were not greatly at fault. The State Engineer's report for 1853 shows that in that year, twenty railroads in New York carried 8,174,363 passengers a total of 397,272,298 miles, injuring only 209 passengers and employees, including 137 killed. Of the 209 casualties, 74 were from "being exposed on the line," and 19 from jumping off the train. The State Engineer's report notes the nature of every accident, and we find many like these:

Mrs. Jane Cummings, while walking on the track near Warner's Station in a state of intoxication, was struck by the engine of a passenger train and killed.

Mrs. Susannah Knight, a passenger, in attempting to pass from one car to another of a train in motion, near Syracuse, fell between the cars and was killed.

Passing between cars in motion was a violation of railroad rules. In another instance, a man thrust his head out of a window and had it knocked off by a cattle chute.

But recklessness in railroad operation and knavery in management were on the increase in many quarters. The Vermont Central scandal in 1851‑52 and the Schuyler frauds2 which almost wrecked the New York & New Haven and tainted the Harlem, shook the confidence of the public. Stockholders of the New York Central were alarmed, and their innuendoes and those of the press stung Secretary-Treasurer Pruyn, an upright and sensitive man, into asking the directors in July, 1854, for an investigation of the affairs of his office. The directors appointed  p81 Reuben H. Walworth, for twenty years Chancellor of New York, James Hooker, a large shareholder, and from the board itself, Alonzo C. Paige, a justice of the Supreme Court, as the investigating committee. They went into every item of the company's accounts with meticulous thoroughness, and found them "perfectly satisfactory in all respects." As between the treasurer's books and the banks, they detected one error of twenty cents, but it was not the "very accurate and careful bookkeeper" of the company (Worcester), who was at fault; believe it or not, it was the bank. With the publication of that report, private criticism subsided in considerable degree, though some newspapers, particularly the New York Herald, kept up their attacks.

The committee, however, made a recommendation which was a direct comment upon the Schuyler and Vermont Central scandals. It urged that every transfer of company stock, whether made at the treasurer's office at Albany or at either of the transfer offices in Boston and New York, be "duly registered by a separate and distinct officer, to whom the old certificates of stock should be surrendered, and by whom the new certificates should be registered and countersigned." Under this plan the committee thought it "almost impossible" that an overissue of stock could be made, as in the Schuyler case (unless the transfer officer, too, had been corrupted, one might suggest). But the New York Stock Exchange, offended by the implied criticism, thought or pretended to think that there was something sinister about the arrangement, and banished New York Central stock from the Exchange. That sort of thing couldn't continue long, however, especially when the rest of the country was applauding the Central's action, and the Exchange rescinded its action in December, 1855.

The Central had grown too big to be flouted in any such fashion, anyhow. Its report that year showed that it owned 188 locomotives, 263 passenger cars and 62 baggage, mail and express cars, and Horace Greeley, awed by these figures, spoke of it in the Tribune as "the Imperial New York Central Railway." Harper's Weekly in 1857, describing "a pleasure trip to the West," told of being whisked up the Hudson, "through the Highlands and over that great and perfect work, the New York Central Railway to Buffalo. . . ."

Yet the New York Herald and some other critics kept up their attacks upon the company management, and early in 1855 another committee, this time one of stockholders, was appointed to  p82 look into affairs in general. Nine specific complaints had been listed, nearly all them alleging only bad judgment, not crookedness; but the committee, toiling from January to October on the job, found comparatively little to criticize. The ownership of $817,000 worth of Great Western and Buffalo & State Line Railroad stock, which had come under fire, was of strategic importance, they said; and while the Great Western was as yet unproductive, the B. & S. L. was paying ten percent dividends, and who could complain of that? As to the taking over of the Buffalo & Niagara Falls and the Lewiston Railroads, "Whether the measure was politic or not, there appears to be no remedy now, even if it were unwise; your Committee therefore refrain from expressing any opinion on the subject." Investments in Lake Erie boats had also been for the purpose of meeting Erie Railroad competition, but the committee did not think this had done much good, and advised against such ventures in future. Some other investments turned out to have been of benefit to the company instead of a detriment.

The most serious charge was:

That very large purchases are made by agents of the Company of a mercantile house in Albany, of which the President of the Company is a principal co-partner, and that the house in question has been paid large commissions for purchasing iron rails, tires, etc., for the road.

Thus E. Corning & Company's twenty‑two-year monopoly of supplying the railroad with iron at last came under the microscope. There was no question as to the facts; the committee was merely concerned with the matter of whether the prices charged the company were fair, whether the president should have a monopoly of such sales, and whether he should collect commissions on rails bought in England. The committee's opinion was delicately framed, yet emphatic. It was satisfied that "the prices are not, in general, above the market rates of the same kind of article elsewhere;" but it did not think that the New York Central "or any other large Railroad Company" should pay a commission to anyone for importing rails, there being agents of the English manufacturers in our Eastern cities who would take care of such orders without commissions.

While the Committee have no reason to suppose that the best interests of the Company have not been properly looked after in  p83 the purchases made of the house of E. Corning & Co., and while they admit that the high character of the President of the Company is, in itself, a sufficient guaranty that no improper or unnecessary purchases have been authorized, still the principle of buying articles required for the use of the Railroad Company from its own officers might in time come to lead to abuses of great magnitude, and in that view of the case, the Committee are of opinion that the system of purchases as now conducted should be . . . placed under such regulations and restrictions by the Directors as they may deem best calculated to protect the interests of the Company. . . .

Here was one instance when the dictatorial Mr. Corning did not demur. The report cast a faint shadow upon his honor, and he knew that he must not let that stand. In February, 1856, the firm of E. Corning & Company ended its rail monopoly, and refunded to the New York Central more than $10,000, representing commissions which the railroad had paid since 1853 upon its imported rails. Thus the corporation and Mr. Corning were purged of one suspicion of guile — but he continued to sell other iron articles to the company and to take his profit thereon, which left him still open to criticism. It was an early, deep-rooted belief — Pepys, the diarist, naively reveals it in the seventeenth century — that those fortunate enough to be on the inside had the moral right to knock down a few persimmons of profit for themselves.

The Author's Notes:

1 Captain Mackinnon, a British sight-seer (A Tour in America, London, 1852), coming from Canada, stepped off a boat at Lewiston and boarded "what a tall Yankee described as 'the meanest railroad in existence.' " It took the train an hour and a half to cover the nine miles up to Niagara Falls. The Captain was horrified to see how near the edge of the precipice the ramshackle thing ran. He found that "many of the sleepers are rotten and the rail wedged-in loosely with rotten wood. Several of the spike-nails, which ought to bind the strip of iron rail to the wood foundation have worked out. Some of the ends of the rail are altogether loose, and raised up half an inch or more. . . . At the edge of the precipice, at this point some 150 feet high, I attempted with a large stone to drive the end of the rail firmly down. Vain were all my efforts, as the spike-nail was driven into decayed wood. I measured the distance of this part from the edge of the cliff, and found it barely two feet, six. . . ."

2 See Harlow, Steelways of New England, Chapters 8 and 12.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 25 Feb 13