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Chapter 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Road of the Century

by
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!


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Chapter 6

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

p84 Chapter V
Mid-Century Growing Pains

In the year ending September 30, 1851, the last season in which summer handling of freight had been forbidden to some companies by the state, the tons of freight hauled one mile by the Twelve Little Railroads had reached a total of 19,325,457. In the following twelve months this was more than doubled, the figure being 42,220,294 ton-miles. In the next year, that of the consolidation, the record was 51,029,810 ton-miles. Small gains in road mileage, it is true, aided the figures a little in those two years. But there was really a mighty increase in business under way. America was moving westward. Mexican War, California gold, the struggle between North and South for Kansas, all these increased the ferment in the East, and population boiled over, beyond the Lakes, beyond the Mississippi, beyond the Rockies. Chicago had 60,000 or 70,000 inhabitants, and railheads were already far beyond it, driving across the prairies. Detroit was nearly as large. Daniel Webster, with prophetic insight, had said in a great speech in the Senate on March 7, 1850, "Ere long, the strength of America will be in the valley of the Mississippi." Now the prediction seemed well on the way to fulfilment. The Midwest was booming. The Great Western Railroad had been completed in January, 1854, though it still had to use ferries at each end, across the Niagara and the Detroit (but Roebling's bridge at Niagara was almost completed). Despite these ferries and another at Albany, the boast was that you could now travel by rail that way from New York to Chicago (sometimes!) in thirty-six hours.

In 1854, the New York Central's business leaped again to 81,186,088 ton-miles; in 1855, to 99,615,836 and in 1856, by an almost incredible jump, to 145,733,678. In three years the gain had been 94,703,868 ton-miles. Passenger traffic rocketed as well, p85though from that day to this, freight business has been more profitable. The last Erie Canal packet boat had ceased to run before 1850, and competing stagecoaches long before that. Americans were not only becoming long-distance travelers, but they were migrating in masses. New Englanders had already swarmed into Michigan in such numbers that they gave that state's countenance a Yankee cast which is faintly discernible even to this day. They were crusading to Kansas, too, to settle there and resist with body and spirit the attempt of the South to bring that territory into the Union as a slave state. Parties of thirty to seventy-five hurried westward in the summer of 1854, and on March 13, 1855, the first party of the season, near 200 men, women and children, left Boston for Kansas, going via Western and New York Central. The New England Emigrant Aid Company not only supplied settlers but shipped sawmills, plows, tools, guns and other gear to Kansas and elsewhere.a Even New York state had its Kansas League. Thus the railroads were lashing the North together, establishing liaison and Army supply lines before the Civil War began.

Those New England emigrants did not travel in the railroad's emigrant cars, which were just slightly better than box cars with benches in them. Those inconveniences were for the poorer immigrants, mostly Irish and German at that period, with a sprinkling of Scandinavians, Welsh and what not, who were spraying out over the new land to lay hopeful foundations for fortune with their willing hands.b Yankees and some English immigrants like J. Richard Beste, who, with his wife and eleven children, were seeking a new home in Indiana, were apt to ride in the better class of cars. Beste describes1 the seats in the cars between New York and Buffalo as "sofas of cut velvet large enough to hold two persons comfortably." He found enclosed in one corner of the car a lavatory and toilet, a "pleasing discovery" for a father with eleven assorted children in tow, and palpably one to which he was not accustomed in England. He traveled via Auburn and Geneva before the Rochester & Syracuse was completed, and he was entranced with the scenery of the Finger Lakes region, comparing it with north Italy. Another item intrigued him:

During all the day's journey, I saw besides the person who collected fares and tickets in the carriages, no railway official p86in apparent authority, no policeman: — every American seems to consider himself interested in the preservation of order.

He and others have described for us "the person who collected fares" in that day — in broadcloth and plug hat, sometimes even kid gloves, too exalted an official to wear a uniform, yet not necessarily haughty or snobbish. Beste said he "would sit down beside any passenger for a chat or to give information." The conductor of Civil War times and thereabouts went through the train with paper money between the fingers of his left hand and plenty of coin in his pockets, for he collected many cash fares. His lantern, nursed in the crook of his left arm for the close scrutiny of tickets in the dimly-lighted cars, had a globe that was blue or green above and clear glass below; and as incomes increased in one way and another, the lantern and ticket punch might be silver-plated, the latter in some cases even gold-plated.

Mrs. Isabella Bird Bishop,2 who liked traveling in America — and no wonder, the men all treated her so nicely — was helped across the ferry at Albany by a courteous stranger, a "working engineer" with whom she had fallen into conversation on the train from Boston. On the New York Central train he "requested the conductor, whose countenance instantly prepossessed me in his favor, to pay me every attention on the route;" and the latter p87soon verified her estimate of him. "He turned a chair into a sofa and lent me a buffalo robe (for hot though the day had been, the night was intensely cold), and several times brought me a cup of tea." They fell into a discussion on the comparative "breakage power" on English and American railroads, and he was so absorbed that he "forgot to signal the engine-driver to stop at a station." Looking out of a window, he said, "Dear me, we ought to have stopped three miles back," but comforted himself with the thought that "Likely there was no one to get out."

Boys, white or colored, went through the train, dispensing ice water to passengers, sometimes from a tray of glasses, more often from a jug or pitcher and a single glass. When, how and by whom the glassware was washed — if ever — we shall never know.3 Other functionaries, passing through the cars, distributed time tables of other railroads and hotel advertising. An anonymous writer in All the Year Round in 1860 said:

Every town you pass pelts you with its daily papers. If you stop for ten minutes at a central station, a lean, pounding sort of quack missionary, standing erect at the door, informs the carriage that the Dead Shot Worm Candy is now selling at the twenty-five cents the packet, "Vestris Bloom,"c the finest cosmetic in the known world, one-half dollar, and dirt cheap at the money; Knickerbocker Corn Exterminator, a dime the ounce packet.

Others bawled the merits of their fruit, nuts, maple sugar cakes, ivory combs, parched corn and packages of mixed sweetmeats.

The brakeman of the period had to sweep the cars of his train after every trip and occasionally mop them, wash the windows now and then, clean, trim and fill the oil lanterns and lamps, including the conductor's lantern, fill two big wood boxes, one at each end of the car, and help load the tender at the wayside p88wood stations, assist in making up the train, string up the bell cord from rear car to cab, and of course twist the brakes at every stop; and as an old-timer says, "A man who couldn't slide the wheels of his car when slowing down was considered a weakling."

As for the engine crews, they worked on the same locomotive all the time. They were very careful of it, and insisted on doing all the minor repairs themselves.

Roebling's double-deck suspension bridge at Niagara — which he had begun nearly four years before by flying a kite which carried the first cord across the gorge — was completed on March 17, 1855, and tested by running a locomotive and 22 freight cars upon it, while onlookers, shivering in a snow flurry, watched it with bated breath, fearing or hoping to see the prediction fulfilled that it would collapse under the weight of a train. But the effect on it was scarcely perceptible. Cars now began running through from Albany to Windsor, opposite Detroit, and Rochester boasted that "We are virtually the terminus of the Great Western and Michigan Central Railroads."

