Short URL for this page:
Even as the train of signal fires flashed into being from English hilltop to hilltop when the Spanish Armada was sighted, so the bright-eyed little railroads sprang to life along that wondrous natural highway from Albany to Buffalo in the 1830's, following the birth of the Mohawk & Hudson. We have already glanced at that convention in Syracuse in 1831 which sought to cover the course from Schenectady to Buffalo with rails under one charter. That proposition was too shocking, too revolutionary for the slow-moving legislative mind. It seemed to threaten the ruin of the state's Erie Canal at one stroke. But those petitioners of 1831 were just a little ahead of their time; the desired result could not be accomplished in one operation, but it could be done piecemeal.
For some distance westward from Albany, chronology and geography coincided. The Utica & Schenectady Railroad was the second-born of the chain, and in the matter of mileage, a much more ambitious undertaking than the Mohawk & Hudson, being •seventy-eight miles in length. It was natural that the rails should follow the Mohawk River upstream and so on westward, for there was the first primitive highway to the Great Lakes, the route where generations of men, including wise old George Washington, foresaw a canal long before it came, the course along which abundant water-power was giving birth to industry, and so in turn, to cities. There, and there only between Vermont and Georgia, had Nature completely cloven the Appalachian Mountain chain to a low level from sea to midwestern waters, creating a natural right of way for a railroad.
The Utica & Schenectady was incorporated April 29, 1833. Its promoters are not specified in records or history, but we have little difficulty in identifying them among directors and officials p26 as men of Utica — a town of 10,000 population at that time — and Erastus Corning, the Albany ironmaster. Corning was elected president and Alfred Munson of Utica vice-president. Among the directors there were two others from Utica, three from Albany, two from New York (including Cambreleng) and one each from Little Falls, Johnstown, Schenectady and Poughkeepsie.
Seldom if ever was a railroad company burdened with such onerous restrictions in its charter. To begin with, as the line through its whole course paralleled the Erie Canal, and therefore was a competitor, it was not permitted to carry a pound of freight! The legislators were not desirous of appearing inimical to modern improvement, but they didn't propose to let their debt-burdened canal be hurt too much. So, "No property of any description except the ordinary baggage of passengers" might be carried over the railroad. And as the line would of course injure the business of the Mohawk Turnpike Company, whose road also paralleled the right of way, the railroad, so the solons decreed, must, before ever it turned a shovel of earth, buy the Turnpike Company's capital stock at $22.50 a share. There must always be at least one director from each county through which the road passed, and finally, they might charge no more than four cents a mile for carrying a passenger and his baggage.
Notwithstanding these restringencies, when U. & S. stock was put on the market at four cities, New York, Albany, Utica and Schenectady, there was a wild scramble to sign up for it. Belief that the Mohawk & Hudson was destined to be highly successful, and excitement over the new lines creeping out from Boston, Baltimore and Charleston, had brought on a craze for railroad shares. The American Railroad Journal quoted the figures to prove that the capital stock of the U. & S. was quickly oversubscribed more than six times, and the first $5 paid down on every share — which in itself was unprecedented.
Actual grading began in September, 1834. The strap rail was still used, of course, but on the U. & S. it was a little heavier than that on the Mohawk & Hudson, being •three-quarters of an inch thick. The rail timbers were not based on stone blocks, as in the M. & H. tracks. Jervis had quickly seen the error of that rigidity, and when he began building the Saratoga & Schenectady in 1833, he used wooden ties much like those of today. William C. Young, the U. & S. engineer, a very able man, took his cue from Jervis, and thereafter, that was the custom all the way across New York. It is interesting to note that just to be on the safe side, "accommodation p27 places for barns or stables for horses" were ordered to be established, along with "watering places for locomotives."
