Home  

EARLY DAYS ON THE ERIE

Text from—"When Railroads Were New"—by Charles Frederick Carter--1909

THE first bride who ever made a honeymoon trip on a railroad in America did more by that act to expedite the building of the world's first trunk line than the ablest statesmen, engineers, and financiers of the Empire State had been able to accomplish by their united efforts in half a dozen years.

Indeed, it is within bounds to go much further than this and say that the inspiration drawn from this bride's delight over her novel ride pushed the hands of progress ahead ten years on the dial of history.

The bride who achieved so much was Mrs. Henry L. Pierson, of Ramapo, N. Y. Mr. and Mrs. Pierson were in Charleston, S. C., early in January, 1831, on their wedding tour. When Mrs. Pierson heard that a steam locomotive was to make its first trip with a trainload of passengers over the South Carolina Railroad from Charleston to Hamburg, six miles away, on January 15, she was eager to take the ride; and her husband, like a dutiful bridegroom, agreed.

That was the first regular train that ever carried passengers in the United States. It was then less than eighteen months from the time when the first successful locomotive had made its trial trip.

The locomotive which drew the first regular passenger train in America and the first bridal couple to take a railroad journey was the Best Friend of Charleston.

The two cars were crazy contraptions on four wheels, resembling stagecoach bodies as much as they did anything else. The train contrived to get over the entire system of six miles and back again at a fairly satisfactory speed.

All the passengers were highly pleased with their strange experience. The bride was in a transport of delight. She could talk of nothing else. When she returned to Ramapo she gave her brother-in-law, Eleazer Lord, and her father-in-law, Jeremiah Pierson, such glowing accounts of her railroad trip that they were fired with enthusiasm. The bridegroom had already become almost as ardent an advocate of railroads as his bride.

Jeremiah Pierson, the father of the bridegroom, was one of the nation's first captains of industry. He owned several thousand acres of land around Ramapo, on which he conducted tanneries, a cotton-mill, iron-works, and a nail factory. His son-in-law, Eleazer Lord, was one of the leading merchants, financiers, and public men of New York City.

For half a dozen years the two had been deeply interested in Governor De Witt Clinton's ideas for the development of southern New York by means of a State highway or canal or other method of communication, but politicians in central New York, where the Erie Canal had been in operation from 1825, by methods not unknown even among politicians of today, turned all the efforts of the Governor and his public-spirited supporters into a farce.


Later, Mr. Lord and his father-in-law had been greatly interested in the possibilities of a railroad as the best form for Governor Clinton's proposed highway to take. But their original idea of a railroad was an affair of inclined planes and horse-power.

Of course, they had heard all about the experiments with locomotives and the building of the South Carolina Railroad, the first in the world projected from the outset to be operated by steam locomotives, and they had been deeply interested in William C. Redfield's famous pamphlet, so widely circulated in 1829, proposing a steam railroad from the ocean to the Mississippi; but the idea of a steam road through southern New York was not clearly developed in their minds until the bride's glowing accounts of her experience fired their imaginations.

Young Mrs. Pierson gave it as her opinion that if a steam railroad were built it would be possible to go from New York to Buffalo in twenty-four hours. At first, the men folks were inclined to smile at this, but they were thoroughly impressed with the value of the locomotive as described by this ardent advocate.

Mrs. Pierson's girlish enthusiasm was the determining factor which crystallized the ideas of those men and led them to take the steps which finally resulted in the building of what is now known as the Erie Railway, which, by uniting the ocean with the Great Lakes, became the world's first trunk line.

No railroad has had a more romantic history than this one, which had its inception in so romantic an incident. It required twenty years of toil and anxiety, sacrifice and discouragement, to get the line through, but it was accomplished at last, and the bridegroom and bride who had made the memorable first wedding journey by rail were again passengers on a trip which will live in history as long as railroads exist.

This time the bride was a handsome woman of middle age, but she was just as proud of her husband as she was on that first trip, for he was vice-president of the road, the longest continuous line in the world, and the trains did move at a speed that would have carried them from New York to Buffalo in twenty-four hours, just as she had prophesied two decades before that they would.

Mr. Lord at once began corresponding with the most influential citizens of southern New York on the subject of building a steam railroad from the ocean to the Lakes. The idea was well received everywhere; so well, in fact, that a public meeting in furtherance of Mr. Lord's railroad scheme was held at Monticello, July 29, 1831; another at Jamestown, September 20, and a third at Angelica, October 25. Finally, a great central convention was called to meet at Oswego, December 20, 1831.