[image ALT: zzz.]

Niagara Suspension Bridge, completed in 1855.

It was now the opinion of some stockholders and many critics that with these improved facilities and greatly increased business, the New York Central should be making money, "hand over fist." (Similar popular delusions prevail as to the earnings of railroads and authors.) Cross-eyed old James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald never let up in his sniping. In 1855, just as the second investigating committee was ending its labors, he demanded:

What the public want is truth. We want to know from the "business capacity" of the management how it has come to pass that the greatest thoroughfare in the United States — one which produces such immense receipts — is still unable to keep its works in repair and return to the stockholders half the amount which other roads, less advantageously situated, with vastly less travel, less freight, less proportionate capital invested, contrive to pay their stockholders. . . .

Bennett of course was making news in his own favorite way, by excoriation. He did not know or ignored the fact that the Central had in the past two years expended $5,316,200, a huge sum for those days, in new rails, new track, rolling stock, passenger and freight stations, repair shops and so on, and was about to spend another two and a half millions in the coming year. It p89was in the spring of 1854 that the company began constructing, on 350 acres of cheap sand-and‑scrub land which it had purchased at the head of the grade west of Albany, a big round-house, repair shop and yard which grew into the world's most important base; now the nucleus of the suburb known as West Albany. There for a time in later years they even built some of their own engines. It was there that the immortal 999 was conceived and fashioned.

At this distance in time, we cannot know all the reasons why the New York Central was not highly profitable, but we do know that it could not be understood by a lay critic — all the implications were not yet grasped by the railroad men themselves — that the small official staff of the New York Central was grappling courageously with a problem which was too large for it, which had rapidly outgrown all previous conventions of railroad management. Chauncey Vibbard, the general superintendent, was trying to do the work of ten men. There was as yet no general manager and the American railroad world had not even heard of such officials as passenger and freight traffic managers, the general passenger agent, general freight agent, purchasing agent or several others now considered indispensable. Vibbard was them all. He had a still imperfect, unstable and capricious machine to work with, one which must have given him many gray hairs. Any day he might be vexed with little happenings like this, noted in a traveler's diary in 1856:

When the train got to Lyons, we had to stop and cool off an axle that had got heated, and when we arrived at Palmyra we were obliged to stop an hour and a half to disconnect one side of the Locomotive, in consequence of stripping the thread off the valve rod on that side.4

The result was that he arrived at Rochester two hours late.

Also, the Central began to have accidents; a bad derailment in 1855, with one death, and in 1856 two crashes which killed seven more; not many, it seems to today's death-sated ears, but too many for that era. And on May 11, 1858, came a worse disaster yet: the double-track wooden bridge over Sauquoit Creek, just west of Utica, broke down under the weight of two trains, a passenger and a freight, passing over it simultaneously, killing p90ten persons and injuring more than sixty.5 This led to a canvass of the condition of bridges all along the line, and to replacement of some with iron.

Today, with every clock and watch in a well-defined time zone pointing to the same minute, we can not appreciate the complications of mid-nineteenth century, before Standard Time was devised, and when every town and village had its own time. One of the railroad superintendent's problems is hinted at in an order of August 17, 1855:

You are hereby notified that at Sunday noon, August 19th, the clock of the Rochester station will be set back 4 minutes and 47 seconds, to agree with the standard time at Albany.

You will be careful to alter your time accordingly.

Wm. C. Young,

Ass't Sup't.

This was part of a movement to make all clocks along the line agree with those at Albany, excepting that at Buffalo, which was to be 15 minutes slower.

One might also retort to Mr. Bennett that the New York Central was not the only unprofitable property at the time; almost none of the nation's railroads was showing up well, and the Scientific American, in its May, 1855, issue was probing for the reasons why. "At the present moment," said the editor, "there are but a very few in the whole country which pay their expenses and interest on stock and debt. . . . The amount of wealth embraced in 20,000 miles of railroad at $20,000 per mile for construction, would be $400,000,000. Yet it is a fact that much of this is debt (bonds) and is owned in Europe." There had been a slight business recession in the previous year, yet American railroads had carried more passengers than ever before. But costs were up enormously; a 60 percent increase for maintenance of way and 25 percent for repairs of machinery, "thus showing that there has been a lack of economy somewhere. We commend the subject of contracting with engineers for running the engines, making repairs, etc." This, the writer declared, had been tried with success in England. He also said that the railroads p91must learn to economize in oil, fuel and construction. Much could be saved by changing from wood to coal as locomotive fuel.

There was one sort of business on which the railroads always found it difficult to make any profit — the carrying of the United States mails. In certain boxes in an archive room at "466 Lexington," the main New York Central offices in New York, one finds many old letters and documents bearing upon this subject. Here is an offer from the Post Office Department on June 14, 1853, to Corning as "president Schenectady & Utica (sic) Rail Road," of $200 per mile per annum for four years, for "four times a day service." Also to Gibson of the "Syracuse & Rochester Rail Road" (the Department could usually be relied on to bungle the name of the company) of $100 per mile for twice-a‑day service. Evidently the government, always several furlongs behind the procession, had not yet heard that amalgamation of all the roads in the chain had been authorized by New York Legislature, and was almost consummated. A counter-proposition was made September 10, 1853, by a committee from the Hudson River and New York Central roads, to convey mail between New York and Buffalo at $300 per mile, carrying it on as many trains as the Department might desire, but "One mail car only with post-office agents," to be run each way daily between New York and Buffalo and between Syracuse and Niagara Falls. It is clearly revealed that "distributing post-office cars," as they were called, were then in use on the New York Central.

Long-drawn‑out argument ensued between government and rails over the mail-carrying rates. A bill was introduced in Congress in February, 1854, aiming at reduction of rates everywhere, and executives were much disturbed about it. The Central sent Russell Sage — and they couldn't have chosen a better chafferer — to Washington that spring to negotiate with the Department, and he wrote many long letters to Corning, describing his experiences. After one bout with the Postmaster General, he wrote, "He says the word mail means to and from any place, which is a strange construction of language, but as he is the umpire to decide upon its meaning, it becomes us to look at it, while we have an opportunity to do so." Even the astute and almost indomitable Sage — like some of the rest of us — found the going hard against a government department keenly conscious of its power. The wrangle continued for a long time, and the railroads finally had to compromise at figures which gave them little or no profit.

p92 Look at this voluminous report on the delivery of mail to post offices from New York Central trains in the 1850's — many sheets of stiff bond paper bound together at the top with the sort of thin, near-silk ribbon which was used to tie bundles of cigars half a century and more ago, only this is red, while the cigar ribbon was always yellow. The arrangement at each place is noted:

Chickwaga [sic]. At this station the mail is thrown from the cars and conveyed to the Post Office by the son of the Postmaster, who receives his pay from the Post Office Department. Compensation $8 per year. Distance 25 rods.