The course of the road was substantially that of the present-day New York Central — along the north bank of the river up through the beautiful vale of the Mohawk, whose place-names have a charm all their own — Amsterdam, Fonda, Canajoharie, Fort Plain, St. Johnsville, Palatine Bridge, Stone Arabia, Little Falls, Herkimer, Ilion, Oriskany. Work was pushed at amazing speed for those days. Plenty of cash to start on, a fine engineer and good management gave the project an air of success from the start. The rails were laid on red and white cedar, some of which came from Canada, and eight locomotives were nonchalantly ordered from Baldwin in 1835. Gideon M. Davison as "commissioner" or manager started at $2,000 salary and rose to $2,500 a year later, while Young, who had begun at $2,500, became both engineer and manager in 1836, at a yearly rate of $3,000, which was raised to $5,000 in '37.
The third annual report of Commissioner Davison to the directors, dated June 6, 1836, announced that "with a few unimportant exceptions, the road is graded for a double track" all the way, and "about two-thirds of the superstructure of a single track completed." Had the Oswego and Seneca Canals been open as early as usual, so that timber under contract might be received, the road would have been completed by July; as it was, it would be in August. They were going to double-track •twelve to fifteen miles in the middle of the line to facilitate the passing of trains. Five of the eight locomotives ordered would be on the rails by August. Fifty "pleasure carriages" (passenger cars), carrying twenty-four persons each, were almost ready, and "fifty waggons for the accomodation of emigrants" were nearing completion.
It all worked out as smoothly as everything seemed to do on this line, and the grand opening was staged, as predicted, on August 1, 1836. That morning a large party of guests, some from New York, left Albany on the M. & H., and upon reaching Schenectady, took their seats on two shiny new ten-car trains of the U. & S., to be whirled away over the 78‑mile course in six hours! Not only all Utica but the whole county was there to see the dream come true. The usual orgy of oratory and eating opened. The visitors from down country remained in Utica overnight and started back at 8 o'clock next morning, on a train loaded to the eyebrows with 300 passengers, the first pay load, which took six and a half hours to reach Schenectady. •Twelve miles an hour p28 was not considered bad going over new track, though predictions were made that the trains would soon be doing •twenty.
The delighted populace spent all that day in riding to and fro, and by nightfall the receipts were nearly $4,000. The question of fares now became a matter of concern to Commissioner Davison. He pointed out that the canal packets carried passengers between the two termini for $3.50, which figure included meals. The line boats (emigrant) charged $1.20 to $1.50, not including food. Under its charter, the railroad might charge four cents a mile, but, said Davison, "as experience has shown that a moderate fare is always attended with more propitious results," and "the prejudice existing against incorporations of this character (are) materially lessened" by such action, he suggested fares of $2.50 in the "pleasure cars," and $1 in the emigrant "waggons," which were just a little better than the "40 hommes, 8 chevaux" boxes in which doughboys traveled in France during World War I. But the directors thought his idea a bit too generous, and fixed the first class fare at $3.
Notwithstanding the fact that it was barred from freight-carrying, the Utica & Schenectady was a gilt-edged proposition from the start. In 1838, its stock was spoken of as "ranking among the most stable and valuable on the market." How this could come about on passenger business alone is a mystery to us moderns, but so it was. A low first cost was one advantage which it enjoyed. The company was unique in that when it began business in 1836, it had used up less than three-quarters of its original $2,000,000 capital; the single track, equipment and all, had cost only $1,480,351. To Tyrone Power, the great Irish actor and ancestor of today's film star, who passed along the Erie Canal while the railroad building was in progress, the rocky ridges through whose noses the grade had to be cut, seemed to "offer formidable impediments;" nevertheless, Engineer Young built that single track for less than $20,000 a mile. When the second track had been completed, years later, and the necessary additional equipment had been bought for it, the cost had risen to more than $25,000 a mile — which was still far less than that of most American railroads. One can understand why the directors were so regretful at seeing Young leave them at the end of 1849.