People were inclined to believe that so vast an enterprise as the building of five hundred miles of railroad was too much for one company to undertake. It was pretty generally believed that two companies would be required—one to build from New York to Oswego, the other from Oswego to Lake Erie.

A convention at Binghamton, December 15, had formally approved the two-company plan, and public opinion had pretty definitely decided that two companies were necessary.

But while the Oswego convention was in session a citizen rushed breathlessly in, interrupting a delegate who was delivering an address, and in the most orthodox style known to melodrama handed the president a letter. It was from Eleazer Lord, briefly but emphatically declaring that the undertaking could be carried to success only by a single corporation.

His reasoning was so cogent that the convention without much ado decided in favor of one corporation, and nothing further was heard of the two-company proposition.

Public opinion was so pronounced in favor of the railroad that the politicians from the canal counties could make no headway against it. A charter drafted by John Duer, of New York, was granted the New York and Erie Railroad, April 24, 1832.

But the fine Italian hand of the politicians who could not prevent the granting of the charter was clearly to be seen in the document itself. That instrument provided that the entire capital stock of ten million dollars must be subscribed and five per cent of the amount paid in before the company could incorporate.

The canal counties had served public notice that the projectors of this great public work would have to combat all the pettifogging intrigues of which small politicians were capable before they could even begin their titanic contest with nature.

The little band of enthusiasts led by Eleazer Lord were undertaking the most stupendous task that had been set before the nation up to that time. The country was poor in resources; the region through which the road was to run was a wilderness except for a few scattering villages.


Missouri was the only State west of the Mississippi. Chicago was a village clustered around Fort Dearborn. Railroad building was an unknown science three-quarters of a century ago. The building of five hundred miles of road then was a far more stupendous task than the building of ten thousand miles would be to-day.

Seeing the hopelessness of complying with the terms of the charter, the incorporators contrived to bring enough pressure to bear on the legislature to have the amount of subscription required before organization reduced to one million dollars.

Finally, on August 9, 1833, the New York and Erie Railroad Company was organized, with Mr. Lord as president. The next month the board of directors issued an address asking for donations of right of way and additional donations of land.

As no survey had been made, and no one had any idea where the road would be located, this address failed to bring out either donations or subscriptions of stock, but there was a great deal of harsh talk about land-speculation schemes.

In desperation, a convention was held, November 20, 1833, in New York City, to ask for State aid. The aid was not forthcoming. Next year the company took the little money received for stock from the incorporators and started the surveys. The eastern end of the line began in a marsh on the banks of the Hudson, twenty-four miles north of New York City.

Considering that the fundamental purpose of the road was to secure the trade of the interior to New York, this did not make any new friends for the road. The western end of the road was to be Dunkirk, a village of four hundred inhabitants, on the shores of Lake Erie.

The talk about land speculation and the failure to make satisfactory progress created such strong opposition to his policy that Mr. Lord resigned as president at the January meeting in 1835, and J. G. King was elected to succeed him. King, by superhuman exertions, was able to make an actual beginning.

He went to Deposit, some one hundred and seventy-seven miles from New York, where at sunrise on a clear, frosty morning, November 7, 1835, on the eastern bank of the Delaware River, be made a little speech to a party of thirty men, in which he expressed the conviction that the railroad for which be was about to break ground might in a few years earn as much as two hundred thousand dollars a year from freight.

This roseate prophecy being received with incredulity, Mr. King hastened to modify it by saying the earnings might amount to so vast a sum "at least eventually." Then he shoveled a wheelbarrow-load of dirt, which another member of the party wheeled away and dumped, and the great work was begun.

But it was only begun. No progress was made that year, nor did it look as if any further progress ever would be made. The great fire in New York, December 16, 1835, ruined many of the stockholders, and the panic of 1836-1837 bankrupted many more.

Once more the company resolved to appeal to the legislature for aid as a last desperate expedient. The sum required was fixed at three million dollars.

Although the request was supported by huge petitions from New York, Brooklyn, and every county in the southern tier, the opposition was bitter. However, public opinion was too strong to be ignored, so the opposition went through the form of yielding to popular clamor by presenting a bill to advance two million dollars when the company had expended four million six hundred and seventy-four thousand five hundred and eighteen dollars.

