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

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

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

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 2

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Road of the Century

Alvin F. Harlow

Creative Age Press, Inc.,
New York, 1947

The text is in the public domain.

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


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 4
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p42  Chapter III
The Twelve Little Railroads

The small but lively town of Auburn, with a good water-power at the outlet of Owasco Lake, a flourishing state prison and other industries, had been much annoyed when it was left off the course of the Erie Canal, and was one of the first towns in the state to begin talking rails. The first movement towards railroads in central New York began there towards the end of 1827. At the instance of Auburn citizens, the Committee on Canals and Internal Improvements submitted to the Legislature a report urging the solons to collect information upon this novel subject. The committee opined that "in particular districts and for particular objects" in the state, railroads might be usefully employed; "but that they can bear a fair comparison with well located and well supplied canals remains to be proved; and while railroads are of minor consideration to canals, yet as tributaries to them, they will become of vital importance." This of course was a hint of approval for a railroad to Auburn. It occurred to the committee that the convicts in the penitentiary might very usefully be employed in building the line.

The state did nothing in the matter, so the Auburn & Syracuse Railroad Company was privately promoted by citizens of the two towns (John Wilkinson was among them), and was incorporated May 1, 1834, with a capital of $400,000, of which $20,000 must be expended within two years, while the road must be completed and in operation by the end of five years. Not being considered a direct competitor of the Canal, the new concern was given permission to carry freight as well as passengers. It signalled the beginning of its career with a heated row among three factions of citizens and stockholders in Auburn over the location of the terminal in that village, and the Legislature finally had to be called upon to fix the spot.

 p43  Connecticut-born Edwin F. Johnson was appointed engineer. He was one of those wise pioneers who foresaw that some day a broader track than 4 feet, 8½ inches would be desirable, but he was overruled because the roads to eastward had been or were being laid in the Stephenson gauge, and the promoters of these little lines were almost from the start looking upon them as not entirely self-sufficient, but as links in a major transportation line from the Hudson to the Lakes. Johnson found that Auburn is 271 feet higher than Syracuse, and as the road was 26 miles long — 62 percent of it a straight line — the average grade would be only 10.54 feet per mile. Of such gentle inclinations is almost the entire present-day New York Central main line between New York and Chicago.

The A. & S. was actually incorporated two years and ten days before its eastern connection, the Syracuse & Utica, but it gained nothing by that. It finally got under way in 1835, but progress was slow. The American Railroad Journal tried to give it a boost that year (September 5), declaring that the volume of business it would probably carry was "almost incalculable" — which was true enough, though not as the writer intended it. Considering the "inexhaustible stone quarries and lime at Auburn, the raw materials and manufactures at the State Prison which employ constantly 700 hands, the trade through Owasco Lake . . . and also the great manufacturing power of the village," the editor envisioned it as "one of the most profitable railroads in the state."

Nevertheless, the grading dragged on until the panic of 1837 crashed upon the land, and then there was real trouble. The depression did not at first seriously affect upstate New York, but by that time the major part of the A. & S. stock had passed from the local subscribers into the hands of parties in New York City — where the panic was maddest, as it always is — and they could not pay the installments due on their stock. Only the indomitable will of Thomas Y. How, Jr., who had become treasurer of the company at the beginning of that year, kept the enterprise alive. He visited New York shortly after his appointment, and thought he could count on some payments, but the cash did not come. He borrowed money from the Cayuga County Bank at Auburn, and through it he drew on John Delafield — cashier of the Phoenix Bank of New York, also registrar of stock and representative of a considerable group of metropolitan stockholders — at sight, twice, for $11,991 and $11,570, both drafts representing overdue installments on certain subscriptions.

 p44  As he wrote Delafield, "The crisis of our affairs has come, and if we cannot have money now, we shall be obliged to let go after having reached the shore." The drafts were reluctantly paid, after much agonizing correspondence, as was another a little later; but a fourth, for $10,000, the Cayuga bank refused to cash, and sent it through a bank in Buffalo. This time the New Yorkers could not or would not put up the money, and the note was protested. How wrote desperate letters to Delafield, saying that the local bank would lend them no more money, and if the creditors began to sue them, "we must go to ruin without hope of redemption." In May he wrote to the New York stockholders, reminding them that $102,009 was due and unpaid on subscriptions, and that suits were threatened for $46,000 on local debts; also that local stockholders had nobly agreed to pay half their dues and give notes for the balance. But the local stockholders were now a minority.

How sent a man to New York to call on each shareholder there and beg for payments, but with small success. Every day was a crisis for him, but he managed barely to keep abreast of them, and even to continue construction slowly — heaven knows how. In November the Auburn & Rochester Railroad, also under way and having nearly as difficult a time, suggested to the A. & S. that the two of them go to the state for relief, which they did. But legislative mills grind slowly, and the aid did not come for six months thereafter. Meanwhile, How laid his track — with pine rails only; he could not even afford to buy the strap iron to put on them — and on Christmas Day, 1837, the company staged its first feeble little celebration. The Cayuga Patriot of Auburn thus described it on December 27:

On Monday (Christmas) we, upon the invitation of Col. Levi Lewis, the indefatigable agent of the railroad, in company with the president and several of the directors of the company and several other gentlemen of our village, in all about 50, took a trip on the road. The company has two splendid passenger cars, in each of which 24 passengers can be seated with ease. The party left the depot in this village at twenty minutes past 11 A.M., and in forty-nine minutes, were eight miles from town. The horses were then changed, and we continued five miles farther, which is as far as the road is completed, though it is finished nearly to the canal at Geddes.