The railroad ran through a pretty landscape, whose villages and towns were beginning to hum with industry, and it was well operated. J. Disturnell, in his New York State Tourist for 1840, declared that "No line of railroad could be more happily devised, or ably and triumphantly achieved than this, in its entire course." p29 He added that "if the cars breathe a minute or two or take in water, the traveller can spring out and enter the restaurants for hot coffee and refreshments, that opportunely occur at intervals of •about twenty miles." And at Utica, in addition to other attractions, the State Supreme Court sat then, and you might go in almost any time and hear a part of one of J. Fenimore Cooper's libel suits against Horace Greeley, William L. Stone or some other journalist who had dared to publish an unfavorable review of one of his books, or even to report a previous trial of one of these cases on the same subject.
Captain Frederick Marryat, noted English traveler, declared that "The Utica Railroad is the best in the United States. The general average of speed is from fourteen to sixteen miles an hour, but on the Utica they go much faster."1 Which praise must have been gratifying to the U. & S., because the Captain was rather critical of most other American roads. Another paragraph in the same volume contains an uncomfortable stratum of truth:
The railroads in America are not so well made as in England, and are therefore more dangerous; but it must be remembered that at present nothing is made in America but to last a certain time; they go to the exact expense considered necessary and no further; they know that in twenty years they will be better able to spend twenty dollars than one now. The great object is to obtain quick returns for the outlay, and except in a few instances, durability or permanency is not thought of.
Some indication of the growth of the passenger business of the U. & S. is found in a news item in the Schenectady Reflector of September 28, 1849, which tells of a westbound train, the longest that had yet passed over the road, consisting of fourteen first class passenger cars, two emigrant cars, five baggage cars and one mail car, twenty-two in all — and cars then were •from twenty-five to forty feet in length, occasionally more. It sounds quite Twentieth Century.
"Lightning", Utica & Schenectady speed demon with •7‑foot driver.
The road had had its first serious accident six years before that. Under the headline, "Awful disaster on the Utica and Schenectady rail road," we read that on March 31, 1843, "in consequence of some mismanagement not divulged, two trains upon the same track going in opposite directions" (for the second track was not yet complete) "sighted each other." The engineers shut off steam, reversed, and they and the firemen p30 leaped to safety, whereupon "the trains struck with awful violence;" but after that terrifying headline, we are relieved to find that though the engines were both "demolished" (?), "the collision, though tremendous, did not injure any person;" which leads us to suspect that the journalists had yet to become acquainted with a real railroad accident.
The double-tracking was completed within the next few years and the whole line was relaid with •65‑pound heavy iron T‑rails. The company borrowed $500,000 and gave the rail order in December, 1846, to Peter Cooper and the New Jersey Iron Company but by the time the entire line had been double-tracked and the heavy iron installed, the cost had run to more than a million. On the resignation of Superintendent Young in 1849, Chauncey Vibbard, the company's bookkeeper, became superintendent, and there and on the New York Central in after years, became a notable figure in railroading. Mr. Vibbard at the end of 1851 pointed with pride to the fact that 453,000 passengers had been carried over the road in 1851, "without an accident of any kind occurring to one of them."
It was not until 1844 that the Legislature was seized with a mild attack of generosity and common sense, and granted this p31 railroad, the only one in the state so restricted, the right to carry freight during the winter only, when canal navigation was suspended, and provided it paid into the State Canal Fund the regular canal tolls on all shipments, which must be added to the railroad's tariff. Having this privilege for about five months in the year, with a heavy investment in cars and motive power which must stand idle during the other seven months, was a doubtful boon. Local legend has it that the first shipment offered was that of a German family at Palatine Bridge who wished to send their few household effects to Schenectady just after the canal was closed by ice. There was no agent at the shipping point, and the freight conductor had no tariff sheet to guide him, so after some head-scratching, he guessed $14 as the charge, which was later considered exorbitant. For a long time there were few station agents, and freight conductors often had to seek out the consignees, perhaps away out in the country, to collect charges on a shipment. Freight trains, unless there was too much of this bother with deliveries, could cover •about eight miles per hour; passenger trains frequently tooled along at •twenty.
