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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.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p3  Chapter I
The Embryo of a Giant

"We arrived at Schenectady about 1 P.M.," wrote a traveler in the Ariel magazine in 1829. "As soon as the stage stopped at the Hotel, even before the driver could undo the door, up stept a large, muscular fellow and bawled out at the highest pitch of polite etiquette, 'Gentlemen, do you go to the West?' 'We do,' was the reply. 'The packet starts at two o'clock, gentlemen; you had better take your passage and secure your births;º only 3½ cents per mile, gentlemen, and two shillings a meal, with best accomodationº and a very superior boat, gentlemen.' 'Hang his boat, gentlemen, don't take passage in her!' said a second fellow. 'I'll take you for less than half the money in a devilish fine boat and charge you but a shilling a meal.' By this time there were at least half a dozen more, all anxious for us to engage our passage with them at almost any price we pleased."

When the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, and passenger packets began running — no, creeping would more truthful — over it from Buffalo, it was quickly seen that their logical eastern terminal must be at Schenectady. They would have little attraction for the traveler farther east than that, for the canal from Schenectady to the Hudson River and Albany followed the sinuous and precipitous course of the Mohawk River, crossing that stream twice and being impeded by several locks, so that it took more than a day to cover the forty miles' distance between the two cities. Across country, the distance was no more than seventeen miles by wagon road, and so stagecoaches plied over it, carrying local passengers as well as those who expected to take the canal packets for the West. Several packet companies came into existence, and their solicitors became an interesting phenomenon and a nuisance, as the traveler quoted above indicates. Fights among them on the wharf became a common occurrence.

 p4  It is remarkable to observe how quickly after the completion of the canal the idea of spanning that short distance between Albany — a city then of some 25,000 population — and Schenectady, no more than one-fifth of the capital city's size, came into being, also how quickly this occurred after the steam locomotive was brought into workable form in England. George Stephenson opened the Stockton & Darlington and drew its first train with a locomotive on September 27, 1825. The grand celebration of the opening of the Erie Canal took place a month later, during the last few days of October. And two months later, on December 28, there appeared in the Schenectady Cabinet a modest paid notice stating that —

Application will be made to the legislature of the state of New‑York, at the approaching session, for an act to incorporate the Mohawk and Hudson Rail Company, with an exclusive grant for a term of years, for the construction of a Rail Road betwixt the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, with a capital of three hundred thousand dollars, to be increased to five hundred thousand dollars, if necessary, and to receive such certain tolls on the same, as may seem fit for the legislature to grant.

This unsigned notice was inserted by a middle-aged, English-born citizen of Duanesburgh, a few miles west of Schenectady. George William Featherstonhaugh, described as a "tall, elegant gentleman," was also a man of varied attainments who left his mark indelibly upon our history, but who is so nearly forgotten now that he has gone unnoticed by the recently compiled Dictionary of American Biography — one the inexplicable omissions of that otherwise pretty comprehensive work. Nor is he mentioned in some so‑called histories of American railways. Born in London in 1780,​1 he was educated at Oxford, and broadened his scholar­ship by five years of travel on the continent of Europe. With ample means, he came to America in 1806, and two years later married the daughter of James Duane, member of the Continental Congress, first mayor of New York after the Revolution, and later United States judge. A pretty story is told of how Featherstonhaugh saw in the streets of Philadelphia a team running  p5 away with a carriage in which there was only a beautiful young lady. At peril of his life he leaped to the bits of the frightened horses, halted them, and lo! the young lady, Miss Duane, and he proved to have been made for each other.

Featherstonhaugh acquired a large tract of land near Duanesburgh, built a handsome mansion there and became a gentleman farmer, going in extensively for the breeding of blooded cattle and sheep. But he was a man of multifarious interests, two of his favorite hobbies being geology and railroads. For several years he had been studying every word written about railroads, every report of progress on them in England. The only man who really preceded him in an effort to organize a railroad company for public service in this country​2 was Colonel John Stevens of New Jersey, who had obtained a charter for a railroad in his own state (but couldn't finance it), and had even tried to induce the Erie Canal commissioners to build a railroad — mounted on low posts — instead of a canal from Albany to Buffalo. Had his arguments prevailed, the New York Central — as the track along that course eventually became — might have been the first railroad built in America.

The public-spirited publisher of the Schenectady Cabinet, forwarding proof of his little announcement to Featherstonhaugh, wrote, "If the application succeeds, my bill for advertising will be $1.56" (for six weeks' insertion) "— if it does not succeed — nothing."

We do not know, but Featherstonhaugh might have been the man who wrote anonymously in the Albany Argus several months before, urging the capitalists of that city to comprehend the absolute necessity of a railroad to Schenectady, to prevent Albany from falling into decay through the rivalry of Troy. Featherstonhaugh's argument in favor of his project was of course smoother and quicker transportation for canal travelers between Albany and Schenectady; but one suspects that he was chiefly interested just in seeing the marvelous thing at work in America, and as a creation of his own. However that may be, in this unassuming little announcement in 1826 of intent to create a sixteen-mile railroad at a cost — it was hoped — of no more than $300,000, one find  p6 the germ which has grown into the vast New York Central system of 120 years later, one of the two mightiest railroad organisms in the United States, with (as of 1946) 10,748 miles of track — not including second, third and fourth tracks, yards and sidings — 126,839 employees, and assets (in 1946) of $2,161,415,781.