The delicate distinction between "completed" and "finished" escapes the present less subtle writer; but it seems probable that  p45 the editor meant that the grading was completed to Geddes, though the wooden rails were not laid that far. Geddes, it may be explained, was in effect a Western suburb of Syracuse, separated from the town proper by a millpond, which was yet to be bridged. The editor recorded that "each car was drawn by Col. Sherwood's best horses," and that exclusive of stoppages, they sped along at a ten‑mile-an‑hour average. Naturally, "We do not think there is another link in the whole chain of railroad communication between Buffalo and Albany that will prove as profitable an investment as the Auburn and Syracuse."

The company contracted with Colonel Sherwood to draw its cars regularly. He had long been the proprietor of the stage line between Auburn and Syracuse, and thus cushioned the shock of losing his business to the new form of transportation. The line into Geddes was opened in January, 1838, a few days after the trial trip, but not until the spring of '39 did they get the millpond bridged. Meanwhile, Philo M. Rust, proprietor of the Syracuse House, was wont to boast that he could start from Auburn with a good team simultaneously with the train departure, and be first into Syracuse. In fact, he had a standing offer of a wager to that effect, with few takers and no winners.

But the picture wasn't at all funny to How. On January 4, 1838, he had written to Delafield, "We expect nothing less than $60 per day for our share of the income of the road, unfinished as it is." But also! Actualities did not live up to expectations. During this period — slightly more than eighteen months — while Sherwood supplied the motive power, the company's half of the gross receipts was only $16,935, or about $900 a month, out of which they had to pay expenses. "The country is now suffering with unabated severity what you experienced in the city long ago," wrote How to Delafield. "Money is not to be had." And in another letter he breaks forth, "I am almost in despair, but my whole soul being given to the object, I must have hope."

In November, 1837, the Auburn & Rochester road, which was having almost as difficult a time as the A. & S., suggested to the latter that the two of them go to the state for relief, which they did; but legislatures are leisurely. In April, 1838 — by which time the treasurer's hair must have turned white — the lawmakers authorized a loan of $100,000 in state stock to the A. & S. company, whenever it should have expended $300,000 in land purchases and construction; and upon further progress of the work, another $100,000 might be obtained. It was quite some time  p46 before the first batch of scrip was grudgingly doled out; then it had to be sold — at a discount — and most of the money applied to the payment of debts already incurred. But How managed to sidetrack enough of it to enable him to order a locomotive — Syracuse was its name — which drew the first steam train over the track on June 4, 1839 — still upon the wooden rails!

But it was now apparent that timber alone wouldn't do, and through a terrific effort by How, strap iron rails were installed. A second engine, the Auburn, presently appeared, and trains began to thunder over the line, sometimes at 20 miles per hour. In fact, the Western State Journal on December 30, 1840, announced that

A train of cars was propelled by the new locomotive engine Owasco on the Syracuse and Auburn Road from Auburn to Syracuse, a distance of twenty-six miles, in fifty-eight minutes, including stops. This speed was accomplished without any previous arrangement.

The first station in Syracuse was a temporary affair. Application was made for permission to erect it on Washington Street in the fall of 1838, and the privilege was granted, but with the proviso that the terminal be not more than 18 feet square and stand not more than a year. In 1839 the Utica & Syracuse shed was ready, and the Auburn & Syracuse trains began using it. The first A. & S. cars were the usual stagecoach type, with a running board along the side for the conductor; and one of those functionaries lost his hold on the grab-handle one cold, snowy night, fell under the wheels and was killed. There was a "Diamond Car," too, so‑called because its windows were diamond-shaped, which created quite a sensation when it appeared, but which was equally deadly. It had been built for the New York & Harlem, but was too large to pass through that railroad's bridges and tunnels, and so was sold out into the great open spaces. But soon after it went into service, Samuel Wildrick, a popular conductor, was crushed to death between its side and the station door at Syracuse, where there was a clearance of less than four inches. In 1839 the road received its first eight-wheeled passenger car with aisle through the center, built by Stevenson & Company, coach builders of New York City.

[image ALT: A photograph of a rectangular building of one story plus a pediment and a small square tower, with a large rectangular bay door wide enough to akom two trains as evidenced by the two sets of tracks entering it. It is a view of the old train station of Syracuse, N. Y.]

Early Station: Syracuse, 1839.

The first three locomotives owned by the company were 10½‑ton affairs with two drivers on a side, built by Rogers of Paterson, N. J. — though the company also borrowed some machines from  p47 the Syracuse & Utica, as already mentioned. When more were needed, Dennis, Wood & Russell, owners of a small machine shop at Auburn, with typical American nerve and versatility, built two machines, and very good ones, too, with some new gadgets on them. One of them, the Wyoming, was taken over by the A. & S., while the other, christened Buffalo, went to the Attica & Buffalo road. The tractive limit of those early locomotives was about 14 of the four-wheeled freight cars, or 42 tons; for a car was considered loaded when it had 30 barrels of flour or three tons of other merchandise aboard. These cars were drawn, one at a time, from the freight depot at Auburn to the "car house" (station), where they were hooked up in 12‑or 14‑car trains. During parts of the year when freights were light, the freight cars were attached to passenger trains.

William G. Fargo began his transportation career as agent in the freight depot at Auburn. In 1842 he became a messenger for Pomeroy & Company, pioneer expressmen, on the road between Buffalo and Albany, and 1843 was their agent at Buffalo. George E. Pomeroy had launched his express service between Albany and Buffalo in 1841, when you had to complete the journey by stagecoach from Rochester or Batavia to Buffalo. His first job for a bank was the carrying of $86,000 in currency. "God speed you!" exclaimed John Wilkinson, regarding his venture with emotion. At Attica Pomeroy picked up another recruit, Henry Wells, a bearded six-footer with a big Roman nose, who had been bred to the tanning and shoemaking business. Within three or four years Wells and Fargo had joined forces in a venture of their own, and we need only mention their names to indicate their future.