President Corning's plaint in 1846 that his was the only railroad in the world not allowed to carry freight led to the granting of permission in the following year to haul merchandise the year around, though still paying the canal tolls; and finally, in 1851, even the tolls were removed from the railroad's burden.
With the advent of the U. & S. as a freight carrier, the Mohawk Valley enjoyed a second boom, supplementing that produced by the canal years before. In every town and village one heard the hum of one or more industries — saw and grist mills, woolen, cotton and yarn mills, paper mills, tanneries, shoe factories, tool, implement and vehicle factories, the carpet industry in Amsterdam which still flourishes there. Utica, in addition to these, also went in for machinery, pottery, fire brick, oilcloths, musical instruments, millstones, plaster and other things.
In 1837, an amendment to the original act of incorporation was passed, not only permitting but making it the duty of the U. & S. to carry the United States mails. But when in January, 1845, the national government announced that it was going to reduce the company's pay for mail-carrying from $200 to $150 per mile per annum, the directors flatly refused to do so for any such fee. They were rather feeling their oats that month. The company owned the station at Utica, in which the Syracuse & Utica also operated its trains, but was reluctant to pay for the privilege. p32 The U. & S. directors in January, 1845, set the annual rental at $700, beginning on the first of the preceding December, and ordered the superintendent to throw the Syracuse road out if it didn't pay up.
Only a few months after Morse sent his first message by telegraph from Washington to Baltimore, John Butterfield, upstate New Yorker who in later years promoted the Overland Mail route, applied to the Utica & Schenectady in May, 1845, for permission to string a telegraph wire along its right of way. Pondering the matter unhurriedly, the directors at length granted the contract in the following December; but it was not until a year later that Butterfield was finally able to put his line into working order. The Schenectady Reflector on Christmas Day, 1846, noted that "Despatches by telegraph to the station in this city were printed for the first time on Wednesday." But this does not mean that the railroad began using the telegraph for dispatching trains. Not until five years later, in 1851, did that brilliant idea occur to Charles Minot of the New York & Erie; and notwithstanding his demonstration of its value, it was not taken up by the other railroads in New York until some years later.
It is in the regulations of this railroad that we first find the injunction that "station agents must lodge and board immediately adjoining their respective railroad stations, and be present at all times excepting when necessarily and reasonably p33 absent; and then a substitute must be provided by the station agent absenting himself." In short, they were practically married to the job; and for such service, they might receive as high as thirty dollars a month. Not only this, but they had responsibilities, among which were:
They will be ready to receive and give advice, in regard to all extra trains passing, and of the time between the passing of trains following each other, at their respective stations.
Station agents may advise at all times with conductors, and in cases of glaring necessity, will be responsible for not advising; but such advice shall not relieve the conductors from the full responsibility of their station.
Progressing westward, we come to the next link in the chain, the Syracuse & Utica Railroad. It was incorporated May 11, 1836, with an authorized capital of $800,000 in shares of fifty dollars each. It was treated more liberally than the Utica & Schenectady, being permitted to carry both passenger and freight the year around, though it had to pay the canal tolls on the merchandise just the same. When the stock books were opened, there was oversubscription again — $250,000 at Albany, $400,000 at Syracuse and $600,000 at Utica. If you wonder how towns so small dared promise so much, it was because the citizens believed that the railroads would make them rich enough to take care of the installment payments on the stock as they came due — and sometimes they weren't far wrong.
The promoters of this railroad were largely men in the two small terminal towns. (Syracuse was then even smaller than Utica.) The chief mover of the scheme was undoubtedly John Wilkinson, one of the pioneers of Syracuse and a sort of Poo-Bah in its earlier existence.2 When excitement over railroads began p34 to permeate the state in the early 1830's, there were definite moves made in various counties to send men to the Legislature who would favor the granting of railroad charters. Among the men who went to Albany under this thesis was Wilkinson in 1836, the year of the incorporation of the Syracuse & Utica Railroad.