This was a safe move, because the company had not a dollar in the treasury, and no means of getting one. Subsequently the conditions were modified and the credit of the State to the amount of three million dollars was loaned. Ultimately the amount was given outright.

In December, 1836, the board issued a call for a payment of two dollars and a half a share. Less than half the stockholders responded. Then a public meeting was held, at which a committee of thirty-nine was appointed to receive subscriptions. The committee opened its books and sat down to wait for the public to step up and subscribe. The public didn't step.

 

By 1838 President King had had enough of the effort to materialize a railroad out of the circumambient atmosphere, and the board of directors again turned to Eleazer Lord, who had a new plan to offer. It was to let contracts for the first ten miles from Piermont, the terminus of the road on the Hudson, twenty-four miles above New York, and solicit subscriptions in the city to pay for that amount of work, and to solicit subscriptions from Rockland and Orange counties to pay for the next thirty-six miles, to Goshen. Middletown was to be asked to pay for nine miles between that point and Goshen.


Before this plan could be put in operation, the company had a very narrow escape from an untimely end. People were getting so impatient to see some progress made that the legislature of 1838-1839 was swamped with petitions for the immediate construction of the road by the State.

February 14, 1839, a bill authorizing the surrender by the New York and Erie Railroad Company of all its rights, titles, franchises, and property to the State was defeated in the Senate by the narrow margin of one vote.

The Assembly succeeded in passing a similar bill, but it was defeated in the Senate, seventeen to twenty-four. The Governor stood ready to sign the bill if it had been adopted by the legislature.

In the spring of 1839 grading was begun under Lord's newest plan. October 4, 1839, Lord was again made president, and H. L. Pierson, who with his bride had taken that historic ride on the first passenger train, was made a director. Mr. Lord continued to keep things moving in his second administration so effectively that on Wednesday, June 30, 1841, the first trainload of passengers that ever traveled over the Erie Railroad was taken to Ramapo, where the party was entertained by the venerable Jeremiah Pierson, the father-inlaw of the bride who made the memorable trip ten years before, who was one of the directors of the road. Three months later the line was opened for traffic to Goshen, forty-six miles from Piermont.

Slowly, very slowly, the rails crept westward. Not until December 27, 1848, more than seven years after reaching Goshen, did the first train enter Binghamton, one hundred and fifty-six miles beyond. In all those seven years the Erie Company was experiencing a continuous succession of perplexities, annoyances, difficulties, and dangers that in number and variety have probably never been equaled in the history of any other commercial enterprise in this country.

The financing of the work was one prolonged vexation. Times innumerable it seemed as if the whole enterprise must fail for want of funds, but at the last minute of the eleventh hour some way out would be found.

Then, too, the company had to learn the science of railroading as it went along. There was no telegraph in those days to facilitate the movement of trains. The only reliance was a time card and a set of rules.

Locomotives and rolling stock were small and crude. Officials and employees had everything to learn, since railroads were new, and every point learned was paid for in experience at a good round figure. The living instrumentalities through which the evolution of the railroad was achieved were very much in earnest, as they had need to be. They were too busy with the problems of each day as they arose to glut their vanity with profitless reflections upon the magnificence of the task upon which they were engaged, or to enjoy the humor of the expedients which led to their solution. Posterity gets all the laughs as well as the benefits.

An interesting example of the quaint devices by which important ends were attained is afforded by the origin of the bell cord, the forerunner of the air whistle, now in universal use on American roads for signaling the engineer from the train. A means of communication between the engine and the train has always been considered indispensable in America. In Europe the lack of such means of communication has been the fruitful source of accidents and crimes.

The bell cord was the invention of Conductor Henry Ayers, of the Erie Railroad. In the spring of 1842, soon after the line had been opened to Goshen, forty-six miles from the Hudson River, there were no cabs on the engines, no caboose for the trainmen, no way of getting over the cars, and no means of communicating with the engineer. There were no such things as telegraphic train orders, no block signals, no printed time cards, no anything but a few vague rules for the movement of trains. The engineer was an autocrat, who ran the train to suit himself. The conductor was merely a humble collector of fares.