Featherstonhaugh, by his marriage with Miss Duane, had acquired in‑law kinship or friendship with nearly all the leading families of New York and some adjoining states. He talked railroad everywhere, and was laughed at behind his back by many. Once when he had just left a group on the street in Schenectady, one of them jerked a thumb after him and gibed, "Did you ever hear of such a wild idea? Why, the cars couldn't be made to go fast enough between here and Albany to keep the mosquitoes from eating the passengers!"

One among his friends was Stephen Van Rensselaer of Albany, popularly known as the Old Patroon, a man of means and high character, who currently was also a member of Congress. He became a co-petitioner with Featherstonhaugh for the charter, and subscribed for 100 shares of stock, applying three dollars down on each of them, but he was never a very ardent partisan of the project. Naturally, opposition arose at once — as always in the case of early railroad projects — from the Albany & Schenectady Turnpike Company, from stage line proprietors and others, and Van Rensselaer was accused — again as usual — of selfish considerations. Featherstonhaugh, who drew the act of incorporation, had scarcely gotten it on its way through the Assembly when Van Rensselaer, evidently much perturbed in mind, wrote him:

I have brought an old House about my ears by signing the petition. I have written I will withdraw my name if necessary, the Albanians think the city will be ruined and the trade diverted to my land below the overslaugh. You must help me out of the difficulty.

The only help that Featherstonhaugh could give him was that of logic, and this he did. He labored arduously in the Assembly for the charter, and it passed that body on March 29, 1826, by a vote of 99 to 8. The Senate presented a more difficult problem, and Featherstonhaugh was so harassed by his struggle with it and by critics from outside that in a moment of depression he wrote, one day in April, "My life here is very uncomfortable; I am harassed all the time. The public controversy into which I have gotten almost lowers me in my own estimation;" but then, brightening  p7 a later, "But my bill will pass in a few days, and in this expectation I see my only consolation."

The bill did become a law of April 17; but it had been so amended by the politicians that it was later found unworkable. Mr. Van Rensselaer was — doubtless at Featherstonhaugh's instigation — elected as president, a position which he held until 1832, though he attended few directors' meetings, performed no executive duties and had nothing to do with developing the plans for the work. In June, 1828, he sold 80 of his 100 shares of stock, leaving himself in possession of only 20, though protesting to Featherstonhaugh that "My faith is still strong if the business is well managed it will be profitable to the stockholders." In May, 1830 he timidly bought four more shares, and that represented his entire holding.

Of the five directors first chosen, three — Lynde Catlin, Peter Augustus Jay and Andrew Edmeston — were New York City men, that place having subscribed most largely to the project — if the subscriptions can be called large. Lynde Catlin was president of the Merchants Bank (where for some time the meetings of the corporation were held), and he became the first treasurer of the company. Edmeston died soon after organization, and Nicholas Fish was chosen a director in his place.

It was quickly found that two of the clauses inserted in the act during its passage through the Legislature rendered it practically impossible for the stockholders to undertake what was essentially a gamble on so precarious a foundation. One clause made the stockholders "jointly and severally and personally liable" for all debts contracted by the corporation or its agents, while the other provided that if the Legislature at any time within five years after the completion of the road took a notion to annul its charter and seize the job, it could do so by repaying to the corporation the money it had expended, and the railroad would thereupon become the property of the state.

A bill was introduced into the Legislature of 1827, seeking alleviation of these two provisions, but there was no one there to push it as should have been done, and it failed to pass. Featherstonhaugh had gone to England with his wife in the previous September to study railroad developments in that country. Peter Fleming, the company's engineer, had preceded him, and the two were very busy for months on end studying the British locomotives, procuring drawings, models, etc. Featherstonhaugh wrote to one of the New York Assemblymen, a personal friend, that  p8 those two clauses must be repealed, "or my friends will not sustain me, and the experiment will not be tried." The June directors' meeting in 1828 asked the Legislature for relief and an increase in the number of directors to nine, but nothing was done until Featherstonhaugh came home in March. Then he went to work upon the lawmakers in some persuasive or resistless way that he had, with the result that the offensive items were repealed on March 28, and the directorate increased in number as desired. Featherstonhaugh reported his success to a board meeting in New York, and a resolution of thanks was inscribed upon the minutes, as indeed it should have been.

When the new and enlarged directorate was chosen in March, Herman LeRoy, John Jacob Astor, David S. Jones and James Duane were added to the original five. Nothing else was done that year, however, possibly because of a new disaster which befell Featherstonhaugh — and when he didn't act, the board did little. In June, his dearly beloved wife died. His two daughters had died two years before, and he was now left with only a son. But in the autumn the directors appointed him, Catlin and Astor as a committee to draft measures for beginning the work. Astor declined to serve, pleading poor health, though it does not seem that it would have been much of a physical strain, for Featherstonhaugh as usual did all the work, possibly with some assistance from Engineer Fleming.