The railroad, it was now found, was becoming of inestimable service to the newspapers in bringing news. The New York American on November 9, 1838 (Friday), said:

A gentleman arrived in town this morning from the West has informed us that he passed through Syracuse on Monday night. The Whig ticket was unexpectedly running ahead in Salina, and had strong hopes of Onondaga, where the Loco Focos claimed 800 majority.

In Auburn the vote for Seward on the first day was almost unanimous. The Whigs were ahead in Utica and the adjoining towns in Oneida the first night.

It must be remembered that voting was then done orally.

 p48  The first telegraph office in Auburn was opened in May, 1846, and the first attempt to use it for the movement of trains resulted in a collision. The strings of roads across the state were then working pretty closely together. A train due from the west at 4 A.M. had not reached Auburn at 5:30, and as the locomotive which was to carry it on must be in Syracuse to start back westward with a train at 7, it was ordered to proceed to Syracuse without the Rochester connection. It did so, and when the Rochester train arrived a little later, it was ordered to continue on to Syracuse, where the up train would be held by telegraph until it arrived. But the Auburn operator couldn't get Syracuse because the Syracuse operator wasn't in the habit of reporting early, and in fact, didn't show up until after the 7 o'clock train had departed. The result was a collision and two badly shattered engines, but nobody seriously hurt; but this convinced most people that the telegraph was too tricky and irresponsible an instrument to be used in train dispatching. Its use was thereby delayed for several years in that area.

In 1839, the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser thought the approximately fifty-hour schedule between New York and Buffalo then prevailing as fast locomotion as any reasonable man could wish. To accomplish this high speed, you took a Hudson River boat to Albany, the railroads from there to Syracuse, an Erie Canal packet to Rochester, the Tonawanda Railroad thence to Batavia, and a stagecoach the rest of the way. But that did not satisfy the country west of Auburn, which was as much exercised over the subject of railroads as Auburn itself had been. Between January 8 and March 3, 1835, there were presented to the lower house of the Legislature no less than forty petitions from residents of the four counties extending from Auburn to Rochester, all asking for the incorporation of a railroad between those two towns. A bill was introduced, but failed of passage by a small margin. But in the following year the auspices were more favorable, and just as the Utica & Schenectady was well on the way to completion, the Auburn & Rochester was incorporated, May 13, 1836.

It was almost exactly three times as long — 78½ miles — as the Auburn & Syracuse, and thus a much more ambitious venture, especially as it included the project of a bridge — on piles — a mile and a half long across the lower end of Cayuga Lake, where the water was very shallow. It was by no means a direct line; it bent considerably to southward to touch Geneva and Canandaigua,  p49 where some good stock subscriptions were garnered. Canandaigua was in fact the moving spirit of the enterprise, and the main office of the company was there. It bought the most generously of stock of any town — 1,921 shares. You couldn't bypass a place like that. Geneva subscribed for 930 shares and Seneca Falls for 813. Auburn citizens had already signed up for as much as they could in stock of the A. & S., and Rochester, with curious short-sightedness, just wasn't interested; there were only ten subscribers there. Like Maisie, whose friends didn't think it worth while to give her a book for Christmas because she already had a book, Rochester already had a railroad, the Tonawanda, and seemed to think that was enough.

The company was chartered without a preliminary survey, and $2,000,000 was fixed as a practicable capital stock. After several months' work, subscriptions for $1,025,000 had been obtained, and the directors conveniently estimated that it would take just about that much to build the line. That the guess was $1,600,000 too low is not to be wondered at.

Robert Higham surveyed the railroad and later became its superintendent. He urged the directors to build a double track, pointing out that the Utica & Schenectady had already found a  p50 second track necessary; but the company had enough trouble, goodness knows, laying one pair of rails, let alone thinking of a second. Higham's idea of track construction was unique. Upon the mudsills, laid lengthwise, were to be red cedar crossties three inches thick, with cedar blocks between them on the stringers to help support the rails. "Upon the blocks and ties and under the rail plates, is a locust ribbon, one inch thick and three inches wide, to raise the iron rail and clear the flanges of the wheels from the ties. Upon the locust ribbon is placed the rail plate . . ." It is impossible to say now whether this strange procedure was followed, though it does not seem likely. But we do know that they had snake-head trouble, for the annual report of 1848, when they were changing over to the heavy rail, says that "A loose bar of the old plate rail structure entered one of the cars and inflicted flesh wounds on the foot and leg of one of the female passengers."

The panic of 1837 dealt this company a severe blow. It tried for state aid, but not until 1840 did it receive $200,000 in state stock in two installments. By high-pressure salesman­ship it succeeded in peddling the first lot, but the second nobody would have. It was finally used as collateral for a loan at a Canandaigua bank whose president was also president of the railroad; and in 1842, after nearly two years of trying, it was unloaded in New York at 82 to 84 cents on the dollar.

Meanwhile, by the hardest of scuffling, they found money to enable Vedder, Vedder & Company, the first contractors, to grade and lay track from Rochester to Canandaigua, and in September, 1840, the first cars, brought to Rochester by canal from the Lyon shops at Utica, went into service. The first carload of freight is said to have been one of mutton tallow (remember, these were small, four-wheeled cars), sent from Victor to Rochester. The line ran near a powder mill, but carried none of its product; the railroad was afraid of the powder, and the mill, afraid to entrust it to the railroad, continued to use wagons. Pushing eastward, the railhead reached Seneca Falls in June, 1841, Cayuga in September, and the bridge across Cayuga Lake having been completed, it entered Auburn on November 4, 1841.

The first locomotives had single drivers on a side, and smoke-stacks with two right angles in them — up, back, and up — in an effort to incommode the passage of sparks. The early passenger cars were low and ill-ventilated, and there was no roof extension over the end platform. This left the brakeman out in the storm when slowing down for a stop, but at least discouraged the practice  p51 of passengers' standing there. A second track was laid in 1844 between Canandaigua and Geneva, twenty-three miles, but before long it removed, as there was not enough business to justify its upkeep.