Always the distance between depot and post office is stated in rods, and who pays for the carriage, whether Uncle Sam or the post office. At Byron, where the distance was only twenty feet, and at West Bergen, distance one rod, the mail was carried to and from trains by the postmaster, who received no extra compensation therefor.

One of our Uncle's quaint whimsies is found in letters following a two-years' dispute over this depot-post office mail carrying. In 1855, the Department writes to the postmaster (for example) at Batavia, "The Postmaster General has appointed J. V. L. Pruyn, Treasurer New York Central Railroad Corporation, a Mail Messenger at your office from April 1, 1853, at $100 a year." The postmaster was ordered to pay Pruyn his salary from April 1, 1853 to March 31, 1855, taking separate receipts for each quarter therefor — in case Pruyn had as yet received no compensation for his services — which he hadn't, as the Department well knew. In like manner Superintendent Chauncey Vibbard was appointed a "Mail Passenger" at Auburn at $540 a year (and other places as well), and the postmasters at Batavia and Auburn had to write and ask those gentlemen whether they had yet received their back pay before paying them. Of course Messrs. Pruyn and Vibbard were not expected to do this mail-toting in person. The railroad company hired less important men to do the job and turned the salary — or a part of it — over to them.

Troy was another gripe which would have caused Mr. Vibbard to reach for the aspirin if they had had aspirin in his day. Possessing a railroad bridge across the Hudson, which Albany did not, Troy fumed because those Hudson River Railroad trains p93which came up all the way to Troy did not send the through business to Buffalo via Troy instead of ferrying it from Greenbush (now Rensselaer) to Albany. The Troy Daily Whig of September 25, 1854, called the Central's actions "outrageous, maliciously designed to incommode rather than commode the public." The angry editor went on:

It cannot be denied . . . that the whole aim and policy under which that road is managed is to divert travel from Troy. Here we have a Railroad Bridge, over which the tide of travel might and would flow, if the arrangements of the Central Road were not made with particular reference to making a break here. For instance: it is arranged that the morning Express train shall leave the depot here just ahead of the arrival of the N. Y. Express train, so that no connection can be made. It is almost a daily occurrence that when the N. Y. Express train is arriving at one end of the depot, the Central Western Express train is departing from the other end! It is even alleged that the official direction is for the Central train to leave when the whistle of the Hudson River train is heard at the lower end of the city.

He said conditions at Schenectady were if possible worse; the Troy trains did not connect with the main line trains, so as to "commode the public;" on the contrary, travelers desirous of coming to Troy were either compelled to take the unseasonable or slow trains, or else go to Albany and thence to Troy as best they might. In a concluding burst of rage, he spoke of "outrageous arrangements" and "insults to the public," surpass "anything we ever knew or conceived of."

Naturally, a part of the editor's fury had its origin in hurt civic pride; the wrath of Troy under oppression by Albany. And quite as certainly, there was some ground for it. The New York Central, under the imperious Mr. Corning, was essentially an Albany-ruled institution, and not averse to putting Troy in its place. The road's head offices were in Albany, its annual meetings were held there — and so they are to this day, a fine example of allegiance to tradition. On the rare occasions when the company deigned to explain anything or to address the public, it did so through the Albany newspapers. But it could not entirely ignore the complaints of Troy, and after some attacks of the sort quoted above, that city was given better service. It must be admitted that it had already, in 1853, been given a fine new brick Union p94Depot,6 another large expenditure. Troy should have been proud of that station, said to have been surpassed in size in the world only by one in Russia, but it certainly had bad luck with it. At 3:30 on the morning of December 30, 1859, the Howe-truss roof of the 400‑foot long train-shed fell under the weight of a heavy snowfall. There was no loss of life, for there was no one in it at the time; and a few years later, when Troy was swept by fire, the depot was devastated again.

Corning's course from the first was planned to retain the reins of power in his own hands. Each year blank proxy forms were sent out to the stockholders; blank except that they all named Corning and/or Pruyn — who worked hand-in‑glove with the president — as the proxy at the annual meeting. Enough of these were signed and returned each year to keep Mr. Corning in the driver's seat, for of course, in the board room, he never permitted a thought of anyone but himself for the presidency. Any director who dared to oppose him with any vigor on this or any other subject was apt to find the president's proxies sweeping someone else into his chair at the next election. The second election did not take place until December, 1854, and on that occasion three important figures, Wilkinson, Gibson of Rochester and Wager of Utica, passed from the directorate. It was inevitable that so forceful, not to say bull-headed a character as Wilkinson's was bound to clash with autocracy — and Gibson was scarcely less determined. But Wilkinson was by no means through with railroad business. We shall meet him again.

The first sign of relaxation of Corning's parochialism is seen in this election when he named Nathaniel Thayer, of a noted State Street banking family of Boston, as one of the new directors. And the first gesture of revolt against the proxy system appeared at the annual meeting two years later when a small group of stockholders gathered in a separate room and asked the directors to have proxies sent to a committee instead of to the president p95and treasurer. But they were too few in number to have any influence. At the following year's meeting, they were more numerous and made more noise, but were still in the minority, and a vote of confidence in the president and his staff by the majority rebuked the insurgents. But Corning was so shaken by the episode that he did an unheard-of thing for him — he wrote a letter of self-defense to the New York Times.

In 1857, Directors Russell Sage and Joseph Field of Rochester felt the keen edge of the executive axe, and both wrote letters to the press, hinting that they had been displaced because they had had the temerity to oppose the president's wishes. Wager, one of the earlier casualties, said in a restrained letter to the Utica Morning Herald that he had "always regarded the president as a man of transcendent ability and large railroad experience," whose loss to the Central would be greatly felt. But "I regard Mr. Corning's great fault to be an inordinate love of power and an almost total blindness to the faults and errors of his devotees."

In response to a stockholder's letter, expressing loyalty to the regime, Pruyn wrote somewhat whiningly and self-righteously:

At times I have been almost discouraged, experiencing nothing but fault-finding and abuse from all quarters after my best efforts had been given to the company's affairs. We have forborne, as far as possible, from noticing the attacks that have been made upon us, knowing that the road would before long have outlived them, and believing that those of our stockholders who chose to examine the reports of our affairs would feel satisfied of the falsity of the charges and of the favorable conditions of the company's business.

But an editorial attack, dignified but scathing, by a new opponent, Harper's Weekly, on January 23, 1858, told a different story. The writer declared that "It is a matter of public notoriety" that the New York Central had recently borrowed $500,000 at 10 percent discount, with interest on top of that, and that in the following month it would declare a dividend of 4 percent. The editor went on:

Where can such financiering lead? . . . The New York Central is without doubt one of the best railways in the world. It runs almost through a continuous village from end to end. As the country becomes more settled, its way traffic must be enormous. p96But how can any business, however promising, be profitably conducted if money is perpetually borrowed at ten percent discount and seven percent (interest), to be distributed in the guise of profits? . . . For the last three years the New York Central has borrowed precisely the sum it paid in dividends, and declared that it was spent on the capital, and ought not to be charged to the income account. . . .

