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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 17

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Road of the Century

Alvin F. Harlow

Creative Age Press, Inc.,
New York, 1947

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 19
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p401  Chapter XVIII
In the North Country

Railroads had scarcely begun to be built in America when Watertown, a prosperous little city with many mills, on the lower reaches of Black River in northern New York, not far from Lake Ontario, began to pine for an iron road to the outer world. It was promised a branch of the New York state canal system, but that was not enough. It must have the best. So in 1832 its progressive citizens procured a charter for the Watertown & Rome Railroad, which, at the last-named city, was to connect with the projected railway between Utica & Syracuse. The first president of the company bore a name well known in railroad history in recent years, Orville Hungerford.

But Watertown, like many another community, found that it is easier to charter a railroad than to build one. Many a long year was to pass before the town heard its first railroad whistle. By 1847 manifestoes began to be issued, demanding that something be done. The Northern State Journal of Watertown, in March, 1848, broke out in no little irritation, "It is time to go ahead. It is now about sixteen years since a charter was first obtained, and yet the first blow is not struck. No excuse for further delay will be received." That was really putting it up to them. In these public expressions, it is revealed that the promoters did not expect to stop at the Watertown, but to continue twenty-five miles northwestward with the track to Cape Vincent, near where the St. Lawrence River leaves the Lake. In fact, a circular issued by them that year starts off with "The Directors of the Watertown, Rome & Cape Vincent Railroad," though nowhere else in the document is it called that.

Work began early in 1849. The directors explained that they had received "but little aid from abroad," and that "a large proportion of our stockholders are farmers, whose means are not  p402 generally in ready cash," and who could not therefore pay off their subscriptions rapidly. Nevertheless, they did better than many another group, for in September, 1851, the seventy-two-mile railroad was open from Rome to Watertown, and in the following spring it reached Cape Vincent, from which a ferry led to the busy town of Kingston, Ontario.

The Watertown & Rome throve nicely from the beginning — for several years it paid 10 percent dividends — and its prosperity incited others in the neighborhood to action. The Potsdam & Watertown was organized, and by 1857 had completed a seventy-six-mile line from Watertown northeast to Potsdam Junction (now Norwood), where it connected with the Northern Railroad. This was a line conceived as far back as 1829 and later built from Ogdensburg, a lively St. Lawrence port just above that river's rapids, east to connect with the Vermont railroads, and thus complete a line between the Great Lakes and Boston. (It is now a part of the Rutland Railroad).

The Potsdam & Watertown failed to pay the interest on its bonds in 1858 and presently the Watertown & Rome shouldered that responsibility. The inevitable result was the union of the roads in 1861 under the name of Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg, a branch — which soon became the main line — having been thrown out to the last-mentioned town. The Potsdam & Watertown had cost $1,800,000 to build, and it was taken over for half that sum.

Some of the citizens of Watertown became critical of their road as soon as it was built, and a public action took place there which we do not find paralleled elsewhere. William Dewey, a man of comparatively small means, for several years voluntarily gathered facts, wrote and published propaganda at his own expense and organized and addressed meetings at towns along the way. He had much to do with bringing the matter to a head in 1848, but was unrecognized and unrewarded by the company, even with reimbursement for the money he had spent in its behalf. This case aroused a large group of the citizens in 1853 to the point of holding a meeting in which resolutions were passed, censuring the company and demanding justice for Dewey. A number of the young men of the village presented him with a fine watch as a token of gratitude owed him by the community. This finally brought a belated and inadequate recognition from the company.

From Richland, about halfway between Rome and Watertown,  p403 the company sent a branch westward to Oswego. Taunton locomotives had at first been used, but by 1864 the company was building its own in its shops at Rome. It went in for car-building, too; even parlor and sleeping cars a little later. The road was prospering with its region.

The directors' report for 1864 declared that St. Lawrence County had gained 25 percent in population in ten years, the greatest growth of any county in the state excepting the city counties. That ten years covered the major portion of the life of the R. W. & O. Oswego ranked second in growth, while the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence had also gained largely. All of which was highly significant, inasmuch as during that period twenty-one counties in New York had barely held their own in population growth and eleven, without railroads, had actually declined.

In their 1863 report the directors had deplored the madness of the earlier years of railroad building, both in location and management. "For many years the managers seemed to be governed by an insane, reckless infatuation, leading to the most extravagant expenses and the most ruinous competition for that phantom 'through business.' . . . The main object seemed to be to increase as much as possible the gross receipts, leaving out of view every other consideration. Better counsels have now fortunately succeeded. . . ." But the directors were themselves deluded. The worst of the rate wars was yet to come, and the R. W. & O. itself was not proof against the madness of over-expansion. In 1868, it took over by lease — later by amalgamation — the Syracuse & Northern, which ran up to its Oswego branch, and now had three fine southerly termini — Rome, Syracuse and Oswego. It was also claiming to be the most direct route (via Vermont Central and Northern) between Boston and Detroit.