Conductor Ayers, who afterwards for many years was one of the most popular men of his calling in the country, was assigned to a train whose destinies were ruled by Engineer Jacob Hamel, a German of a very grave turn of mind, fully alive to the dignity of his position, who looked upon the genial conductor with dark suspicion. When Ayers suggested that there should be some means of signaling the engineer so he could notify him when to stop to let off passengers, suspicion became a certainty that the conductor was seeking to usurp the prerogatives of the engineer. Hamel decided to teach the impertinent collector of small change his place.

One day Ayers procured a stout cord, which he ran from the rear car of the train to the framework of the cabless engine. He tied a stick of wood on the end of the cord, and told Hamel that when he saw the stick jerk up and down he was to stop. Hamel listened in contemptuous silence, and as soon as the conductor's back was turned threw away the stick and tied the cord to the frame of the engine. Next day the performance was repeated.

On the third day Ayers rigged up his cord and his stick of wood before starting from Piermont, the eastern terminus, and told Jacob that if be threw that stick away he would thrash him until he would be glad to leave it alone.

When they reached Goshen the stick was gone, as usual, and the end of the cord was trailing in the dirt. Ayers walked up to the engine, and without saying a word yanked Hamel off the engine and sailed in to thrash him. This proved to be no easy task, for Hamel had all the dogged tenacity of his race. But one represented Prerogative, while the other championed Progress, and Progress won at last, as it usually does.

That hard-won victory settled for all time the question of who should run a train. Also it showed the way to a most useful improvement. Once the idea was hit upon it did not take long to replace the stick of wood with a gong. In a very short time the bell cord was in universal use on passenger trains.

To Conductor Ayers is also due the credit of introducing another new idea, which, if not so useful in the operation of trains, was at least gratefully appreciated by a numerous and influential class of patrons: the custom of allowing ministers of the Gospel half rates.

Early in the spring of 1843 the Rev. Dr. Robert McCartee, pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Goshen, was a passenger on Conductor Ayers's train. On account of a very heavy rain the track was in such bad condition that the train was delayed for hours. The passengers, following a custom that has been preserved in all the vigor of its early days, heaped maledictions upon the management. Some of the more spirited ones drew up a set of resolutions denouncing the company for the high-handed invasion of their rights, as manifested in the delay, in scathing terms. These resolutions were passed along to be signed by all the passengers. When Dr. McCartee was asked for his signature, he said he would be happy to give it if the phraseology was changed slightly. Upon being requested to name the changes he wished, he wrote the following:

"Whereas, the recent rain has fallen at a time ill-suited to our pleasure and convenience and without consultation with us; and

"Whereas, Jack Frost who has been imprisoned in the ground some months, having become tired of his bondage, is trying to break loose; therefore be it

"RESOLVED, that we would be glad to have it otherwise."

When the good Dr. McCartee arose and in his best parliamentary voice read his proposed amendment, there was a hearty laugh, and nothing more was heard about censuring the management.

Conductor Ayers was so delighted with this turn of affairs that thereafter he would never accept a fare from Dr. McCartee. Not being selfish, the Doctor suggested a few weeks later that the courtesy be extended to all ministers. The company thought the idea a good one, and for a few months no minister paid for riding over the Erie. Then an order was issued that ministers were to be charged half fare. That order established a precedent which was universally followed until the new rate law put an end to the practice.

The modest but invaluable ticket punch was also evolved on the Erie. When the first section of the road was opened in 1841 there were no ticket agents. Each conductor was given a tin box when he started out for the day, which contained a supply of tickets and ten dollars in change. The passenger on paying the conductor his fare received a ticket, which he surrendered on the boat during his voyage of twenty-four miles down the Hudson from Piermont to New York. These tickets were heavy cards bearing the signature of the general ticket agent. These were taken up and used over and over again until they became soiled.

Travelers soon found a way to beat the company. They would buy a through ticket which they would show according to custom. At the last station before reaching their destination they would purchase a ticket from that station to destination. This latter ticket would be surrendered and the through ticket kept to be used over again. The process would be repeated on the return trip. The passenger would then be in possession of through transportation, which enabled him to ride as often as he liked by merely paying for a few miles at each end of his trip.

It was some time before this fraud was discovered. Then a system of lead pencil marks was instituted, but pencil marks were easy to erase. The only sort of mark that could not be erased was one that mutilated the ticket. This led to the development of the punch.