It was true that the Central, like other railroads, had been hard hit by the panic of 1857, but that excuse cannot be used for the previous two years' borrowings — if this story was accurate; and Harper's was never sued for libel. In fact, the records appear to sustain it, though the loans are camouflaged as for other purposes. Paying 17 percent for money sounds like desperation in the effort to keep up a front, which is what Corning was evidently determined to do. But there were other troubles buzzing like a swarm of flies around the Central head which made it difficult to preserve corporate dignity and an appearance of invulnerable prosperity.

One of these was a lawsuit over firewood — for wood was to the railroad of those days what coal is today. George H. Clark of Schenectady had made a verbal agreement with Vibbard to supply 12,000 cords a year at three dollars a cord. A dispute arose, and after some 37,000 cords had been delivered, Clark brought suit. The case went all the way to the State Supreme Court, which decided in Clark's favor in 1859. A satirical pamphlet entitled, Disaster to the New York Central, jeers at the informal contract, saying that apparently "pen and ink is not used in Schenectady."d

It is curiously illustrative of the primeval purity which subsists in that city that a contract of this magnitude between two of its citizens needed not to be put in writing. . . . So beautiful an exhibition of mutual trust and confidence carries the mind of the profane back to the age of chivalry, but the pious will scarce halt in their meditations this side of the Fall of Man. If Mr. Vibbard had bought wood in Paradise, his contract with Adam would have been in this form.

The New York Tribune thereupon chimed in with the charge that no one but certain favored contractors had the ghost of a chance to sell wood to the Central. Instances had been known, it was said, where wood had been offered to the deputy superintendent, who had refused to buy it. Lacking another market, p97the woodsmen then sold it to one of the pet contractors, "and then the wood was immediately thereafter taken by the Deputy Superintendent at a price considerably advanced beyond that at which it had been offered by the original owners." The implication of course was, as in all such cases, that the deputy superintendent got a slice of the profit.

This sniping from Manhattan was naturally aggravated by the fact of the upstate, iron-handed control of the railroad. And Mr. Corning had to pay in irritation for his enjoyment of the supreme power. Being the boss, the blame for most of the railroad's shortcomings fell upon him. "Albany Regency" was one of the taunts hurled at him, though that Democratic state political ring, of which he had been a member and which was so powerful for thirty years, was now moribund. Still, there was (and always will be) plenty of politics on the boil in Albany, and the New York Central brass hats were in it, up to their necks.

Corning had been four time mayor of Albany, had sat in the State Senate in 1842‑46, and now, in 1857‑59, was a Democratic representative in Congress. (He was elected again later.) Vice-president Richmond was Democratic state chairman, but never ran for elective office, because of his lack of education. Even Superintendent Vibbard was seized with the contagion and ran for Congress in 1860, while Pruyn went to the State Senate in the following year — all these on the Democratic ticket. Since the collapse of the Whig Party in the early 1850's, the Democrats had had things pretty much their way in New York, though by 1859, the new Republican Party was becoming something of a nuisance. Inevitably, a corporation whose officials were so involved in politics would be vulnerable to harsh criticism, some of it deserved. It is impossible to imagine a twentieth century rail official even having the nerve to suggest himself for political office — provided he intended continuing in business. That preoccupation with politics may explain some of the derelictions of the Central in mid-century; for when a man tried to serve two masters such as the American governmental system and a great railroad corporation, one or the other or most likely both were bound to get considerably less than his best endeavor; and the connection was certain to bring both into disrepute.

In addition to other troubles, the Central had rate wars on its hands in the latter 1850's. The Erie had become a gadfly when it reached Dunkirk in 1851, bidding not only for Chicago but for Cincinnati business. Roundabout though it was, there was as p98yet no nearer way by rail between New York and Cincinnati. Support for it was enlisted in the "Queen City," and journalists there sneered at the "Buffalo and Albany Rail Road, or what is now known as the Central New York Road." One editor spoke vaguely of complaints of the Central's service, and said that "as the Lake Shore and Erie Road, which are known to afford the best accommodations to passengers, and to be the equal to any other road as regards speed and safety, will take passengers from Buffalo or Dunkirk direct to New York, we have no doubt the majority of travelers will be induced to avoid the Buffalo & Albany Road."

And now competition was increasing rapidly. The Pennsylvania and the Baltimore & Ohio had reached the Ohio River by 1853, and beyond it were sponsoring the building of other lines which would extend their service to Cincinnati and Chicago. North of Lake Erie the Grand Trunk was rushing its railhead towards Michigan. The New York Central had stationed business representatives at Cleveland, Detroit, Toledo, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee. They had even placed lesser agents in some smaller cities such as Columbus, Sandusky, Indianapolis, Lexington and Dubuque, but other roads protested that this was unfair competition and they were withdrawn. For as early as 1853, the railroads had begun to see that their community of interest necessitated working agreements. The first so‑called railroad convention met in June, 1853, at Buffalo, and was attended by representatives of the New York lines, as well as of the Cleveland, Columbus & Cincinnati, Mad River & Lake Erie, Michigan Southern and Michigan Central. The results there were inconclusive, but at least it was a beginning.

In the fall of 1854, another group of delegates came together at the St. Nicholas Hotel in New York — a more important gathering this time, for now the Pennsylvania not Baltimore & Ohio came in. It should be remembered that those railways still to a considerable degree represented their parent cities, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Both those cities were now overshadowed by New York, which had become the national metropolis, and as a seaport had great natural advantages over the other two. But however much their mother cities might be outshone by New York, the Pennsylvania and the B. & O. were capable of giving the Central much trouble, especially as they both reached tidewater, while the Central had no outlet to the sea, but must depend on two connecting roads, the Western (Massachusetts) and p99the Hudson River, which didn't always hold up their ends of the fabric.

This first St. Nicholas convention made some sweeping decisions. All companies represented were to charge the same passenger fares and freight rates between New York and any point west or southwest of Buffalo, Dunkirk, Pittsburgh and Wheeling. All rates were to be fixed, exclusive of commissions, insurance or allowances, freight classification should be the same on all lines, free passes to shippers and everyone else to be abolished "if possible" (it wasn't), no runners, solicitors or off-the‑line agencies for obtaining passengers and freight were to be tolerated.

The railroads made no secret of the meeting, and the news of it provoked a storm of criticism, or more accurately, denunciation. "Monopoly" was on the loose again. The New York Times saw here "a combination of railroad companies against the public," and pointed out that these roads were built ostensibly for the public good:

Their charters were obtained, their stock was subscribed and their routes were fixed on the plea that by their competition the rates of travel would be reduced, their speed would be increased, the prices of transportation would be diminished and the public at large would reap immense benefits in various ways.

Competition had already brought about all these things, in an extreme degree as regards rates, but that the companies should try to check it when it became ruinous was a grievance to the critical. The Syracuse Chronicle could see in the agreement only "swindling and roguery," a "giant scheme for plunder," without even the merit of originality:

It has been tried often before, but has never had a permanent success in this country. A monopoly here cannot stand against the general dissatisfaction of the public. It breeds mobs, violence to railroad property; a tearing up of the tracks, a burning of car-houses, etc., etc., and has uniformly proved disastrous to those who have shouldered it.