That was a bitter winter. In January, 1829, loaded sleighs drove on the Hudson River ice from Newburgh to Albany, eighty-five miles; and it was just as cold in February, when Featherstonhaugh shivered down from Duanesburgh to New York in drafty stage coaches to present his report on the thirteenth. It embodied Fleming's estimate of the cost of the road, $275,366.29 — nearly double what Featherstonhaugh had guessed it four years before. It included a long dissertation on railroads, principally upon the reduction of friction by the use of rails, a subject "which has risen to great importance in mechanics and promises the most important results. It is now demonstrated that by the skilful application of this branch of science, the power of a horse may be multiplied to six and even ten times."

The report suggested a possible testing on a track only 100 feet long, but the board decided to go ahead, and so ordered that contracts for timber and grading be made, Featherstonhaugh being authorized to advertise for proposals. A payment of three dollars per share on stock subscriptions was also called for.  p9 Featherstonhaugh reported on February 24 that he had advertised as instructed.

Then in the next two weeks some mysterious thing happened; what it was we cannot discover now and may never know, for there is no hint of it in the minutes, and no discoverable mention of it elsewhere. Anyhow, on March 13, at a meeting from which both President Van Rensselaer and Vice-president Featherstonhaugh were absent, resolutions were passed, suspending the making of contracts ordered at the last meeting and rescinding the call for three dollars per share on stock, reducing this demand to one dollar per share. We search in vain for explanations. If differences had arisen between Featherstonhaugh and the others, there is no ripple of them in the minutes. The Board met again on April 1, with Featherstonhaugh present, but officially there was no business transacted — though we do not know what words may have passed, off the record. It met again two days later, and the only memorandum of this meeting says that it ordered an election of directors on May 25. On that date the old directors were re-elected, with the exception of Duane and Catlin, who retired, their seats being filled by James Renwick and Mayor John I. DeGraff of Schenectady.

At the first meeting of this new board on July 14, only Fish, Astor, LeRoy, Jones and Jay were present. These re-elected Van Rensselaer as president, but supplanted Featherstonhaugh with Fish as vice-president and made Renwick secretary. One week later they met again, and as the very first business on the program, they perpetrated another of the mysteries of this curious little concern — a strange and apparently uncalled-for resolution "on motion of Mr. Astor; —"

Whereas, G. W. Featherstonhaugh, Esq., who at the late election was chosen a director of this incorporation has alone of all the directors resident in New York or its vicinity not taken his seat at the Board: Resolved that the Secretary be directed to address him a letter enquiring whether it be his intention to serve as director or not.

The statement that he alone of all the directors had not attended a meeting was flatly false. In the two meetings since the election, only six directors, the same six, attended. Why were the others not queried? Neither DeGraff nor President Van Rensselaer — both of whom lived nearer to New York than Featherstonhaugh — had attended either of these meetings; in fact, Van  p10 Rensselaer had been persistently absent for months. When he finally passed from the presidency three years later, out of sixty-three meetings held by the board up to that time, he had attended only eight. Why was he not ordered to state his intentions? This curt ultimatum to the man who had founded and been the mainspring of the organization, than whom none had been more constant in at attendance at meetings, none so tireless in its service, appears as an insolent and cruel injustice.

Just after his re-election to the board a few weeks earlier he had suffered a third heavy shock — the destruction by fire of his beautiful home at Duanesburgh, with all his books and treasures. Some consideration might have been allowed him on this score. The resolution has a strong smell of personal animus, perhaps engendered in some of the new blood that had come into the corporation in the past year. However that may be, at the next meeting, on August 1, the board received an equally curt note:


I hereby resign my situation as one of the Directors of the Mohawk and Hudson Rail Road Company.

G. W. Featherstonhaugh

Some time later he offered his 601 shares of stock to the company and it was voted that it be bought at par, provided he turn over to the treasurer his profiles, surveys and all papers relating to the company's affairs, and execute a discharge in full of any claims he might have upon the company. They were still treating him as an enemy. He seemed at the moment to be broken in spirit, for he spoke of leaving there "the tomb of all his hopes." But he was too big a man to be beaten by adversity; he moved down to Philadelphia to found another career.3

 p11  With its most knowing and energetic figure gone, the company seemed to wabble badly for a while. Churchill C. Cambreleng — politician and member of Congress for eighteen years — was elected to the vacant seat on the board, and he was an able man; considered so able that he was presently made "Commissioner," or manager, to get the job under way. The company's first engineer, Peter Fleming, retired, and in his stead appears John B. Jervis, who became one of the nation's great engineers and railroad executives. The directors evidently thought highly of him, for they agreed to pay him $2,000 annually as salary and expenses for half of his time.

In the summer of 1830, ground was at last broken with a silver spade by Mr. Van Rensselaer near Schenectady for the little railroad chartered four years before, and there was much speech-making and rejoicing. The Albany Argus says the ceremony took place on July 27. S. DeWitt Bloodgood, in a sketchy little monograph on the road, written in 1831, says it was August 12, while Joel Munsell, in his Annals of Albany, names July 29 — not that it seriously matters. This gave the stock a boost, and in September it was quoted at ten per cent above par. The enthusiastic Albany Daily Advertiser predicted that trains would dash from city to city in three-quarters of an hour, and that travelers would go from Albany to Utica in four hours, whereas by stage it now required twelve hours.