But the Auburn & Rochester had no intention of continuing to use cheap passenger cars. In June, 1842, the American Railroad Journal described with enthusiasm six new cars just built for the road by Davenport & Bridges, of Cambridge, Mass., at a cost of $10,000, or $1,666 apiece. The six eight-wheeled cars, each twenty-eight feet long by eight feet wide, were intended to form two trains. Said the Journal:

The seats are well stuffed and admirably arranged — with arms for each chair, and changeable backs, that will allow the passengers to change "front to rear" by a manoeuvre unknown in military tactics. The size of the car forms a pleasant room, handsomely painted, with floor matting, with windows secured from jarring, and with curtains to shield from the blazing sun. We should have said rooms; for in four out of six cars (the other two being designed only for way passengers) there is a ladies' apartment, with luxurious sofas for seats, and in recesses may be found a washstand and other conveniences. The arrangement of the apartment for ladies we consider the greatest improvement; and it will remedy some serious objections that have hitherto existed against railroad travelling on the part of families. The ladies can now have their choice, either of a sofa in their own apartment, or a seat in the main saloon of the cars. . . .

There was praise also for the lighting, for the springs, which eliminated the "jar, and especially the swinging motion so disagreeable on most railroads," and

Last though not least, the breakers are so arranged as to be applied readily and with great power, thus guarding against the danger of collisions, etc.

On the whole, it would be difficult to imagine any improvements that could be desired, though we say these down-easters will rig out some new "notions" ere long, which will furnish "board and lodging" as well. The cars are worth a sight, even if one has neither time nor money (as some of us printers have not) to indulge in the luxury of a ride.

The quip about board and lodging was an unintentional prophecy. However, it was not the Down Easters who fulfilled it, but  p52 two men named Wagner and Pullman, born and reared along the line of the New York Central.

Patent rights for the new eight-wheeled, two-truck type of car were claimed by Ross Winans, primarily a locomotive builder of Baltimore, and he presently brought suits to enforce his allegation as railroad after railroad the country over began using eight-wheelers. He won against the little Schenectady & Troy Railroad, but the whole Albany-Buffalo outfit, under the leader­ship of Erastus Corning, whose road, the Utica & Schenectady, had come to be the dominant force in the series, fought Winans for several years and won a tempered victory, enough to make it improbable that the fight would be carried further — and it wasn't. Eaton, Gilbert & Company of Troy had gradually come to build most of the cars for the New York state railroads, and were deeply interested in the case.

Remembering the fact that from the start these little lines were thought of as a continuous highway across the state, it is curious that no effort was made at Rochester to connect this new Auburn line with the Tonawanda Railroad, already constructed, and for some time their stations were several blocks apart. By 1842 there was a continuous series of rails from Albany to Buffalo; but at first the harassed traveler, passing over seven different railroads, had to change cars six times and look after his baggage six times, with the possibility of its being lost at every change; for he had no check for it — only his name written on it with chalk.

Some effort was made to correlate the service and ease the strain on the traveler. The two companies between Schenectady and Syracuse had begun to pool their equipment and run trains through without change at Utica. But there were still too many changes left, the worst being that annoying cross-town jump from one depot to the other at Rochester. Another effort at coordination is found in a letter from Henry B. Gibson, president of the Auburn & Rochester, to President Corning of the Utica & Schenectady, dated May 31, 1842, in which he makes two proposals "to produce uniformity of arrangement and fare upon the Rail Road west of Albany." These were:

First. That passengers be allowed at the principal office on the line to pay their fare as far as they please.

Second. That they be allowed to put their baggage in for such place as they please, and that they be furnished with a metal ticket therefor, a duplicate of which will be attached to the baggage.

 p53  (Baggage checks had begun to be manufactured in Massachusetts.)

A third suggestion was for a second-class train, "a daily line of cars of a plain but substantial character," slower and cheaper than the better ones, to run from Albany to Rochester and eventually to Buffalo. Such a train, painted a dark, somber color, and popularly known as the Hyena Train, did run for a while, but the officials were so shocked to discover that so many well-to‑do folk, who could afford better accommodations if they chose, were riding on it, that it was discontinued, even though a through arrangement for it had been made with the other railroads. The through agreement between Albany and Rochester, consummated on July 22, 1842, allowed the Auburn & Rochester $3 for its 78 miles in a first-class carriage and only 87½ cents for the second class. This may have had much to do with the elimination of the Hyena Train and the raising of the second-class fare to $1.50.

That long bridge across the Cayuga shallows was a startling experience to those who crossed it for the first time. Mrs. M. C. J. F. Houstoun, an English tourist, thus writes of it:

The railroad crosses the lake, and that, too, in a manner which it would be death to a nervous person even to dream of. For a distance of more than two miles, the rails are laid on wooden posts, which are driven into the earth at the bottom of the lake. There is but just room for one line of rails, and no fence whatever on either side. A dreary waste of waters is seen from the windows, and over this highly unsatisfactory bridge one is hurried at full speed. Frequent were the exclamations of alarm which broke from the ladies, particularly from those who now for the first time trusted themselves to the insecure fabric, and felt the peculiar shaking movement and heard the hollow sound caused by the echoing of this novel style of bridge.​1

Within a year after its opening, the new road was bickering with its neighbor and connection, the Auburn & Syracuse. The latter evidently did not consider the Auburn & Rochester a good risk, for its freight agent at Auburn was ordered to deliver no freight to the A. & R. until the A. & S. charges on it had been paid. This brought on some acrimonious exchanges, and finally, in December, 1842, a letter from the A. & R. secretary-treasurer to Mr. How (whose nerves may have been a little  p54 overwrought by his long financial strain), which read in part as follows:

Our President, Mr. Gibson, says he is about as sick of co-partner­ship as you would seem to be by the unceremonious manner in which you discontinued our recent connection for running our cars to Syracuse. He adds that if you had called and stated the difficulties or objections you had to continuing the arrangement, they would in all probability have been obviated by us, but as it is, we will hereafter do business on our own hook, and leave you to the enjoyment of the same course, or any other you may deem expedient to adopt.