No such reprisals as the editor pictured had yet occurred in America; his intemperate words were simply threats, incitements to violence. But his fury was wasted, for the agreement didn't last six months. In March, 1855, the Erie withdrew from it and cut rates, whereupon the New York Central, considering itself at p100liberty to act, opened an agency in New York, explaining that the move was forced by the action of its competitor, and furthermore complaining that the Hudson River had not cooperated with it in reducing fares to compete with the Erie. It therefore made arrangements to connect with day and night boats at Albany, so that any passenger who wished to travel to New York that way might do so at $1.25 less fare than by rail. The New York-Buffalo fare had been $9, and now the Erie had slashed that to $6.50. The NYC sent two directors to parley with Erie officials, but nothing came of it, and the Central then installed a "cheap train" on which the fare from Dunkirk (via State Line Railroad and Buffalo) to New York was $5.85, and between Buffalo and New York only $5.25 — with the further reduction of $1.25 if you took the boat from Albany.

All this presently brought on an armistice, but in the spring of 1857 war flared up again. The little roads along the south shore of Lake Erie were being pieced together and giving a desultory through service to Chicago; but cars could not safely — though they actually risked it — be run through to New York, for the track gauge through Ohio was four feet, ten inches, while on either side, in Indiana and New York, were standard tracks, and the Erie was a six-footer — boasting mightily of it, too, and calling all the others narrow-gauges. The Central insisted that this lake shore chain put on a "through" train, as nearly through as could be managed, from Chicago.7 The Erie made another fare cut, whereupon the Central put pressure upon its child, the Buffalo & State Line, to refuse to honor Erie tickets.

The Erie was in a weakened position because of a strike of its men in 1856 and a Delaware River flood which washed great gaps in its track. On top of these came the financial debacle of '57. Nevertheless, it began taking steps to lay its own track into Buffalo and Niagara, and it fought the Central in the usual way, by knifing rates again. Some of the manifestoes issued during those days are delightful. One of the Central's productions reads:

Passengers taking this route can feel assured that they are with careful and experienced Engineers, the Company paying p101well for such, never having been obliged to use Firemen with no experience on account of strikes endangering life, and never making time as is the case on the Great Broad Gauge Route (Erie).

Passengers should be particular and secure tickets by this route, as it is the only one having a uniform gauge from Cincinnati to Buffalo (untrue), thence to New York and Boston, saving several changes of Cars and Baggage and the annoyance of missing connections, which occurs so often on the New York & Erie Route.

This is the only route that can land Passengers by cars in New York City within a short distance of the principal Hotels. All other Routes land their Passengers in Jersey City, compelling them to procure the services of porters and hacks, crossing the river, making an additional and disagreeable change, incident to the New York & Erie Road.

The Erie complained of this unfair publicity, which was amusing in view of a circular which it had already been distributing on connecting Ohio railroads, stating that "This train is certain of a connection with the New York and Erie Rail Road Train at Dunkirk. It is not certain to connect at Buffalo with any other Train if behind time." Passengers, to avoid missing connections and being compelled to lay over in Buffalo, could insure this only "by taking the Wide Cars in Dunkirk," which went through without change.

It is a fact well understood to persons who are accustomed to travelling by the Albany Narrow Gauge Route going East that they miss connections almost daily at Buffalo and Albany, which causes an extra expense and delay of 6 to 10 hours; while the trains on the New York & Erie R. R., having no connections to make, go through without change of Cars, and almost invariably arrive in New York many hours in advance of any other route. . . .

On the back of this broadside was reproduced a letter to the New York Herald, allegedly written by six travelers from the Middle West, in which they told of arriving from Detroit at Suspension Bridge on a March day in 1857 and being beset by New York Central runners, who convinced them that theirs was the only reliable route to New York, landing its passengers in the heart of the city 22 hours sooner than any other route. And so, in the words of the circular, they "took the narrow cars;" but instead of coming directly to New York they were landed at Albany, p102where, after waiting about an hour, they were ferried across the Hudson, and "walking 15 or 20 rods through the mud," reached "narrow cars again" of the Hudson River Railroad. Finally about 10 P.M. they arrived not in New York, but about three miles uptown. Here they were taken in tow by horses, and another hour's ride brought them downtown.

The arrivals by the New York and Erie Rail Road an hour and forty minutes before, and not twenty hours later, had so filled up the hotels that we had great difficulty in procuring lodgings for the night. . . . We consider ourselves grossly imposed of by representations made to us at Niagara Falls. . . .

That lack of a bridge across the Hudson at Albany was becoming an increasingly greater detriment to the Central as the years went on. "The chief miseries of travelling," moaned Greeley in the Tribune, "are changing cars and crossing ferries."

Truces and violations thereof followed each other almost overnight. In the summer of 1858 you could travel between New York and Buffalo for five dollars, New York and Rochester for four dollars. The stock market was affected by the war, and Daniel Drew, a heavy shareholder in Erie, was much concerned,e as were bankers and brokers. Railroad magnates seemed to spend no little of their time in conferences or going to and from them. One in June at Buffalo broke up in a row when the Erie refused to restore fares to a former level. Another at Cleveland in June was called by roads west of Buffalo and Pittsburgh, though Corning and Richmond were there from the New York Central. The majority of the delegates decided that the roads represented would no longer interchange tickets with the Erie until it restored normal fares again. Some of the western roads signed acquiescence in the Central's ultimatum that it would recognize only those lines which did no business with the Erie, but others refused to be bound by this, and the conference seemed to have accomplished no great deal, after all.

There was another gathering at the St. Nicholas in New York in the fall, the Big Four — New York Central, Erie, Pennsylvania and B. & O. — being the principal conferees, with some others farther west in attendance. Here, as at all these powwows, the matter of free passes was a burning question, and again, as at all such meetings, they were "abolished." Garrett of the B. & O. emphatically declared — and the others agreed — that no passes should be issued, even to needy persons. Any officer applied to p103by such a person and inclined to help him might buy him a ticket out of the officer's own pocket, but not out of the company's. But they might as well have tried to halt the north wind as the pass evil.8

There was another conference of the Big Four in Washington on January 28, 1859 — or it might better be called a concussion, for the session was a stormy one, lasting all night, with charges and counter-charges hurled about like confetti. And the rate-butchery went merrily on. A typical item of the time is a telegram from Amasa Stone, Jr., of the Cleveland, Columbus & Cincinnati to Corning in June, '59:

The steamers City of Buffalo and Western Metropolis are carrying passengers between Cleveland and Buffalo at two dollars. We have made Rail fare four dollars. The Pittsburgh line reduced fare to New York to twelve. We followed them.