Another interesting innovation which originated on the Erie was intended for the laudable purpose of protecting passengers from the dust which has always been one of the afflictions associated with railroad travel. A funnel with its mouth pointed in the direction the train was moving was placed on the roof of the car, through which, when the train was in motion, a current of air was forced into a chamber where sprays of water operated by a pump driven from an axle washed the dust out and delivered the air sweetened and purified to the occupants of the car. A small stove was provided to heat the wash water in winter. Several cars were so equipped, and they seem to have satisfied the demands of the day, for David Stevenson, F.R.S.E., of England, who made a tour of inspection of American railroads in 1857, recommended their adoption by English railroads. But the combined ventilator and washery did not stand the test of time; and in later years passengers on the Erie, in common with the patrons of other roads, were obliged to be content with unlaundered air.

While it was learning the rudiments of railroading the company acquired some interesting side-lights on human nature, also at war prices. People of a certain type were eager to have the railroad built, but they never permitted this eagerness to blind them to the immediate interests of their own pockets.

One of the natives near Goshen had bought a tract of land along the right-of-way, expecting to make a fortune out of it when the road was in operation. The fortune manifested no indications of appearing until the native observed that the railroad had established a water-tank opposite his land, which was supplied by a wooden pump which required a man to operate.

Thereupon the native scooped out a big hole on top of a hill near by, lined it with clay to make it waterproof, and dug some shallow trenches from higher ground to the basin, which was soon filled by the rains.

Then the native went to New York and told the officers of the road that he had a valuable spring which would afford a much more satisfactory supply of water than the pump. He would sell this spring for two thousand five hundred dollars if the bargain was closed at once.

Commissioners were sent to examine the spring and close the deal. The two thousand five hundred dollars were paid over, and the company spent two thousand five hundred dollars more laying pipes from the "spring" to the track. Of course, the water all ran out in a short time, and no more took its place. Then the railroad company found that the land was mortgaged, and that if they did not get their pipe up in a hurry it would be lost, too.

A neighbor of this same native had a mill run by water-power, which had been standing idle for a couple of years. The railroad skirted the edge of the mill-pond. One day a train got tired of pounding along over the rough track and plunged off into the mill-pond.

The company asked the owner to let the water off, so that it could recover its rolling stock. But the mill man suddenly became very busy, started up his mill, and declared he couldn't think of shutting down unless he was paid six hundred dollars to compensate him for lost time. Not seeing any other solution of the difficulty, the railroad company paid the six hundred dollars.

Going down the Shawangunk Mountains into the Neversink Valley there was a rocky ledge through which a way had to be blasted. The German owner of the rocks, when approached by the right-of-way agents, gave some sort of non-committal reply which was interpreted as consent. But when the workmen began operations on the rocks the owner stopped them and would not let them do a stroke until he had been paid a hundred dollars an acre for two acres of rock that was not worth ten cents a square mile. All along the line owners suddenly appeared for land that had been regarded as utterly worthless who had to be paid extravagant sums for right-of-way through their property. Fancy prices were also extorted for ties, fuel, and bridge timbers for the railroad.

Retribution overtook the greedy ones at last. The Irish laborers employed on the grade overran the country, digging potatoes, robbing hen-roosts and orchards, and helping themselves to whatever else took their fancy.

The company had its full share of trouble with these same Irishmen. Some were from Cork, some were from Tipperary, some from the north of Ireland, called the "Far-downers," while all were pugnacious to the last degree. There were frequent factional riots, in one of which three men were killed.


According to popular report, a good many others were killed and their bodies buried in the fills as the easiest way to dispose of them and the chance of troublesome official investigations. On several occasions the militia had to be called out to suppress disturbances. Prevention by a general disarmament and the confiscation of whisky was ultimately found to be the most effective way of dealing with the turbulent ones.

Still, there were a few incidents of a more agreeable nature. In 1841, G. W. Scranton, of Oxford, N. J., attracted by the rich deposits of iron and coal in the Luzerne Valley, Pennsylvania, bought a tract of land there and established iron-works, where he was joined later by S. T. Scranton. They had a hard struggle to keep going for five years.

Then W. E. Dodge, a director in the Erie, who knew the Scrantons, conceived the idea of having the Scrantons make rails for the road. The company was having great difficulty in getting rails from England, and the cost was excessive.

A contract was made with the Scrantons to furnish twelve thousand tons of rails at forty-six dollars a ton, which was about half the cost of the English rails. Dodge and others advanced the money to purchase the necessary machinery, and the rails were ready for delivery in the spring of 1847. This Erie contract laid the foundations of the city of Scranton.