This road was not an air line. It detoured northward to pass through the town of Rome, adding •a possible six miles or more to its length which, all told, was •fifty-three miles. Easier grades as well as the desire to serve Rome had something to do with the course.3 Between Rome and Syracuse there was a long stretch of swamp, through which the track ran, perched on piles driven into the muck. They had steam pile drivers then, by the way, though not of the rapid-fire type we know now. In those days a stationary engine hauled the weight up to the top of the tower by winding a rope on a drum and then let it fall. Crude attempts to make the piles more nearly damp-proof consisted of charring them by fire, as well as boring a large hole in the upper end, filling it with salt and then plugging the hole with a wooden peg.
Wilkinson's dominating influence procured that little swerve through Rome against strong opposition in the Legislature, and also the right to run the track squarely along the middle of Washington, the main street of Syracuse, where it became a frightful embarrassment and nuisance to the city in later years, until it was finally removed in 1936. But the citizens of the earlier day were so delighted to have the railroad that by unanimous vote they even gave it the privilege of placing its barnlike passenger station (see our picture of it) in the very middle of the street, widening the thoroughfare for that purpose, but specifying that the company must plant trees on each side. In return, Wilkinson brought the railroad shops to Syracuse instead of Utica.
Early Station: Syracuse, 1839.
That gentleman's dynamic energy was also responsible for the quick completion of the work. The panic of 1837 jarred him only temporarily. On July 3, 1839, the track was ready for trains, and it opened with a magnificent gesture, carrying everybody free for a week. On the 10th there was the usual celebration, among the invited guests being the editor of the American Railroad Journal p35 and distinguished citizens from as far away as Albany and Schenectady. For these a special train was supplied by the Mohawk & Hudson and the Utica & Schenectady Railroads. Already a strong community of interest was growing up among these infant lines. A military company with a band accompanied the celebrants from Utica, and at Syracuse all were "received and escorted in the village by a fine company of artillery." At 2 P.M., "from four to five hundred sat down to a superb dinner," said the Railroad Journal; but after telling most of the story, the editor checked himself with fine journalistic courtesy: "As a full account of the celebration is to appear in the Syracuse papers, we will not attempt to anticipate them."
Shillings were still current in 1842
He was profoundly impressed, however, by the fact that the road had been built for 87½ percent of its stock issue, and within the prescribed time. He predicted that
Syracuse, already a large, enterprising, enlightened village, is destined to become a great inland city. It possesses in its soil and in its mines the potentiality for acquiring wealth "beyond the dreams of avarice." These advantages will be improved by an indomitable yeomanry. Syracuse is now within nine hours •(150 miles) of Albany, and within nineteen hours •(300 miles) of New York. The rapidity with which we pass between these two places is amazing. We left Albany at half-past two P.M. on Tuesday, went to Utica in the afternoon, where we remained until five o'clock next morning. Was at Syracuse at half-past eight o'clock yesterday morning, remained until four o'clock and was at home this morning, breakfasting on a salmon taken from Lake Ontario night before last, having travelled 300 miles, passing a night at Utica, nearly a whole day at Syracuse, and being absent only forty-two hours.
And of course he still had to use the steamboat between Albany and New York.
This railroad started off with a rush, earning ten percent on its capital investment in the first six months, thus giving a boost to railroad construction everywhere. Syracuse merchants began advertising the receipt of new goods "by railroad." John Butterfield sought to antagonize the iron horse with his stage line, but found himself outclassed. There were leaner times coming for the stockholders in later years, but the company at first was so prosperous that it bought equipment with a generous hand. In 1845 it owned five locomotives of thirteen to fifteen tons each, made by Rogers, Ketchum & Grosvenor of Paterson, N. J., but p36 had more on order. The first engines had only one driving wheel on a side, and for a cab — in winter only — an oilcloth canopy suspended on four upright stakes. In winter also the usual brooms were fastened in front of the wheels to sweep snow from the rails. When the Oswego & Syracuse line began business in 1848, the Syracuse & Utica, which then had fifteen locomotives — more than it needed — supplied motive power for the new road and valuable feeder; and from November of that year, for two or three months the S. & U. loaned engines to the Auburn & Syracuse, some of whose machines were disabled.