The "Pittsburgh line" was the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The Buffalo Courier charged the New York Central with responsibility for keeping rates below a compensatory level, to which the New York Courier retorted that officials of the NYC had met with a group of directors of the Erie, and the latter had agreed to raise passenger and freight rates to a reasonable degree, but that the Erie organization repudiated the action of its own directors. It was evident that all agreements were "out the window," as a New York governor used to say, and in the matter of freight rates, the New York Central and the Pennsylvania were bickering over who was to blame. The Central claimed that it had to cut merchandise rates to protect the city of New York, as the two more southerly roads were stealing business away from it. The Pennsylvania snapped back that covenants failed because the Erie could not trust the Central. Harper's Weekly thought the Pennsylvania nearer right; and as its calm, unprejudiced opinion p104is more valuable than that of the newspaper partisans, we quote an excerpt from it:

It is notorious that the New York Central managers did openly and repeatedly violate the Convention; and though we believe that it is true that the effect of the alliance was to give the Southern lines undue advantages over their New York rivals, still we doubt whether the New York Central would have taken the responsibility of annulling the compact as long as there was a reasonable chance of maintaining it. It was only when the President of the Erie declared that he would no longer be bound by an agreement which was treated by his co-obligees as waste paper that the Central managers proclaimed their discovery that the compact was hurting New York.

. . . There have been, we believe, three distinct reductions of fares, all initiated by the New York Central and acquiesced in, as a matter of necessity, by the Pennsylvania, the Erie and the Baltimore & Ohio. Merchandise is now being carried to and from the West at mere nominal charges for transportation. . . .

Some editors were congratulating the public on getting cheap rates as a result of the strife, but Harper's pointed out that this was a doubtful blessing, when those rates were often below costs, depressing stocks, depriving stockholders of income and threatening ruin to all. A gentle rebuke, a note so sane and conciliatory that it merits quotation here, from J. Edgar Thomson, president of the Pennsylvania, to Corning, is found in a letter of May 23, 18599 regarding some minor point at issue between the companies, which Thomson did not think important:

When the general prostration of the Rail Road interests of the country is considered — the natural result of the insane competition carried on between four respectable Companies, governed, it is supposed, by intelligent men . . . .

We have all given too much importance to this distant traffic. I believe that your Company is disposed to make greater sacrifices to secure it than either of the others. Have you ever reflected whether your course in this respect is wise?

The Erie, as a result of its disasters and this rate-cutting, was really in a bad way. In January, 1859, you could buy its stock for 5½. Daniel Drew wrote to Corning on April 26 that the Erie board had been in session that day, and had decided to hold rates as they were, but he had been trying to induce them to do p105away with their through trains, and he thought they might agree. Said he:

I am convinced the Erie Road cannot go on much longer unless they can get relief from some source, and that I do not believe they will get. There are several suits commenced to‑day, and the seventy-five bonds sold for twenty, with a year and a half interest on them, which leaves them at 9½. These bonds two months ago were worth forty.

The Erie was in a slough of trouble and despond which made it an easy prey to the machinations of Gould and Fisk a decade later.

By 1860 the Central had completed double-tracking the line with good iron rail10 from Albany to Buffalo. But it had plenty of trouble still ahead. In 1860, the state of New York decided to repudiate its act of 1851 which freed the railroads of the burden of paying canal tolls to the commonwealth. Politicians had made gestures towards repudiation on two or three previous occasions, and of course the newspaper critics were all for it. The state canal system — the Erie and nearly a dozen branches — was losing business steadily to the railroads, red ink was beginning to be used on the books, and taxpayers were complaining.

In 1860, the state brought suit for $5,000,000, guessing this to be the amount of toll due it on freight carried by the railroads since they were freed by that law of '51, which the state's lawyers now solemnly declared to be void, because "it disposes of the canals, their freight and revenues in a manner inconsistent with the Constitution." It asserted that freight carried by the railroads properly belonged to the canals, and that under the Constitution, the revenues of the canals were pledged to the payment of the debt of the state. Of course such a backset to progress could not stand up when put to the test, but a costly lawsuit was required to dispose of it. Meanwhile, the politicians' concern for the canals subsided during the Civil War when the Erie business increased enormously, so that it carried far more freight than the New York Central and Erie Railroads combined. The number of boats plying its channel rose from 3,000 in 1860 to 6,000 in 1863.

p106 The railroads as they grew were having increasingly frequent contacts with the law, and decisions were being made which affect railroad practice to this day. A live question was whether the roads could limit the life of their tickets. Limits of three days and six days were often put on tickets then, but people persisted in trying to travel on overripe pasteboards and were frequently ejected from trains in consequence. Country editors were sputtering over the matter; in their opinion, the railroads were bound to carry a passenger, no matter how old and musty his ticket might be. A suit brought by a passenger was tried at Bath, N. Y., in 1859, and the plaintiff was awarded $150 damages for being put off the train, the judge holding that the ticket did not constitute a contract between seller and buyer. "It is not likely," opined His Honor, "that the passenger would stop to look closely for the meaning of words on the ticket handed him, or search closely for its hidden mysteries;" which was rather a weak argument, inasmuch as there were few words on a ticket of those days. But at Cattaraugus three months later, a similar suit against the Central was decided in the defendant's favor, the court holding that the ticket was a contract; and this presently came to be the view of the law throughout the land.

So the NYC had much need of good legal talent, and there is a legend that when a lank, homely Illinois backwoods lawyer named Lincoln made a remarkable speech at Cooper Union in New York on February 27, 1860, Mr. Corning was there, and that he sought out the railsplitter next morning and offered him $10,000 a year to serve as the Central's chief counsel, which proffer was refused. The story is not well authenticated, and historians regard it with suspicion.

A little more than a year later Lincoln traveled over the Central in a private car with his wife and some friends, on his way to his inauguration and martyrdom at Washington. He stopped overnight at Buffalo and started east early next morning, pausing at Rochester, Syracuse and Utica to speak to cheering crowds, passing another night at the Delavan House, just across the street from the station at Albany. Next morning the Hudson was in flood and it was not considered safe to risk a President-elect on the ferry, so the special train was taken over the Albany & Vermont (now Delaware & Hudson) track, up the west side of the river of that Troy bridge and so through Troy — once more proving to that city's satisfaction that it and not Albany was the logical eastern terminus of the New York Central. Down the Hudson p107River Railroad, the journey was one continuous ovation, all the way to New York.

Mr. Corning had at least one contact with Lincoln of which we have record. During the Civil War, he was indiscreet enough to write a letter to the President in behalf of Clement Vallandigham, the Ohio "copperhead" who was under charges of disloyal plotting against the government, and Lincoln's reply thereto is accounted as among his greatest utterances.

The firing on Fort Sumter in the spring of 1861 caused a brief slump in stocks, but rail shares soon rose because it was found that war meant increased business for them, particularly in freight revenues. The east-west railroads were now rewarded for their services in tying the states of the North together, for sowing rock-ribbed Yankee patriotism all through the Midwest and Northwest and making it possible to move armies, munitions and supplies readily to and fro, thus becoming one of the great factors in the winning of the war.