Of course they could not keep up that sort of thing; their interests were too nearly identical. Indeed, on the thirty-first of January immediately following, twenty-three officials, representing all the roads from the upper Hudson to Lake Erie met at Albany and drew up a set of "Resolutions" for through passenger service, of which this was the first:

Resolved; that it is expedient to run two daily lines between Buffalo and the Hudson River, connecting with the morning and night boat out of Albany and Troy, and that each line be run in twenty-five hours, including stops; and that the same be apportioned as follows: Buffalo to Rochester, 6 hours; Rochester to Auburn, 6 hours; Auburn to Syracuse, 2 hours; Syracuse to Utica, 4 hours; Utica to Albany and Troy, 7 hours; — 25 hours. And that the times of starting from each end of the line be as follows: Buffalo, 6 A.M. and 4 P.M.; Albany and Troy, 6 A.M.; Schenectady, 8 A.M.; Albany and Troy, 7 P.M.; Schenectady, 9 P.M.

That was the spring-to‑autumn arrangement, when trains dared to run at night. During the winter months there was to be one train each way daily, one leaving Buffalo at 7 A.M. and stopping overnight at Syracuse; the other leaving Albany at 9 A.M. and spending the night at Auburn, "so that a passenger may make the passage between Albany and Buffalo in two days." Travelers were to be permitted to buy through tickets and check their baggage through to destination. There was to be another train for poorer folk, leaving each end of the road around midday, with a ticket rate of 2½ cents per mile "for one description of cars," and 1½ cents for emigrant cars — which were little better than cattle cars.​a

It must be remembered that all the roads in the agreement, save the Schenectady & Troy, just opened, were still using the  p55 strap rail, which made it dangerous to operate even "express" trains at more than thirteen or fourteen miles per hour average speed; that the line, detouring to Auburn, Geneva, Canandaigua and Attica, had much more mileage than the New York Central main line of today; that there must be several stops to wood and water the engine, and as many or more to stoke up the passengers, hordes of whom were certain to be hungry all the time; that there was no telegraph, and trains were dispatched by time table, which meant much waiting at passing points; and that all equipment was still in the primitive stage of development.

The convention deprecated the practice of employing "runners" or solicitors for business, and made a veiled threat of punishment against any company which did this. That was pointing a finger right at the little Schenectady & Troy which was so hard up for business that it would do almost anything to get it. Finally, the gathering "Resolved, that the several companies upon this Rail Road line will not employ persons in the business of transportation who ever drink intoxicating liquors." Note the word "ever."

Owners of canal packets and Lake Ontario steamers, already touched by railroad competition, saw in this agreement an opportunity to swing a little propaganda, and so got up a petition to the Legislature against the proposed collaboration, a paper to which they obtained the signatures of many other persons of the sort who, from that day to this, see only capitalistic machination in every effort of railroads to combine and cooperate in order to cut expenses and give better service. The petitioners averred

That they are informed that efforts are now making on the part of different rail-road companies between the Hudson river and Lake Erie, to form a combination and union of interests, in such manner as to create one great powerful monopoly out of many small monopolies. We believe it was the intention of the Legislature in chartering the different rail-road companies, to confine and restrict each company in its general operations, especially in the use of its passenger cars and motive power, to the limits of its own road; and we also believe that the interests of the travelling public and of the community in general will be better promoted by an adherence to what we suppose was the original intention of the Legislature than by permitting a departure from it.

As a result of this document, a bill was introduced into the Legislature which forbade everything that the conferees had agreed upon; but it was so fantastically undemocratic and there  p56 was so much to be said on the other side that it was never even brought to a vote.

Next west of the Auburn & Rochester, and one of the first in the whole cavalcade to be launched, was the Tonawanda Railroad, which was chartered April 24, 1832, to run southwest from Rochester to Batavia, 31½ miles, and thence up the valley of Tonawanda Creek to Attica. Why the concern was so named is a mystery, for that eleven-mile tail to Attica was not regarded as of prime importance, and was not built until 1842 — and then only to make a connection with the Attica & Buffalo Railroad. The stream was so obscure that most folk didn't know how to spell its name, and the railroad was mentioned by the Legislature and others with various nuances of spelling, Tonnewanta being the favorite.

[image ALT: A woodcut of an early locomotive, a tank-like car, open to the sky, with a tall funnel-shaped chimney in front, from which a long plume of smoke issues, connected to a large horizontal cylindrical tank. In the rear a thick cylindrical tank with a hemispherical cap and a smaller lantern-like cap on top of that — looking for all the world like Brunelleschi's dome of the Duomo of Florence —, and a man standing on a small railed platform behind it moving levers with both his arms. It is a locomotive on the Tonawanda Railroad in 1837.]

Batavia was one of the earliest locomotives of the Tonawanda Railroad, 1837

The local promoters of the line at Rochester and Batavia were a little ahead of their time. Certain citizens of the two counties through which the first survey ran presented remonstrances to the Assembly against it, but the bill went through. The capital was fixed at $500,000. A native engineer surveyed and built the road, though John B. Jervis received $125 for consultation and advice. Fortunately, the company was able to get its line completed into Batavia before the blight of 1837 had touched that part of the state.

The first train from Rochester trundled down to Batavia on May 8, 1837, amid the most uproarious celebration ever seen in those parts. Almost none of the citizens thereabouts had ever seen a steam railroad train, and the creation of this line far out in the country, detached from any other, appeared as a remarkable achievement. The first locomotives, built by Baldwin and Rogers, respectively, came via Hudson River and Erie Canal. The company built some of its own passenger cars, of the "Gothic" type, about fifteen feet long and seating twenty-four persons, three or four of whom were accommodated in an upper story in the center of the coach, the space beneath them being reserved for baggage.