Wilkinson wrote all of his company's annual reports, and in them, in intimate and entertaining style, set forth its problems and his own wise reactions to them. Among its freight items he mentions "pork in the hog." He gravely put into words certain axioms which are commonplaces now, but which were new and often disturbing discoveries to the amateurs who were going into the railroad business then. He was one of the first to see the necessity for through trains as well as locals — an idea which at first outraged the feelings of all the little towns where the fast trains did not stop. It was not well understood by the public. He wrote in 1849, that
The trains that are run at the highest speed ought properly to stop only for wood and water. They must be through trains. They should not be required to stop for way passengers. Such persons should be at other points, where it is more convenient to stop. They should not be checked by cattle and other domestic animals, nor by persons walking upon the tracks.
. . . There is great hazard in attempting a high rate of speed on account of cattle and other domestic animals which are allowed by their owners to run at large. They will stray on to the Rail Road if so allowed, though the greatest care may be exercised by the company to prevent it. It is entirely impossible to watch all the fences in the night. Cattle and horses will break them down. . . .
. . . The evil of persons walking on the tracks, out of the towns, is very great. It is hazardous to the individual, and often delays the trains unnecessarily.
The respective rights and obligations of citizens and corporations who became neighbors when the railroads were built had not yet been studied and pronounced upon by the law; opinions on the subject were still nebulous and conflicting. As Wilkinson said, "The ground is assumed by the owners of the cattle that p37 their animals have as good right to occupy the public highway at a railroad crossing at the same moment when a train of passengers are passing them that they have." And whose was the duty of erecting the fence between private property and the right of way? Cattle strayed at will upon the public highway, and no vehicle durst injure one of them without paying the penalty. Should not the rule be the same on the railroads? argued the farmers? John D. Lewis, traveling through central New York in 1850, recalls the English railroad as being "railed in, fenced in, walled in and banked in," with no grade crossings. But in America the rails ran right across streets and roads, with only a warning sign, such as "Look Out for the Cars."
You might be walking in a shady lane of a dark night, unconscious that there was a line of railway within a hundred miles, and suddenly hear the engine turn in out of a field behind you, and see it whisk past you or feel it go over you, according as you did or did not get out of the way in time. As for villages and country towns, it rattles up their main streets, not infrequently stopping at the door of the hotel or in front of the church by way of a station. On these occasions, you might sometimes shake hands with the people on each side of you, who stand at their shop fronts to see you go past.4
As Captain Marryat said in his Diary in America (1839), after a trip over the Utica & Schenectady:
One great cause of disasters is that the railroads are not fenced, so as to keep the cattle off them, and it appears as if the cattle who range the woods are very partial to take their naps on the roads, probably from their being drier than the other portions of the soil. It is impossible to say how many cows have been cut into atoms by the trains in America, but the frequent accidents arising from these causes has occasioned the Americans to invent a sort of shovel, attached to the front of the locomotive, which takes up a cow, tossing her off, right or left.