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Early Station: First Mohawk & Hudson Station at Schenectady, 1831.

Engineer Jervis didn't like Fleming's survey, and ran another line farther to northward. A problem in grades confronted him. Albany is built on a shelving slope, its waterfront being only 18 feet above sea level, its western suburbs 200 feet or more. Between there and Schenectady the ground in some places is of more than 300 feet altitude. Of course the descent to Schenectady is much less. While the grades on the intervening plateau could be handled by locomotive or horse power, there seemed no way to negotiate the steeps at either end save by inclined planes where the cars were drawn up and down by stationary engines and cables. It might be said that the present course of the New York Central between the two cities is quite different from that of the Mohawk & Hudson, but that the grade westward out of Albany is still a nuisance, and until the Diesels came, pusher engines still had to be used to boost the heavier trains up the hill.

The length of the road as originally constructed, including planes, was 15.875 miles. Of course no sort of rail was known  p12 save the flat, strap type, the kind that was prone to come loose at the ends, curl up as a train was passing over it and saber through the car-floor, to the great detriment of passengers. "Snake-heads," they were called, and when you saw one of them come slithering up through the floor and at you, you were apt to think the name not amiss.​a This sort of rail — it was 916ths of an inch thick on the Mohawk & Hudson, and was made in England — had to be laid on a heavy wooden beam or stringer; and with the idea of permanence, Jervis based these timbers on stone cubes about 15 inches square, which in turn were bedded in broken stone. To fasten the stringers to the stone, inch-wide holes were laboriously drilled in the cubes, wooden pegs were driven into these holes, and then cast-iron chairs or angle-irons spiked to the lower edge of the stringers were fastened to the stone blocks by spikes driven into those wooden pegs. It was the intention to use steam locomotives on the road, but as they were still an uncertain quantity, a horse-path was made between the rails.

The track was completed within a year. The first locomotive was ordered from the West Point Foundry in New York City, and was only the third job attempted by that concern, the other two having been built for the pioneer South Carolina railroad. The West Point people were still palpably amateurs.​b The engine came by boat up the river early in the summer of 1831 under the care of David Matthew, who was its first driver. It weighed 6,758 pounds, was 11 feet, 6 inches long and had four wheels, all drivers, four feet in diameter. Like all early locomotives, it had neither bell, whistle, headlight nor cab, the engineer and fireman balancing precariously on a narrow platform. There was an awning over the fuel on the tender, but none over the engine crew!

The machine had been christened DeWitt Clinton, but it never displayed the qualities of its distinguished godfather. At its first test, says Joel Munsell, "owing to some defect or inexperience in burning Lackawanna coal, the speed did not exceed seven miles per hour, and it was determined to substitute coke." But they went back to anthracite again and learned how to use it. Munsell says that on the third of August the Clinton managed to creep over the less than thirteen miles of its course in one hour and forty-five minutes.

On August 13 the company staged an opening excursion and William H. Brown, silhouette artist and writer on early locomotives, who was one of the passengers, has left us not only a  p13 description of the scene but a silhouette of the train itself — that is, the locomotive and two of the cars — cut from black paper, a popular fad of the day, and in this case a really marvelous piece of craftsman­ship. The cars, as were all those in the very first trains, were just stagecoach bodies on flanged wheels, swung from C‑springs and thoroughbraces, huge leather straps passing under the bodies. Mr. Brown's narrative tells us how Clark, the conductor, sat on the little elevated seat at the rear of the tender, and then describes the start:

It was not that quiet, imperceptible motion which characterizes the first impulsive movements of the passenger engines of the present day. Not so. There came a sudden jerk, that bounded the sitters from their places, to the great detriment of their high-top fashionable beavers, from the close proximity of the roofs of the cars. The first jerk being over, the engine proceeded on its route with considerable velocity for those times, when compared with stage-coaches, until it arrived at a water-station, when it suddenly brought up with jerk No. 2, to the further amusement of some of the excursionists. Mr. Clark retained his elevated seat, thanking his stars for its close proximity to the tall smoke-pipe of the machine, in allowing the smoke and sparks to pass over his head. At the water-station a short stop was made, and a successful experiment tried, to remedy the unpleasant jerks. . . . The three links in the couplings of the cars were stretched to their utmost tension, a rail from a fence in the neighborhood was placed between each pair of cars and made fast by means of the packing-yarn for the cylinders, a bountiful supply being on hand (as the present brass-ring substitute had not then been invented). This arrangement improved the order of things, and it was found to answer the purpose, when the signal was again given, and the engine started.

The passengers included the governor and an ex-governor, the mayors and councilmen of Albany and Schenectady, the road's officials and directors, and other distinguished and undistinguished persons, even including a constable and a penny postman. Brown dwells upon the numerous frightened horses and runaways caused by the appearance of the novel monster, but he does not mention the sparks which burned holes in the hats and clothes of passengers. The train was greeted by cheering thousands at the head of the incline at Schenectady; the passengers descended into the town for refreshments, and then returned to Albany.

 p14  But there was no concealing the fact that the Clinton was not working well. When the water boiled in the boiler, it got into the cylinders. The draft was defective and the stack was to large. The hard coal wouldn't burn well, somehow, and when they rigged a forced draft for it, it melted some of the grate bars. So it was returned to the foundry for correction of these faults just before another company of guests assembled for a trip, and the five carloads of notables, including Cambreleng, now president, had to be drawn separately over the line by horses.