Henry O'Riellyº of Rochester, who in 1838 wrote a history of that town while it was still in its infancy, looked very shrewdly into the future when, in speaking of the Tonawanda and its connecting roads, he predicted that "The whole road will be run under a single arrangement, with one set of cars and locomotives." But he slipped a little when he prophesied that within  p57 three years the journey between Rochester and New York would be accomplished in twenty-four hours.

In 1840, the company was granted $100,000 in state stock, with which it built the extension to Attica. In 1844, it was permitted to increase its capitalization to $750,000, and was given leave to connect its track in Rochester with that of the Auburn & Rochester — which finally completed a real through line from Boston to Buffalo. The reason for the new stock issue is frankly stated in a remonstrance of the seven railroads to the Legislature, in 1845, against a threatened lowering of passenger rates. The seven presidents, among them the Tonawanda executive, admitted that

In the case of the Tonawanda Railroad Company, the structure had become so decayed and the track so poor that under the then embarrassed state of the company, it could not renewed without further means derived from additional capital or loan. A law was passed at the last session, providing for such increased means and fixing a fare of four cents a mile.

The rapid decay of the structure was the result of the fact that the amateur engineer had built the track on a sort of viaduct of wooden posts set in the ground and covered with earth. It was a trial-and‑error schooling which saddened the stockholders no end.

Has any reader been under the impression that governmental rate-fixing is something of recent origin — at least, since the birth of the Interstate Commerce Commission? Well, he is wrong; it began a century and more before these words were written. We have just observed the state of New York specifying passenger rates, and in 1846 that commonwealth clamped upon the Tonawanda what was, so far as known, the first freight-rate-fixing law in United States railroad history. It named the rate on "goods, wares and merchandise" between Rochester and Bergen, seventeen miles out, as eight cents per hundred pounds, and between Rochester and points beyond Bergen, ten cents per hundred. Wheat from Batavia and Attica to Rochester was to be carried at 3 cents a bushel, and from points east of Batavia, 2½ cents a bushel. Individual rates were also fixed on pork, flour, butter, lard, wool, salt, grass and clover seed, pot and pearl ashes. That was an early incident in the long history of railroad legislation, state and national, which has never ceased. Between 1834  p58 and 1848, in addition to laws affecting individual railroads, the state of New York passed twenty laws regulating railroads in general, some of them with many clauses.

Stevens​2 has suggested that this rate law may have been slyly inspired by the Tonawanda Railroad "to crush the complaints of dissatisfied shippers," but this is pure surmise. In 1847, the Legislature again cast its eye upon the Tonawanda, ordering it to replace its strap iron rails with heavy iron. The company was so hard up that in the following year the state agreed to give it until 1851 to make the change. But even as they were doing so, the road had an accident which justified the solons in their demand; a snake-head rose up and attacked an engine itself this time, throwing it off the rails. A local newspaper account of the disaster says that the engine and fireman were considerably bruised, but were able to assist in putting the engine back on the track. By the time the laying of the T‑rail was completed, late in 1849, the company had paid more than a million dollars for construction, the greater part of which local folk had somehow dug out of their own pockets.

On April 9, 1850, the Tonawanda was given authority to consolidate itself with the Attica & Buffalo Railroad, which must now be noticed. That company, chartered in 1836 to connect the two places named, was hit by the panic before it got well started, and construction of the thirty-mile line did not actually begin until 1841. It had a deal of trouble about getting a right of way into Buffalo, and could not claim a really downtown terminal until 1843.

Meanwhile, it had completed its track to a junction with the Tonawanda at Attica in November, 1842. When the company was amalgamated with the Tonawanda on December 7, 1850, the resulting corporation was christened Buffalo & Rochester. The charter of this company gave it the privilege of building a branch or branches "to render the line of railway between Buffalo & Rochester shorter and of more feasible and easier grades." By this time the through business over the allied railroads between New York and Boston and the West was becoming so important that promoters were talking in bigger figures.

The capital stock of the Buffalo & Rochester was set at $1,825,000, which it had charter permission to increase if necessary. It promptly began the construction of a cutoff from Batavia to a  p59 point — now called Depew — on the Attica & Buffalo, eight miles out from Buffalo, thus laying a course which is now a part of the busy main line of the New York Central. In 1851, the company was given leave to sell the now unwanted track between Depew and Attica, and in the following year this was turned over to the Buffalo & New York Railroad for a song — if $322,000 can be so called. That line is now a part of the Erie system.

On April 24, 1834, the Lockport & Niagara Falls Railroad Company was chartered; why, it is difficult to surmise, unless in hope of a better hereafter. It had an authorized capital of $110,000, which had to be increased before the company could complete the line between its termini in 1838. In 1841, the company was granted a capital raise to $500,000 and then another to $1,375,000, with the right to extend its track from Lockport to Rochester. But notwithstanding the fact that it traversed a good agricultural territory, its unimportant western terminus of Niagara Falls and the fact that the east-and‑west business was bound to travel over other lines through Buffalo made it impossible for the directors to raise the money necessary to build. They therefore leased the road in 1843 to three men who were to keep it in repair and turn it back when the directors felt able to improve it or to build the extension. The State Engineer's report of January 11, 1849, gives a rather pitiful picture of it. It then had three locomotives, six passenger cars, one baggage car and five freight cars, and usually employed about twenty men. Its income in 1848 had been $13,000, "principally from way passengers . . . Freight but a trifle. No account of it kept."