And now Chicago, young, raw Chicago, leaped into prominence as the second great entrepot of the nation — or was it the first? Up to 1860, its largest annual shipment of grain had been 31,000,000 bushels; during the war its yearly average was 50,000,000. There were large shipments also from Milwaukee and other lake ports and from Cincinnati — going not only to our own East but to Europe; for England was having some bad crop years in the early 1860's. In 1863, Chicago sent eastward 95,000,000 pounds of meats and provisions, as against a previous maximum of 13,000,000.11 And Pennsylvania's output of petroleum and soft and hard coal rose prodigiously.

But shipments eastward were hampered and delayed by the multiplicity of gauges, particularly in Ohio, which, undergoing a spasm of Planned Economy, had by law fixed the railroad gauge at 4 feet, 10 inches. This was eventually relaxed, but not until hundreds of miles of track had been built, and then the cost of changing delayed standardization for years. The result was that in the Civil War rush, both the NYC and the Pennsylvania were pestered west of the Pennsylvania state line with the shifting of cargoes. The Erie and the Central had their own boats on the Lakes (Dean Richmond, Central vice-president, had a fleet of them), but water carriage was also slow, and the Midwest complained bitterly of jammed freight houses and poor service. It p108was then that Chicago and Canada hatched the idea of a St. Lawrence Waterway, a Bulwerian Spectre of the Threshold which arises from time to time to leer menacingly at the railroads, especially the New York Central, even to this day.f

The Central had other threats in those wartimes which were more real. By 1864, the Philadelphia & Erie Railroad was completed, giving the Pennsylvania a line from Philadelphia to the Lake, while the Erie Railroad pushed its six-foot Atlantic and Great Western (later New York, Pennsylvania & Ohio) down across Ohio to Cincinnati, connecting there with another six-foot line to St. Louis. Shipments from New York to Cincinnati, which had taken from 30 to 40 days to come through, now came over the new line in a week.

Nevertheless, the Central was not doing so badly. Its freight earnings, which had been languishing at a little more than four millions of dollars in 1860, rose to more than six and a half millions in '62, and eight and a half in '64. Passenger profits, hard hit by the panic of '57, the rate wars and tightening competition, had dropped from three and a quarter millions in 1856 to two and a half millions each in 1860, '61 and '62. But in '63 they rose to almost three millions, in '64 to very nearly four millions, and added another half million in the following year. In '63 the company was able to lay aside a million and a half as a reserve fund for improvements and emergencies. During most of the war, New York Central, Erie and Pennsylvania were the favorite stocks of the New York Exchange. The B. & O. was too near the battle lines to be considered a good risk.

There was prosperity among those who stayed at home, too, as in every war, and a sidelight on how life went on quite as merrily as ever, if not more so, is seen in the item that on one day in 1864, during the New York State Fair, $5,000 worth of tickets were sold at the Rochester depot of the New York Central. Saratoga was a roaring caldron of "pleasure," with hotels and the newly-opened race track stands jammed to the rooftrees, and plug-ugly John Morrissey's gambling hells running day and night; for when the so‑called human race begins to garner money in quantities, it immediately looks about for some device for throwing it away which, despite the experience of fifty centuries, it fatuously imagines will increase the treasure.

[image ALT: A woodcut of a large hall-like building into which three railroad tracks enter. It is the first railroad station in Rochester, NY.]

First Central Station at Rochester

Among those seen about the race course were "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt (a stockholder in the track) and a gentleman with weeping willow mustaches, Mr. Leonard W. Jerome — p109grandfather of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, by the way — who, with his brother, Addison G., had come out of Rochester into Gotham's high finance in recent years. There were other prominent railroad and Wall Street men — which did the railroads' reputation no good, for most of America, though wistfully longing to be in on the fun, shook its collective head and repeated, with trimmings, the dictum of squinting Mr. Bennett (who was said to have obtained many of the Herald's spicy tidbits about the smart set by bribing chambermaids), that Saratoga was the "cradle of fashion and intrigue, rendezvous of lackeys and jockeys."

And so the lambasting of the railroads continued at a lively pace. There had been some gestures made to placate public opinion, as when in 1855, the New York Central made it a rule that all moneys derived from the sales of unclaimed baggage were to be turned over to the common school fund, but Erastus Corning was too easy a target not only for editorial crusaders but for dissatisfied stockholders, to be let off. As the end of 1863 and the annual meeting drew near, a group of stockholders in New York City put a notice in the Times, urging other stockholders p110to send their proxies to Thomas W. Olcott of Albany and two others named, who would serve their interests better than the same old crowd of insiders whose sole object was to perpetuate themselves in office. This was a signal for a typhoon of the most virulent denunciation that the Central had yet received. The New York Times said of the company on November 12:

It enters openly and without the slightest attempt at concealment, into every political canvass, wields all its power and influence against the government, and in every case that is close, decides the political character and complexion of the state of New York. . . . Free trains are always run for Democratic meetings at the expense of the stockholders, and the patronage of the concern is remorselessly used in the same interest. It is not reasonable to expect very large dividends when the resources of the road are thus wasted on political projects on the one hand and on contracts to officers and their favorites on the other. . . .

On the following day the Tribune added its bit:

Not less than Half a Million per annum of the earnings which belong to those stockholders are annually disbursed in such manner as, it is supposed, will best subserve the interests and maintain or achieve the ascendency of the Democratic party, whereof its President, Vice-president, Superintendent and most of its Directors, Attorneys and leading employees are active and unscrupulous engineers and recruiting sergeants.

That the Central managers last year defeated Roscoe Conkling and elected to Congress one of their own employees12 in his stead; that they elected to the last Assembly from a Republican district in Albany County . . . one of their own employees by whose help that body was tied and the organization of the House for a long time prevented; and that they this fall defeated the Union ticket in Erie County and in Buffalo City, no intelligent New York politician can doubt. . . .

At this the World leaped into the fray, espousing the Central's cause, declaring that "The principal owners of the Times newspaper are well-known stock jobbers who have lately operated largely in Central shares. This fact may account for the prostitution of the columns of a respectable newspaper to the purposes sought to be forwarded by the editorial in the Times of 12th inst." Twenty-four hours later, Mr. Bennett, who had been p111looking on sardonically, swung a bludgeon on both contestants, charging in the Herald that "The Times is the organ of the Jeromes in all their stockjobbing affairs, and the World represents the Central Railroad jobbing politicians," whom he also called "the Albany Clique." He added that "There is considerable talk in regard to the Central Railroad taking control of either the Hudson or the Harlem," in which he was groping towards a great truth, though his guess was in reverse.

Russell Sage, Leonard Jerome and other stockholders were clamoring loudly for a new regime in Central. But three Republican members of the board of directors, two of whom were also members of its committee on accounts, Richard M. Blatchford of New York, Cornelius L. Tracy of Troy and Hamilton White of Syracuse, threw a monkey wrench by declaring in a published statement that they had never found anything in the accounts or transactions of the company to indicate that its funds or property had been used for the benefit of any political party, that they had no reason to believe that any official or employee had ever been hired or dismissed because of a political affiliation, and that more than half of those employed in the head offices at Albany were and always had been supporters of Lincoln's administration. To this Vibbard and the division superintendents added that no free trains had ever been run for the Democrats, but on the contrary, both parties had been treated alike and had been charged the same price per car when trains were run for political meetings.