The "shovels" consisted of two pieces of iron, one affixed to the pilot over each rail, curving forward to a point as it neared the rail. It did not do the cow any good, but at least it slightly reduced the danger of the train's being thrown off the track. The Utica & Schenectady had cow trouble from the start; the directors' report for 1838 shows $786.71 paid for slaughtered p38 animals. But very often they were seen in time and shooed off. Another English traveler, after a ride over these same rails in 1845, wrote:
The line is a single line, with occasional turnouts, which cause enormous delays of waiting; and the road, not being enclosed, seems to be the favorite resting place for cattle, who will persist in . . . coming on the high and dry railroad to lie down and chew their cud. Then there is such a hollaballoo to make the cows get up and run off the rails; so that when you take out your watch at the end of your journey, you find that you have just travelled at the rate of •nine miles and a half to ten miles an hour, including stoppages. I have constantly observed through the States how careless the conductors of their lines are of the safety and convenience of the passengers; within an inch or two of a precipice is just the same to them, so as they can save a few yards, not of rails, but of what we would call hoop-iron, screwed on to the wooden rails.5
The "hoop-iron" was presently replaced by rail of the modern type, but still of iron; and Wilkinson reported sadly in 1849 that already some of the heavy rails laid in 1847‑48 had failed. Perhaps the wisest railroad man of his time, Wilkinson became so nearly forgotten in later years that even local history pays him but scant attention. He was the first man at once speak out frankly on depreciation and to acknowledge that he and his time still knew little about costs:
The cost of the construction and the operation of railroads has yet been very imperfectly ascertained, and while we have learned little of their ultimate capacity, we know quite as little of their true cost of maintenance and repair. What is the actual depreciation, and therefore, what will be the cost to keep them up to a proper standard are as yet not well known. It is already quite certain that everything about them goes rapidly to decay arising from exposure and the severe wear to which most of the works are subjected. We have already found that the iron rail gives way quite fast. The whole wear, both of machinery and structure, is very much in proportion to the speed. The public constantly demands more rapid rates of travel.
So the American neurosis had begun already, a full hundred years ago. In mid-twentieth century, even the fastest trains p39 aren't speedy enough for some folk, and they must go by plane; and at the present writing, even the gasoline-driven plane totters on the verge of obsolescence, for just the other day a jet-propelled plane shot from New York to Washington in 29 minutes and a few seconds. Tomorrow, perhaps, that won't be fast enough. But as Howard Brubaker has remarked so aptly in the New Yorker, "Some people still prefer the train to the airplane, because mountain peaks along the route are part of the scenery and not of an obstacle course."
One of the yarns told of this railroad's first few days has it that an engineer brought his train from Syracuse to Utica in three and a quarter hours, arriving much sooner than expected. When Wilkinson reprimanded him, he retorted that he had only a leaving time given him, no specification as to time of arrival, and no orders regarding speed. Wilkinson shook a finger at him and warned him not to be so reckless again or he'd lose his job. In an annual report, the president scotched "the very common remark that a double track is necessary to avoid the danger of collisions," and let the stockholders into the secret that you had to be careful, even on a double track. "The instances are numerous where one train, following another, runs into it."
But later, speed had its way, and in the middle 1840's, all records were broken when a train carried the governor's message from Utica to Syracuse in 2¼ hours, and from Albany to Auburn, •173 miles, in 7½ hours. By contrast is the picture of an excursion from Syracuse to a Whig barbecue at Oriskany, boosting Henry Clay's candidacy for the presidency in 1844. The train, which included a number of flat cars with benches placed crosswise for passengers, was so impeded by the scramble to get aboard at every stop and by an unusual number of snakeheads which r'ared up through the floors — but hurt nobody seriously — that it required seven hours to do the •46‑mile journey. When the engine ran out of water, the passengers swarmed out and helped dip water from ditches at the trackside, to fill the barrels on the tender.
Wilkinson was much concerned over the free pass evil. In his report for 1849 he said that an increasingly large number of persons were riding free on the railroads of the state. Here, as everywhere else, the railroad no sooner began business than it discovered that it must curry favor with legislators, state, county and city officials, newspaper men, judges, big shippers, officials of other railroads and of stage lines, heaven knows who not, every p40 one of whom thought that it wouldn't cost the railroad a cent to haul him free and that it ought to be done, otherwise he would retaliate whenever and however he had the opportunity. And of course it was public opinion that the poor should be carried free, and that a railroad official who refused to do this was a curmudgeon.