But somehow the directors had contrived to collect $728,273 on stock subscriptions, and the line from Lockport to Rochester was under contract, with smooth grading and bridging already done. But there they bogged down again, and in 1850 the Legislature ordered the company to sell its property and franchise, which was done, and a reorganized corporation, the Buffalo, Rochester & Niagara Falls, took over in December, 1850. By July 1, 1852, the 76‑mile road was in operation into Rochester, but its cost of construction eventually mounted to $2,343,388.50, which means $30,833 per mile for a railroad which did not rank very high in importance.

Meanwhile, the last line to be created at the western end of this New York group, the Buffalo & Lockport, was chartered in 1852 with a $600,000 capital, and was nearly complete in '53 when the great amalgamation took place.

 p60  Let us turn our attention now to a small but perky little unit, a comparatively late comer at the eastern end of the series. Only six miles from Albany, just cater-cornered across the Hudson River from it, you might say, the little city of Troy steadily nursed the belief that it was a neck-and‑neck rival of the capital city and must keep continually on its toes, else it would be left behind. Long before there was any railroad out of Massachusetts, Troy was hoping to be the western terminus of such a line. When the Mohawk & Hudson came into being, Troy was envious, but had begun to nourish a dream of a railroad to New York City, running eastward of and several miles from the Hudson. Efforts were made to establish steamboat lines from Troy to New York, but most of them persisted in halting their northward course at Albany. When railroads began to push westward from Schenectady, Troy saw that it must act, to procure some of that western trade.

On May 21, 1836, the Schenectady & Troy Railroad Company was incorporated, when neither the Legislature nor the promoters had yet made up their minds as to the proper spelling of the name of the western terminus. The act of incorporation speaks of the road as "from the City of Schenectada to the City of Troy," and the directors' minutes continued to use that spelling for some time thereafter. But perhaps this was the fault of the secretary, who wasn't much of a speller, anyway. When a director died (December, 1843) the minutes show that the board voted to "attend in a body the funeral of their diseased friend and associate."

For some reason or other, this road was granted the highest legal passenger fare in the state — six cents per mile. It had an authorized capital of $500,000, but stock couldn't be sold in 1837, the panic year, and the city finally procured the right to bond itself for half a million dollars for the construction of the road. Before the end of '37 the Common Council had voted to buy all the stock. Thus this city of 16,959 population in 1835 became the first municipality in America to build and own a railroad. Yet all these gestures did not produce any cash, and matters dragged along until 1840, when the westward thrust of the railroad from Boston and the likelihood of its reaching the Hudson in the following year spurred the city government to vigorous action. It borrowed $100,000 in state stock and succeeded in selling $100,000 of its own bonds — at a discount — whereby some cash was raised with which to begin construction.

The road was opened for operation November 1, 1842. Its  p61 eastern terminal was on the west bank of the Hudson, trains crossing the river from there into Troy over the bridge of the Rensselaer & Saratoga Railroad. The rails followed the course of the Mohawk River pretty closely over to Schenectady. And it must be mentioned that this was the first of that close-knit group of railroads in New York that did not begin life with a strap rail. No, indeed, it had H‑rails from the start, fifty-six pounds to the yard — fastened to the ties with modern hook-headed spikes made by Henry Burden of Troy who had invented a process for producing them by machine — and was a well-built highway for its day. The American Railroad Journal called it "one of the best constructed roads in the country," and considered "the cars, made by Gilbert & Eaton of Troy such as a weary man delights to find," being "sustained by 'atmospheric springs' and well ventilated."

In the fall of 1842, as the time for the opening drew near, the minutes — a constant joy to the reader — reveal the directors as very busy with what were to them vital matters. As for instance, "On motion, Resolved that this Board now proceed to the election by ballot of a Ticket Agent & Clerk at Troy," and N. S. Hollister receiving all six votes was declared elected; salary, $450 a year. Then they just as solemnly proceeded to the election of a conductor and baggage master (they needed only one of each). After electing a superintendent, they seem to have permitted him to choose the other functionaries. The brakeman drew twenty dollars a month, and his duties were multifarious, including that of cleaning the cars after every trip — common practice everywhere. There was a halfway station between Troy and Schenectady, and the "attendant" there drew $12.50 a month, no doubt cultivating a farm on the side. At the end of 1842, the operating force consisted of sixteen men.

In 1843, the passenger fare between the termini — notwithstanding the legal six cents per mile ceiling — was, in competition with the Mohawk & Hudson, set at twenty-five cents! And with no inclined planes to annoy the traveler, that should have been a clincher for passenger business. The absence of inclines should also have given the S. & T. a shorter running time than the M. & H., but the trains could not have run very fast, for a tourist one midsummer day saw a fat man, with the train running full tilt, holding an umbrella outside a car window to shield himself from the sun.

That ridiculously low fare and the road's construction cost of $31,000 a mile explain why the directors were beset with many  p62 duns, and why, by March, 1843, they were already in arrears with "wages due to the hands." The fare to Schenectady finally had to be raised to fifty cents; there was no avoiding it. But the stringency continued, for in 1846 the Utica & Schenectady is found threatening suit to collect payment for a locomotive which the S. & T. had had "for a long time," and in 1850 there was a bond issue — just one bond — to pay a small balance due the Rensselaer & Saratoga for the use of its bridge.

Although hard up, the board was not always niggardly in handling damage claims. It voted ten dollars to a Mr. Whitlock "As a donation to his colored man in consequence of a loss sustained by him in having a hog killed by the cars. And in the matter of "the injury done to a Mr. Smith by the running away of his horses," allegedly frightened by a train, the bruised and shaken Smith was granted $150 for personal injuries and ten dollars for the repair of his wagon.