Early in September a competitor of the Clinton appeared — a Stephenson engine from England, weighing 12,742 pounds, nearly twice the heft of the Clinton, and a much better performer. It was at first intended to christen it Robert Fulton, but by popular preference it became John Bull, perhaps because it somewhat resembled that sturdy old gentleman. John Hampson, who first drove it, wrote of the Clinton as a "beautiful light race horse looking machine" (!), while the John Bull "looked heavy  p15 and elephantic. However, it proved to be an excellent machine, and the writer has . . . frequently driven it with a train of cars behind it, 5 miles in 12 minutes." John T. Clark, one of the engineers aiding in the construction of the road, said that it had wooden wheels with iron tires, and that "those parts of the wheels made of wood gave audible complaint of hard service. The 'shrieking' of the machine caused no little merriment among the knights of the whip."

When the Clinton was brought back, it still grumbled and balked when coal was used, and they had to go back at once wood as its regular diet. Another excursion on September 24 had the governor, mayors, state and city officials, judges, etc., as guests; but again there was vexation. The feed pipe of the John Bull was out of kilter, and after delaying the start until noon and finding it still unusable, they got away, with the Clinton pulling three cars, and seven others drawn by one horse apiece. "The appearance of this fine cavalcade, if it may be so called," we are told, "was highly imposing." The locomotive reached the Schenectady incline in forty-six minutes, the horse cars in an hour and a quarter. There was a banquet at Schenectady, at which President Cambreleng proposed the toast, "The Buffalo Railroad — may we soon breakfast in Utica, dine in Rochester and sup with our friends on Lake Erie."

An amazingly significant utterance! It proves that the first limping little sixteen-mile toy railroad had not yet been quite launched when the later-day New York Central was envisioned. Cambreleng did not originate the thought, for a committee of Buffalo and Rochester citizens was already drumming up a convention on the subject, which assembled in Syracuse on October 12. It was attended by delegates from almost every county along the natural way from Albany to Buffalo. These men clearly regarded what we now call the New York Central Railroad as Manifest Destiny. They petitioned the Legislature for a charter for a railway from Schenectady to Buffalo, with the provisions that it 'be used for the purpose of transporting persons and their baggage, and under such restrictions as regards the transportation of property, that the same tolls shall be paid into the Canal Fund, for the carriage of property other than baggage on the Rail Road as would be paid to the State for the transportation of the same property on the Canal." They knew they would have to tread lightly in the matter of the canal, which the state had recently constructed and on which it still owed an enormous debt. But  p16 their proposed freight rate concessions availed nothing. When their bill came before the Senate, it was promptly rejected, though the same session, by almost unanimous vote, chartered the New York & Erie Railroad, which was not regarded as a serious competitor to the canal.

The first ads published in the newspapers that fall of 1831, giving the leaving time of trains, are headed Mohawk & Hudson Rail Road, but a few lines farther down, the concern is spoken of as the H. & M. Rail Road Company. That easy transition of a railroad's name was a common phenomenon of the day. And Bloodgood entitles his sketch of the enterprise, Some Account of the Hudson & Mohawk Rail Road. The editor of the American Railroad Journal, attending the opening of a new line at Syracuse in 1839, called it Syracuse & Utica and Utica & Syracuse in the same article.

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Mohawk & Hudson advertisement, 1834

Michigan Central announcement of 1840

[Two close-ups of the Mohawk & Hudson poster open in a separate window: the packet boat the train]

The railroad operated that autumn partly by steam and partly by horse power, but was shut down from December 31 until spring. On May 19, 1832, the American Railroad Journal, under the heading, "Mohawk Railroad," told of the opening of the line five days before, and said that the cars passed over the Albany incline, three-quarters of a mile long, in about four minutes. It continued:

The English Engine is doing all the business, the American has not yet been used, but will be in a few days. The passengers are taken across the road for five shillings each, and they average four or five hundred a day — This rate will give about fourteen per cent on the capital.

Such optimism! The editor could not guess that by the time the M. & H. was taken into the New York Central combination in 1853, it would have cost about $112,500 per mile.

The "American engine," the Clinton, was fitted with wooden wheels that spring, but still it was a poor performer. It was not used after that season, and in 1836 it was taken apart and sold piecemeal. The finding of one of its wheels at the West Albany shops in 1893 led to the construction of the replica which has been exhibited in the Grand Central Station in New York and elsewhere in recent years.