The Times in riposte characterized the circular of the three directors as "beneath contempt," and said that the fact that the Central was used for political purposes "is as notorious as that trains run over its tracks." The Tribune recited the political activities and incumbencies of Richmond, Corning, Pruyn and Vibbard, and hurled a barb at a still more vulnerable spot when it said that Mr. Corning should either work for nothing or be paid a salary:

Paying him by allowing him to furnish the road with every spike, chair, bolt, butt, screw, etc., it may need, out of his own store at his own price, will never do. Ten per cent per annum can never be got that way.

The Tribune was not alone in this. Persons unconnected with the railroad had been saying that the company could better afford to pay its president $100,000 a year as salary than have p112the existing stigma upon it. But the board by resolution supported Corning, and called in the supply agent, whose testimony convinced them that the executive's course as to purchases had been eminently correct. The Tribune again retorted that he had been making $250,000 a year out of his job, and that "Those who know the inner workings of the machine know perfectly well that the utmost profusion and corruption pervade every part of it;" which was a slight overstatement, to say the best of it. The Herald, viewing the shindy from afar, sagely concluded that "the opposition has the largest number of words," but the insiders held the most proxies.

The election of that December, 1863, was the most exciting yet in the Central's history. The pro- and anti-Corning forces each had inspectors and able legal counsel present. There were 242,090 shares of stock outstanding, and of these, 181,653 were voted at this election. Some thousands of proxies on both sides were challenged, and a considerable number thrown out. Three names were on both the pro- and anti- tickets — Richmond of Buffalo, Chedell of Auburn and White of Syracuse. Among those of the old board seeking re-election in toto were Cornell, Pruyn and Martin of Albany, Paige of Schenectady, Thayer of Boston, Tracy of Troy, Blatchford of New York and others. On the opposition ticket, besides Richmond, Chedell and White, there were such men as Hiram Sibley, Western Union Telegraph magnate of Rochester, Russell Sage, Olcott and Rufus H. King of Albany, Chester W. Chapin of Springfield, Mass. (a powerful figure in the railroad world, president of the Western Railroad, soon to be known as the Boston & Albany), and four New Yorkers, including Edward G. Faile and Moreau Delano.

Corning received the highest number of votes of anyone, 124,802. His supporters were all re-elected by slightly smaller margins. On the opposition ticket, Faile received the largest number of votes, 60,039, with Chapin and Delano close behind him. But that campaign and the public castigation had taken a great deal out of Corning. He was 70 years old, and tired. He had shown his teeth effectively in that final battle, but the power of the opposition was palpably growing, and it would be better to retire while he could do so gracefully, rather than wait to be forced out. Pleading ill-health, he resigned on April 24, 1864, and the directors accepted his resignation with profuse and handsomely engrossed resolutions of regret and confidence. Only one man was considered as his successor — Dean Richmond.


The Author's Notes:

1 In his book, The Wabash, London, 1855.

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2 An Englishman in America, London, 1856.

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3 The NYC proudly advertised its ice water service. Care for this item is found in records of other parts of what is now the New York Central system. The directors of the Michigan Southern on June 16, 1854, "Resolved, that the Conductors on the Passenger trains, in addition to their care and courteous treatment of all passengers on their respective trains, see that the passengers are well provided with good and cold ice water on every trip." Observe that it must be cold ice water. And a news item from Cambridge City, Ind., in February, 1858, tells of a large supply of clear ice being cut from neighboring creeks for use on trains during the following summer.

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4 Manuscript diary of Lawrence Van Wyck, civil engineer, New York Public Library.

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5 Inquest testimony developed the fact that some of the timbers were decayed. Several residents of the neighborhood testified that they knew the bridge was rotten. Some said that it was built of "bastard elm, a species of wood very difficult to distinguish from common elm, but much inferior for bridging purposes."

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6 The word "depot" persisted for decades thereafter in spite of sporadic attempts to adopt the English equivalent. In 1849, Horn's Railroad Gazette, American Tourist and Merchants and Traveller's Guide said, "The Northern papers are discussing the feasibility of disusing the French word 'depot' . . . They recommend the substitution of the English word 'station' or 'station house' as more expressive and better English. Some of them express the hope that in two years there will not be a single 'depot' in the United States." Horn endorsed the idea and began calling it station; but in spite of him and his brother scribes, the United States continued to be thickly dotted with "depots."

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7 Struggling with this gauge problem in Ohio, the Pennsylvania experimented with an extra wide car wheel which, it was hoped, would make the inch-and‑a‑half difference in gauges negligible, while the New York Central tried an adjustable-length axle. Neither, as may be imagined, could be considered a great success.

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8 An example of the naive but justifiable assurance of the public is found in a letter to Corning in the New York files, written from Washington, September 20, 1860:

Sir:— I expect to travel on the line of your road next month, and I should be obliged to you if you would send me a pass from Buffalo to Albany. I am pay Clerk in the Auditor's office for P O Department, and have settled the Accounts of the New York Central R R Co. for the last seven years; your Attention to this will be Acknowledged you

Respectfully yr. Obt. Servt.

I. B. Carns.

On the back this letter is docketed, "Pass sent Sept 24/60."

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9 In the New York archives.

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10 In England in 1855, Henry Bessemer had devised a process for making steel cheaper than ever before, but American railroads did not go in for steel rails until long after that. Meanwhile, many winter railroad accidents were attributed to the breaking of iron rails made brittle by cold.

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11 These figures are supplied by Emerson D. Fite in "The Canal and the Railroad from 1861 to 1865," Yale Review, August, 1906.

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12 President Corning.


Thayer's Notes:

a For the "New England Emigrant Aid Company" — the warm and fuzzy name masks a Yankee gun-running outfit — see The Sharps Rifle Episode in Kansas History; for a Southern example of the rush to pack the territory, see The Buford Expedition to Kansas.

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b The experience of one Dutch immigrant family is very well and informatively told in the diary of John Remeeus, whose account of his train trip from Boston to Chicago (July 22‑30, 1854) gives us a very good picture of rail travel at the time. He reserves for after Detroit the comment that their cars "were no better than freight cars" (July 29).

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c Named for Lucia Vestris, one of the most famous light comedy actresses of the early 19c, who visited the United States in 1838. In our writer's comic invention there's a hint of News Travels Slowly In These Parts: she had died in 1856 at the age of 59, and her bloom was no more a thing to be desired. . . .

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d And in fact oral contracts were not unheard-of in the railroad world, and could work quite well. Robert L. Fulton gives an example of oral contract that governed the building of 30 miles of the Central Pacific, and other instances of mutual trust as well: Epic of the Overland, p27.

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e An entertainingly hostile view of this railroad financier and his travails on the stock market is given by financial analyst John Moody in Chapter 4 of The Railroad Builders.

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f The St. Lawrence Seaway finally became a reality in 1959, after much resistance from the railroad lobby.


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