So far, all was good; but the next move was disastrous. In a previous chapter we have mentioned the Lake Ontario Shore Railroad, which in the 1870's was built westward from Oswego, hugging the lake shore, to Niagara Falls. It served no agricultural county and no cities; it even passed — quite unnecessarily — north of Rochester. Its promoters had visions of being a part of the route between Boston and the West via the Hoosac Tunnel, but that never materialized, and in 1875 the road was actually brought to the humiliation of being sold at auction in Oswego, the R. W. & O. buying it at 73 cents on the dollar of its bonded indebtedness.

 p404  R. W. & O. high-ups were delighted with their bargain, and renewed their boasting about their east-west line. But somehow, it did not garner the business. There was almost no local traffic to buy its daily bread, and it was costly to operate. It became a millstone about its owner's neck. Its bond interest was in default in 1876‑77, and in '78 the proud little R. W. & O. defaulted on its own bonds. Men who had been its leading spirits began to get out from under, and northern New York lost control of its railroad, which fell into the hands of the Lackawanna, then under the presidency of Samuel Sloan. He became president of the R. W. & O. also; changed all its locomotives from bituminous to anthracite burners (the Lackawanna being an anthracite road), but under his rule, for some strange reason, the road continued to deteriorate. To Edward Hungerford, who wrote a history of the R. W. & O., the process has the look of deliberate sabotage, but he cannot identify the motive.

For five years this went on. Then in 1882 a new name appears among the directors — that of Charles Parsons of New York, a lank, taciturn, transplanted Connecticut Yankee, who had been picking up the stock at $10 and $15 a share. Sloan had been warned that he might lose control, but he laughed at the warnings. Hungerford pictures the scene at the annual directors' meeting at Watertown on June 6, 1883, when, to Sloan's profound astonishment, Parsons showed up with enough proxies to elect himself president. Sloan, red with anger, produced a sheaf of papers from his pocket, and asked, "What do you propose to do with these?" Parsons looked them over — $300,000 worth of notes given to Sloan by the company for borrowed money — then silently wrote a check for the amount in full, and Sloan left the meeting.

Parsons proceeded to rehabilitate the road — rebuilt the track and gave it new rolling stock. In 1886 he added a neighbor to the system. Utica had been displeased a half century before when Watertown promoters chose Rome as their southern terminus, and when their road was completed in 1852, it proceeded to act. In 1853 the Black River & Utica Railroad was chartered; crept slowly northward down the Black River Valley, reeled under the financial shock of '57 and reorganized in '61 as the Utica & Black River. But not until ten years later did it reach Philadelphia, on the R. W. & O., northeast of Watertown. Thereafter it forked, taking over a small road to Clayton, at the beginning of the St. Lawrence, while to northeastward it threw out a line to Ogdensburg in 1878. It also annexed the Carthage, Watertown &  p405 Sackett's Harbor, which gave it entrance to Watertown. It was a well-managed and fairly well-to‑do road when the R. W. & O. leased it in 1886.

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Utica & Black River Railroad station at Utica in 1865.

Parsons proved what could be done by good management to revive a half-dead railroad system. He extended its main line to Massena, near the Canadian border, from which a Grand Trunk branch led to Montreal. He built a new, direct line from Syracuse to Oswego; he planted a terminal in the heart of Rochester and planned another in Buffalo. Once more the dream of making the Lake Ontario Shore division a part of a through line between Boston and the West via the Tunnel was discussed in board rooms. R. W. & O. stock rose steadily to par.

The New York Central & Hudson River was alarmed. It tried to buy control of the R. W. & O., but for a time vainly. Then it essayed strategy. The Mohawk & St. Lawrence Railroad was chartered, and engineers prowled the Black River country, surveying a railroad grade from the Central up to the now bustling manufacturing city of Watertown. To make matters merrier, Austin Corbin, then in control of the Elmira, Cortland & Northern, also planned a line to Watertown, and that elated city gave it strong support, seeing itself as a new, teeming railroad center. The Central did not really wish to build; it wanted the R. W. & O. ready-made. That company's stockholders were sitting atop of the world. Early in March, 1891, such shares as were still at large were being held at 120 to 123. One fourteenth it was announced that the 643‑mile system had been leased to the New York Central. The NYC's demon passenger agent, George H. Daniels, now began boosting the Thousand Islands, and giving New Yorkers better train service to those enchanted spots than ever before.

William H. Vanderbilt had a dapper son-in‑law, Dr. W. Seward Webb, who was ambitious to be a railroad magnate. For some years he was president of the Rutland Railroad and of the Wagner Palace Car Company. About this time he bought control of a 16‑mile narrow gauge road running from Herkimer, on the New York Central just east of Utica, to a town named Poland, with a franchise to go beyond that. Webb proceeded to make this standard gauge and extend it — as the St. Lawrence & Adirondack — to Malone, on the northern edge of the state, from which another St. Lawrence & Adirondack was building to Montreal. This was begun in 1891, but in the following year Webb combined his Herkimer and St. Lawrence & Adirondack charters as  p406 the Mohawk & Malone. Having plenty of money at his disposal, he drove it through at high speed, and late in 1892 it was in operation, with parlor and sleeping cars running from New York and Buffalo through to Montreal, as well as Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, both of which were on a branch near his track. From Tupper Lake on his main line a road known as the New York & Ottawa ran northward across the St. Lawrence to Ottawa.

In 1905, the Central bought all outstanding stock of the St. Lawrence & Adirondack in Canada, and in 1936 leased the road for 99 years. In 1902, it had leased the Mohawk & Malone, but nine years later absorbed it. And in 1913, the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg, the New York & Ottawa and some other smaller roads became a corporate part of the New York Central & Hudson River.

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