Meanwhile, the "knights of the whip" who laughed so merrily at the creaking of wooden locomotive wheels were having their own private worries. The Albany and Schenectady Turnpike  p17 Company, observing in 1829‑30 that the railroad company was finally getting under way and fearing financial ruin, procured the passage of an act granting it the privilege of constructing "a railroad or way" along the side of its pike between the cities. This was in violation of the monopoly granted to the Mohawk & Hudson in its charter, but the Legislature, with the charming inconsistency of such bodies, ignored that fact. The M. & H. protested, but in vain; the Turnpike Company voted an increase in its capital stock and prepared to start work on a rail line. At that, the railroad company called a parley and proposed to the turnpike people to increase its own capital stock by $100,000 — all of which might be bought by turnpike stockholders — and to increase its directorate, choosing three new directors from among the citizens of Albany, one of whom should be the mayor. There were some other provisions about extensions of track in Albany which need not be listed here. The turnpike stockholders accepted the proposition readily, glad to buy at par stock which had recently sold in New York at 128, and of course agreed to scrap their plans for a rail line.

Some of the cash thus easily acquired went to pay for "a number of carriages of a new and very beautiful and convenient" sort which a news item mentions as being placed on the road by the company in that spring and summer of 1832. They were fifteen feet long and would seat eighteen people in three compartments. Referred to at times as the "Gothic carriages," they were evidently of the same type that we shall encounter on the Tonawanda and the Erie & Kalamazoo Railroads later. A glance at the roof and windows of the E. & K. car pictured later in this volume tells why they were called Gothic. In the Mohawk & Hudson inventory of 1840, there were twenty-four of these cars, and curiously enough, they still had eleven of the old thoroughbrace, coach-bodied cars, nine of them seating nine passengers each, and two only six passengers.

Engineer Jervis had been stroking his beard and pondering the unfortunate rigidity of the company's first two locomotives, which made it difficult for them to adjust themselves to curves and irregularities in the track, slowed down speed and caused additional wear and tear to both machine and track. Horatio Allen of the Charleston & Hamburg Railroad had the same worry. As Jervis said, they both wanted some method of spreading the weight of an engine on more wheels, and both — strangely enough, as it seems to us now — questioned whether "two trucks may be  p18 connected by a common frame and made one machine." Jervis decided to try it, and so built a six-wheeled locomotive with only one driver on a side, the four forward wheels being on a pivoted truck. "The English called it 'bogie' or scarecrow," says he. "The Eastern railroads would not use it, and up to 1836 most of their engines were four-wheeled, English made or on English pattern." He called his new engine the Experiment, but the name should have been Success or Eureka, for that flexible frame was a revolution in engine and car-building. The new machine was built at the West Point Foundry, and David Matthew was sent up to operate it when it was delivered. He later wrote enthusiastically: —

With this engine I have crossed the Mohawk Hudson Railroad from plane to plane, fourteen miles in thirteen minutes, making one stop for water. I have tried her speed upon a level, straight line, and have made one mile in forty-five seconds by the watch. She was the fastest and steadiest engine I have ever run or seen, and she worked with the greatest ease.

[image ALT: A woodcut of an early locomotive, a thin tank-like car, open to the sky, with two small and very thin chimneys and one taller one, with smoke issuing it from it. It is not attached to any other car, and a man stands at the back driving it, with each arm on a lever. It is the 'Experiment', one of the first American railroad engines.]

The "Experiment", for which Jervis invented the pivoted front truck

So you see, we had mile-a‑minute-and‑better locomotives when they were still primitive organisms without even a cab on them. In fact, the chief limitation to an engine's speed has always been,  p19 not in the engine itself but in the question whether it would stay on the track. So successful was the new device that Jervis equipped the John Bull with it. But in 1833 the company lost the services of this great engineer. He left it to build the Saratoga & Schenectady Railroad, and shortly afterward was called upon to enlarge the Erie Canal and build the Croton Aqueduct.

Before 1833 ended, the M. & H. had spent more than double the $300,000 for which it had at first hoped to build the railroad. In the beginning, it had not been interested in carrying freight, and hauled none in 1831, having no equipment for it. A demand for such service was heard in 1832, and it began in a small way, but its passenger business was still its chief concern. The Reverend Isaac Fidler, an English traveler who of course wrote a book, passed over it that year and said, "This was the easiest and pleasantest part of my land journey;" which the railroad might have played up in its publicity, if it had had any, and if Mr. Fidler had not fallen into such discredit in this country because of his criticisms of most other things that he saw in America.

But in 1833 a committee of the directors made a survey of possible freight business, and grew quite lyrical over the prospects. Erastus Corning,​4 one of the distinguished figures of this history, was made a director and vice-president in June, 1833, and he went in vigorously for the promotion of freight business. The company ordered two new locomotives, Mohawk and Hudson, and proceeded to build thirty freight wagons, ten wagons for carrying both passengers and freight, as well as some new track and buildings at both ends of the line. But the freight traffic never came up to expectations. They lost a few hundred dollars on it in 1834, netted a little in '35 and '36, but when the panic came on to blight 1837 they lost $5,567. The index rose after that, but all the time, to a certain extent, they were competing with the canal boat rates, and they finally decided that this just couldn't be done. Their new connection, the Utica & Schenectady Railroad, was not permitted by the state to carry freight, and it was therefore no feeder for the M. & H. In 1840, the  p20 directors voted to cease bucking the canal and devote their energies mostly to passengers, handling only such local freight as might be picked up at remunerative rates.