Wilkinson began keeping a record of the passes in July, 1845, and in the first week there were 196, an average of 28 per day. His notes of the persons carried mentioned such objects of charity as "One poor blind man and boy," "A poor woman," "A very poor man," "Two exiles," "Two deaf and dumb boys," etc. On one day they gave an excursion to thirty-six blind persons from Utica to Syracuse. But the favored ones were not always poor; as "Aaron Burt's Daughter & wedding party (four seats) Syracuse to Utica."a With evident relief, Wilkinson notes, one day in 1846, "Not a single deadhead to‑day." On another occasion, for some reason, he notes that, "It snowed like fury all day." On July 1, 1850, the directors sternly put an end — or thought they did — to the imposition; "The only persons allowed to pass free are the officers and men in the service of the company." But of course they found before long that they couldn't make that rule stick; the forces of opposition were too great.
There was one of Wilkinson's activities which we have not yet touched upon and of which we have a quaint souvenir; he also ran a hotel, and, as was considered advisable in those days, it was just across the street from the two-story shed-like affair with two tracks tunneling through it, known as the depot. A competitor named Alvord, whose hostel was on the other side of the depot, issued a broadside in March, 1850, with a crude picture heading, a tender labelled "Monopoly" running down and slaughtering people by dozens, a favorite device of the time. In this broadside he protested the oppression put upon him by Mr. Wilkinson, to divert business to his own hotel, the Globe, "where passengers can get meals for fifty cents, no better than I will furnish at the California House for half the money." Alvord says that Wilkinson had the doors of the station on the side next Alvord's hotel not only locked but nailed shut; that he would not permit porters and runners for Alvord's hotel to enter the station, vaguely hinting that they might steal baggage; and that he destroyed the handbills which Alvord's men distributed or tried to distribute on the trains; all of which was very unsporting competition on the part of a railroad president.
p41 The distribution of handbills and the soliciting of business for hotels and connecting railroads and stage lines, not only in stations but on trains, even the peddling of commodities there, was considered to be a public prerogative in those days, and the man or company who interfered with it was apt to be regarded as an enemy to liberty. "No sooner did the cars arrive at Utica," says John D. Lewis, already quoted, "than the agents of the different hotels rushed tumultuously forward, hemming us in on every side, and boasting as volubly of the merits of their respective establishments as the noisiest French Commissionaires. Charles Mackay, some years later, recorded that
At Rome an old man got into our car, who did us the favour of remaining with us for upwards of fifty miles of our journey. He plied during the whole of the time a vigorous trade in some quack medicine of his own concoction; and among the sixty persons in our car, he succeeded in getting no less than nine customers by dint of the most impudent and vexatious pertinacity I ever beheld.6
1 A Diary in America, second series, Vol. 1.
2 Born in Troy in 1798, Wilkinson was admitted to the bar at 21 and went to locate in a little Onondaga County cross-roads settlement known variously as Bogardus's Corners or South Salina, in deference to a salt-boiling hamlet called Salina a short distance to northward. A leading citizen when a post office was established there in 1820, he became the postmaster and held the job for 20 years, being the incumbent even while president of the Syracuse & Utica Railroad and member of the Legislature. He even chose the new name Syracuse for the town. In 1825, at the first election of village officers, he became village clerk. He helped to found the Syracuse Bank in 1838 and was its president until his death. And he was not only the first and only president of the Syracuse & Utica Railroad during its corporate existence of seventeen years, but his railroad activities later extended far beyond the confines of New York, as we shall see.
3 How many jokes were cracked among learned folk of the day about the strange dislocation of ancient geography, whereby a road from Utica to Syracuse passed throughout Rome! Foreigners in particular were vastly entertained by the prevalence of classical place-names in upstate New York — Troy, Utica, Ilion, Rome, Syracuse, Manlius, Camillus, Marcellus, Homer, Cicero, Pompey, Fabius, Palmyra, Ithaca, Attica, to name only a few.
4 Across the Atlantic, London, 1851.
5 Rambles in the United States and Canada During the Year 1845, by "Rubio" (Thomas H. James), London, 1847.
6 Life and Liberty in America, London, 1859.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
of the Century
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 1 Feb 16