To get the rails where they were needed it was necessary to haul them by team through the wilderness to the Delaware and Hudson Canal, at Archbold, thence by canal-boat to Carbondale, thence by a gravity railroad to Honesdale, thence by canal-boat, again, to Cuddebackville, and finally by team once more over the Shawangunk Mountains on the western extension, a distance of sixty miles.

By the time the road had reached Binghamton, two hundred and sixteen miles from New York, the Erie company seemed to be at its last gasp. Every dollar of the three million that by superhuman exertion had been raised for construction was gone, and there seemed no way to raise more.

At the last moment Alexander S. Diven, of Elmira, came to the rescue with a device which has since become the standard method of railroad-building. This was a construction syndicate, the first ever organized. An agreement was made by which the Diven syndicate was to do the grading, furnish all material except the rails, and lay the track from Binghamton to Corning, a distance of seventy-six miles, taking in payment four million dollars in second-mortgage bonds.

This saved the situation and aroused new interest in the road. It made fortunes for the members of the syndicate, but it increased the heavy burden of debt on the company and helped to make trouble for the future.

In 1849 the company tried the interesting experiment of building iron bridges. Three of them, the first structures of the kind ever built for a railroad, were erected during that year. An eastbound stock train was crossing one of the iron bridges near Mast Hope July 31, 1849, when the engineer heard a loud cracking. Instantly divining the reason, he jerked the throttle wide open and succeeded in getting the engine across in safety. So narrow was his escape that even the tender of the locomotive followed the train into the creek along with the wrecked bridge. A brakeman and two stockmen lost their lives.

This accident caused the company to lose faith in iron bridges. Thereafter all bridges were built of wood, including the famous structure over the chasm of the Genesee River at Portage. This chasm was two hundred and fifty feet deep and nine hundred feet wide. A congress of engineers being assembled to devise means of crossing it, a wooden bridge in spans of fifty feet was decided upon.

It required two years' time and an outlay of one hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars to build. When it was opened August 9, 1852, sixteen million feet of timber, the product of three hundred acres of pine forest, had gone into the structure. The science of iron bridge building was making progress; and when the great wooden structure burned in 1875 it was replaced in forty-seven days with a modern steel bridge.


The road was completed to Corning on December 31, 1849. By this time business throughout the country was improving, and the prospects of the Erie looked brighter.


There now remained a gap of one hundred and sixty-nine miles from Corning to Dunkirk, on Lake Erie, the western terminus, to be filled in. But the company having learned how to issue bonds, the rest seemed easy. An issue of three million five hundred thousand dollars of income bonds, bearing seven per cent interest, floated at a heavy discount, followed later on by a second issue of the same amount, paid for the completion of the work, in the spring of 1851.


The driving of the last spike, which completed the road that linked the ocean with the Lakes, marked an epoch in the history of railroads. The first great trunk line was now ready for traffic. The Pennsylvania was then only a local line from Philadelphia to Hollidaysburg, in the foothills of the Alleghanies.

New York was connected with Buffalo by an aggregation of ramshackle roads of assorted gauges. The only other road of importance in the world was the line from St. Petersburg to Moscow, which was opened also in 1851.

So notable an event called for something unusual in the way of a celebration. Whatever may have been its shortcomings in financial acumen or constructive genius, and it had many such to answer for, the Erie management was a past master in the art of celebrating. Beginning with the opening of the first section of the line to Ramapo, away back in 1841, every achievement in construction had been celebrated with great eclat. The completion of the line to Goshen, to Port Jervis, to Binghamton, to Elmira, the completion of the Starrucca viaduct and of the wooden bridge over the chasm of the Genesee at Portage, had all been celebrated with prodigal pomp.

When the time came that the world's first long-distance railroad excursion could be made the celebration arranged eclipsed anything of the kind that had been done. The guests included President Fillmore, Secretary of State Daniel Webster, Attorney-General John J. Crittenden, Secretary of the Navy W. C. Graham, Postmaster-General W. K. Hall, and some three hundred other distinguished guests, including six candidates for the Presidency, twelve candidates for the Vice-Presidency, United States Senators, governors, mayors, capitalists, merchants, and President Benjamin Loder and the other officers and directors of the company.