[image ALT: Individual photographs of five men in their middle age or older, in 19c dress.]

Erastus Corning

John Wilkinson

George W. Featherstonhaugh

Dean Richmond

John B. Jervis

New York Central Pioneers

In the meantime, new factors had appeared — first, the 23‑mile Saratoga & Schenectady Railroad which Jervis built, running north from Schenectady through Ballston Spa to Saratoga. It couldn't afford to bridge the Mohawk, so a track was laid through the existing wooden highway bridge, and trains were hauled into and out of Schenectady, one car at a time, by horses, the locomotive stopping on the north bank of the river. Two through trains a day were operated over the two roads; you could leave Albany at 8.30 in the morning and eat your noonday dinner at the Springs — which, to folk of the day, seemed almost like something out of the Arabian Nights.

Another aid was the building of the Utica & Schenectady, which, inspired by the early success of the Mohawk & Hudson, was chartered in 1833. When it was completed in '36, a through traffic arrangement seemed desirable, and two trains a day each way were scheduled, the passengers being permitted to pay for their tickets either upon leaving or arrival at destination. It was the idea of the Utica & Schenectady that the passengers change cars at Schenectady, but that the baggage car run through, it and the baggageman being supplied by the U. & S. After much bickering, the leaving time of the two trains from Albany was fixed at "7½ A.M. and 1½ P.M."

[image ALT: A woodcut of a large cubical two-story house with a sloping roof; the side fronting the street is fairly elegant and has several windows and dodors; the side facing us has only one small window off-center at ground level, but has a large sign spanning the width of the house, and reading: 'Mohawk & Hudson R. R. Ticket Office. For Buffalo.']

First Mohawk & Hudson ticket office at Albany.

An amusing little sidelight of early days is the appearance of the free pass nuisance, an inevitable parasitic disease of all early railroad projects. The first pass of record is found noted in the minutes on May 9, 1833, as issued to "his Honor the Chancellor," who was then a gentleman named Walworth. The camel's head was inside the tent. Next it became apparent that as the interests of the Mohawk & Hudson and the connecting railroads were closely intertwined, the directors of the sister roads should be permitted to ride free. In 1834, the superintendent was authorized to pass proprietors, officers or agents of the two New York steamboat lines, also such members of the Canal Association as might bring passenger or freight business to the railroad, "and such other persons employed in public conveyances running to and from the Road, as in his discretion he may deem advantageous to the Company." But in that same year, when asked to give "the Rev'd Mr. Davis, a City Missionary," a pass, the board resolved that "such permission would be inconsistent with the  p21 principles which ought to govern the administration of the Company's affairs." What these principles were is not made clear.

From time to time, feeble efforts were made to curb the growing nuisance. In 1849, the board voted to cooperate with the Utica & Schenectady in petitioning the Legislature to pass a law "prohibiting the issue of free tickets on their respective roads." But by that time the legislators were having too much fun riding free themselves to curb any such happy practice.

[image ALT: A woodcut of an early locomotive, a tank-like car, much of it open to the sky, with a disproportionately large chimney at the front that rises not straight but with two kinks in it; the rear of the car carries a small wooden cabin with two rectangular windows. It is an early locomotive.]

An oddity built by David Matthew for the Mohawk & Hudson

It became increasingly evident that the inclined planes at either end of the road were nuisances, and in 1838 there began to be talk of removing them. But the grades rising from the two cities were a difficult problem, considering the weakness of the locomotives of the day, though the financing of the changes appeared as a still more baffling proposition. The city of Albany was brashly promising at various times to lend to or buy stock in the projected railroad to Boston — at one time $250,000 and a little later, $400,000, though it produced no actual cash on these pledges — and the Mohawk & Hudson thought that as a home project, it too was entitled to a little aid, but it received none.  p22 It tried for a loan from the state, but in vain. Finally in 1840 it gave up the idea of eliminating the Albany plane, but proposed to extend its track to a new terminus in that city and do away with the less troublesome plane at Schenectady.

Some Albany citizens didn't like the intended new terminal, and they convened a mass meeting, where some rough language was used about the corporation. Erastus Corning, a former director, who now appeared in the capacity of citizen-critic, was appointed chairman of a committee to confer with the railroad directors, whose scathing retort read in part:

While you invite the Company to an interview and a friendly meeting, in order to promote the interest of, and peace and harmony among your citizens and the Company, the latter is assailed by the other party, with opprobrious epithets and all kinds of abuse, and the Directors are held up to the eyes of the public as monopolists, enemies of the prosperity of your City, &c, &c, because they in the faithful and honorable discharge of their duties towards the public and their constituents, have adopted measures, calculated to benefit both. I therefore would advise to defer any negotiations until the disgraceful and unnatural war waging by your citizens against the Company, has ceased, and an excitement, raised by appealing to the passions of your working classes of people, has also subsided.