Meanwhile, the S. & T. stood up for its "rights" like a bantam rooster. When the Post Office Department, which had been starting the westbound mails from Albany at 7:30 A.M., decided to advance the time to 6, the S. & T. directors remonstrated against "an earlier hour than 7½ o'clock A.M. as injurious to the public, and oppressive to the interests of this Company and the City of Troy." They were continually aggrieved, mostly at the Utica & Schenectady people, and particularly after the Western Railroad had been completed from Boston to Albany, because the bulk of the western business continued to flow through Albany instead of Troy. They even sought to obtain permission in 1846 to extend their tracks to Utica, though where they imagined to get the money for the job we cannot imagine. But the U. & S. of course fought the proposal, and the privilege was not granted.

In 1842, one of the most famous names in Wall Street history appears in S. & T. records when young Russell Sage, a Troy grocer and alderman, performed some minor mission for the company. He bought stock, became a director in 1849 and vice-president in 1850. The railroad was a losing venture from the start, and cost the little city of Troy a pretty penny before it finally rid itself of the burden in 1852 by selling the entire stock to Edwin D. Morgan, then president of the Hudson River Railroad and later governor of New York. Among others associated with Morgan in this purchase (though their names are unknown to this day) may have been Russell Sage, for he became president  p63 of the company, following the retirement of Elias Plum, who had been the executive for several years.

A forecast of things to come is seen in the fact that the string of railroads had scarcely been completed across the state when plans were being discussed for shortening and tightening the chain and easing the pain of the journey for the traveler. It was very early observed that the existing 104‑mile route between Syracuse and Rochester, looping down through Auburn, with many detours west of there, could be bettered; in fact, a survey showed that a direct line between the two cities need be no more than 80 miles long. With this as a raison d'être, the Syracuse & Rochester Direct Railway was incorporated in 1848, but got nowhere, for only 834 shares of stock were sold. Nevertheless, it remained a menace to the Auburn & Syracuse and Auburn & Rochester, and the directors of those roads finally decided that they must do something about it. So on August 1, 1850, they organized the Rochester & Syracuse Railroad Company with a capital of $4,200,000, consolidating their two corporations in it. At the same time they took over the Direct Railway upon agreement to build the road, and did so, thus creating another stretch of the present New York Central main line — closely paralleling the Erie Canal — which began operation June 1, 1853. Once more Auburn was shunted to the sidelines, as the new road was built under the supervision of a big, homely fellow named Elkanah Dean Richmond, who will be heard of again in this history.

To the twelve railroads which actually laid track and operated trains must be added two which never got beyond the blueprint stage. One was the Syracuse & Utica Direct, first mentioned by the Utica Observer in September, 1852, as the Utica & Syracuse Straight Line Railroad. The Observer remarked that "The capital of the company is to be $1,000,000, and from present appearances, it will not take a week to have the whole amount taken up." The object of the company was to build an air line between Syracuse & Utica, saving six miles or more by cutting out the detour to Rome; an example of how blithely companies were launched in those days, with perfect confidence that they would be money-makers, though there were examples all around to discourage this belief. By the time the company subscription books were open, it was evident that leading men in the original Syracuse & Utica were buying the stock, so that when organized the new company was just a subsidiary of the old and destined never to go further. Of its thirteen directors, nine were also directors  p64 of the S. & U. Thus matters stood at the time of the great amalgamation. Thirty years later the West Shore Railroad utilized much of the S. & U. Direct's survey.

There were other promoters who sought to tap the lucrative vein being worked by the Utica & Schenectady, and in January, 1851, these men organized the Mohawk Valley Railroad, to connect the two cities by a track along the south shore of the river. There were towns on that shore — Canajahorie, Fort Plain, Frankfort and others — which felt slighted at being left off the rails. So John V. L. Pruyn, chief promoter, was able to involve some influential New Yorkers, including Azariah C. Flagg, two Roosevelts, two Goelets, the eminent Generalº Francis E. Spinner, John A. Dix, Eliphalet Remington and others from the Mohawk shores in the scheme.

E. H. Broadhead, chief engineer, in a report to the directors, April 1, 1851, pointed out that the south bank was far preferable as a railroad grade to the north, there being a "marked difference in the terrain." On the north side, he said, the streams took their rise in the mountains and came dashing down at high speed, a constant menace to bridges:

The Utica & Schenectady Road has been in operation about fourteen years, and notwithstanding the repeated failures of some of the bridges and the consequent detention of the trains, and notwithstanding the knowledge which has been furnished from time to time of their violence, the company has not yet been able to make the bridges secure.

— Which was putting the case a bit too dramatically, to say the best of it. One does not find evidence in the Utica & Schenectady's own records of so much trouble with the bridges.

For two years the Mohawk Valley discussed plans and reëlected officers, being annoyed in 1852 by the appearance of the Genesee & Hudson Railroad Company, which was chartered to build a road from Rochester to Albany, but never got beyond the paper stage. Early in January, 1853, the directors of the Mohawk Valley admitted that their company was about to expire because of the state law that ten percent of the capital stock must be expended within two years from organization. Accordingly a new company was organized, with John V. L. Pruyn as president, which, on January 17, took over all the assets of the old. It was a significant fact that a majority of the directors of the new company were also directors of the Utica & Schenectady.  p65 In fact, the U. & S. actually went through the motions of taking over the job of building the new line. The Mohawk Valley (new company) was chartered for 150 years; its life span actually was about four months. Here again was a survey utilized by that "nuisance road," the West Shore, thirty years later.

The Author's Notes:

1 Hesperos; or, Travels in the West. London, 1850.

2 Frank Walker Stevens, The Beginnings of the New York Central Railroad, New York, 1926.

Thayer's Note:

a The typical experience of one immigrant family, confirming our author, is told in the diary of John Remeeus, whose account of his train trip from Boston to Chicago (July 22‑30, 1854) gives us a very good picture of rail travel at the time. He reserves for after Detroit the comment that their cars "were no better than freight cars" (July 29): he wrote about a decade later than the Albany "Resolutions" quoted here and the New York system must already have improved some.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 1 Feb 16