Another citizens' meeting, held immediately afterward, took a decidedly different tone from the former one. Whereupon the railroad directors, in a long series of resolutions adopted September 25, 1840, took note of the fact that "it appears . . . that there exists a great diversity of opinion in Albany, in regard to the most suitable termination of the rail road;" and they promised, "Whenever the present opposing interests shall unite in recommending another termination of said road, which will equally accommodate the travelling public, and promote the interests of the stockholders, this company will promptly and cheerfully comply with their wishes." It deeply regretted "to find those Directors of the Utica & Schenectady Rail Road Company, who reside in the City of Albany, arrayed against this Company, in sustaining an adverse interest, and using their money and their influence and exertions as such Directors, to the prejudice of this Company . . ."

The resolutions closed on a note of firmness which had some effect; but more potent still, Albany suddenly awoke to the fact that its neighbor, Troy, across the river and only shouting distance  p23 upstream, was about to open a railroad line to Schenectady which would harm Albany's interests still more if Albany's own railroad continued to be hampered and nagged at. This brought about a more cooperative spirit. Albany began giving some financial assistance to the road, guaranteeing its bonds and so on, and at last, late in September, 1844, the planes were eliminated. Leaving Albany, the new track wriggled for two miles and more up the glen of Patroon's Creek, just where the New York Central runs today, its heavy trains aided by a pusher engine.

By the time the Mohawk & Hudson had been merged with other roads in the New York Central on January 1, 1853, no less than $1,800,000 had been spent on the little road. One wonders where in the world they put it all. No wonder dividends had to be passed from 1840 to 1847. Those were unhappy years for the directors. Hand-to‑mouth was but a feeble term for the sort of living that the corporation was enduring. Net earnings were poured right back into necessary improvements. Directors personally lent money and credit and guaranteed bonds. Materials and supplies were often bought on short-time promissory notes. At times there was a $100,000 overdraft at the bank. They were glad to sell even one bond at a time.

Perhaps the directors thought a change of name would change the railroad's luck. We know of no other reason what, in 1847, it became the Albany & Schenectady, and so far, nothing has been found in records or correspondence to explain the action. But although the concern functioned officially as the A. & S. for six years, the new name never seemed to take effect on the public mind. Newspapers and the man in the street continued to think of it as the Mohawk & Hudson, and so it is remembered to this day. This is proven by the item in Munsell's Annals on September 22, 1848, when he reports the abolition of the old strap rails and the installation of modern ones:

The heavy iron rail on the Mohawk & Hudson Rail Road being completed, an experimental trip was made with three cars, resting upon india rubber springs, and drawn by the Mohawk locomotive, built by McQueen. The trip was performed in 30 minutes, and the return trip in 24 minutes, being at the rate of 42½ miles an hour.

That year the company also got around to building a locomotive of its own; the directors called it, with a touch of pride, "a superior machine of the largest class, twenty-two tons weight."  p24 In 1850 they boasted that there had been no serious accident — by which they meant that no one had been hurt — in the past year. In fact, they reported, in seven years past, during which time they had carried nearly 2,000,000 passengers, only one of these was killed, one who had stood outside, on the car platform, "in contravention of the positive and well-known rules of the Company."

Finally, the Mohawk & Hudson was just too small and too expensive to maintain and operate to be able to stand alone against its competition. It had to be built into a structure of more sturdy components, which would at the same time support it and find it necessary to their support.

The Author's Notes:

1 The Featherstonhaughs were an old north-of-England family, the ancestral demesne being in Northumberland. The railroad promoter's ancestors took part in the warfare which raged along the English-Scottish border in previous centuries, as is proven by a passage in Scott's Marmion (Canto I, XIII).

2 There were several tramways purely for private freight hauling which came earlier, including the one at Quincy, Mass., described by this author in Steelways of New England, which was such an ambitious attempt that it is often spoken of as the first railroad in America, although some minor affairs preceded it.

3 It is not quite correct to say, as has been said, that he sank into oblivion until rescued by the New York Central Centenary celebration in 1926. That same company paid tribute to him in a handsome volume, The Vanderbilt System, published in 1887, in which he is given credit as the founder. He has also been remembered by geologists, bibliophiles, collectors of Americana and others. He established in 1831 the Monthly American Journal of Geology and Natural Sciences, said to be the first geological journal in the United States. In 1833 he was appointed United States Geologist, and began a series of explorations in that science, the first ever undertaken by our government. He wrote a number of books, some of which, such as Excursion Through the Slave States (1844) and A Canoe Voyage up the Minnay Sotor (1847), have been collectors' items, bringing good prices at auction sales. Featherstonhaugh was one of the commissioners who investigated the boundary dispute between Maine and Canada in the 1840's. He died at Le Havre, France, in 1866.

4 Erastus Corning (1794‑1872) was born in Norwich, Conn., was first a clerk in the hardware store of an uncle in Troy, N. Y., then moved to Albany in 1814 and built up a large hardware business, as well as becoming an important iron manufacturer. He was mayor of Albany, 1834‑37, state senator, 1842‑45; member of Congress, 1857‑59 and 1861‑63, a regent of the University of the State of New York, 1833‑72 and vice-chancellor in his latter years. He is also remembered as founder of the city of Corning, N. Y.

Thayer's Notes:

a For examples of the havoc and danger created, see pp50, 247, 343.

b The West Point Foundry had built just two locomotives before this one, and they were still on a steep learning curve. An amusing account of the inaugural ride of their very first engine is given in Waugh, West Point, pp95‑96.

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