When President Fillmore, the members of his cabinet, and other distinguished guests came up from Amboy on the steamer Erie in mid-afternoon on May 13, 1851, all the shipping in the Harbor was dressed in bunting. Batteries at Forts Hamilton and Diamond and on Governor's Island and Bedloe's Island boomed forth National salutes. Cheers from fifty thousand throats and a salute from pieces used in 1776, fired by veterans of the Revolution, greeted the President and his suite as they disembarked at the Battery. Nine thousand militia were on hand to escort the President to the Irving Hotel at Broadway and Twelfth Street. Webster, who was already showing marked indications of his approaching end, went to the Astor House, where he always stopped. An elaborate dinner was the event of the evening.

According to the program, the boat carrying the guests was to leave for Piermont at 6 A.M. on Wednesday, May 14, 1851. There was a pouring rain that morning, but, despite the unearthly hour and the rain, the streets were packed with people to cheer the departing guests. A blundering porter was slow with Webster's baggage, and the boat did not get away until 6:10.

The famous Dodsworth's Band, which had been engaged to accompany the party to Dunkirk, rendered an elaborate program on the way up the river. Another very important member of the party was George Downing, the most famous caterer of his day, who had with him a picked corps of waiters, whose duty it was to see that no one lacked refreshment, liquid or solid.

On arriving at Piermont, at 7:45 A.M., the party was received with the ringing of bells, the booming of cannon, and the cheers of a multitude. The two trains which were to carry the invited guests were decorated with bunting, and there were flags and banners everywhere.

At eight o'clock the first through train that ever carried passengers from the ocean to the Lakes pulled out of Piermont, and was followed seven minutes later by the second section. President Fillmore was on the first section, and Webster was on the second, seated in a comfortable rocker on a flat car, for the rain had ceased and he wanted to enjoy the scenery to the utmost.

The only man on either train who was not happy was Gad Lyman, the engineer of the first section. Gad had not got many miles out of Piermont before his engine, a Rogers, No. 100, manifested unmistakable symptoms of "laying down." Under any conditions, this would have been mortifying, but the peculiar circumstances in this case made the conduct of No. 100 doubly humiliating.

In those days there was a fierce rivalry between the different makers of locomotives, and engineers were not infrequently zealous partisans of the various manufacturers. Some months previous Gad had been given a new Swinburne engine, No. 71, just out of the shop.

Being partial to Rogers machines, Gad could do nothing with the new Swinburne. On the strength of his reports the 71 was condemned as worthless, and Gad was given the new Rogers, with which he declared he could pull the Hudson River up by the roots if he wanted to.

Josh Martin, another engineer, was a warm personal friend of Swinburne, the maker of the 71. Josh asked for the 71 after it had been condemned, and after much solicitation was given profane permission to take the old thing and go to blazes with it.

On this memorable day, after Gad's vaunted No. 100 had laid down on a little hill, a messenger was sent to a siding near by for a plebeian gravel-train engine to help him into Port Jervis, where he arrived an hour late and inexpressibly crestfallen to find Josh Martin waiting with the 71 to take his train.

Swinburne, the locomotive-builder, who was on the train, hurried forward and climbed on the 71. Josh slapped him on the back and exclaimed:

"Swinburne, I am going to make you to-day or break my neck!"

Josh didn't break his neck, but every one on board the train was fully persuaded his own neck would be broken, for Josh covered the thirty-four miles from Port Jervis to Narrowsburg with the heavy train in thirty-five minutes. Such a record as that had never been approached in the history of railroading.

Swinburne was in raptures, the officers of the road were astounded, and some of the distinguished passengers were so nervous that they insisted on getting off and walking. By the time they had covered the eighty-eight miles from Port Jervis to Deposit, Josh had made up the hour Gad had lost.

At every station along the route there were cheering crowds, booming cannon, waving banners, and oratory. Wherever the trains stopped long enough, some of the distinguished guests would make brief speeches. As the observation platform, since found so convenient in National campaigns, had not then been thought of, the orators held forth from flat cars attached to the rear of the trains for the purpose. One of these flat cars was also occupied by the railroad official who had been designated to receive flags. By a singular coincidence the ladies at every one of the more than sixty stations between Piermont and Dunkirk had conceived the idea that it would be as original as it was appropriate to present a flag wrought by their own fair hands to the railroad company when the first train passed through to Lake Erie. As it would have consumed altogether too much time to make a stop for each of these flag presentations, the engineer merely slowed down at three-fourths of the stations enough to allow the flag officer to scoop up the banner in his arms much like the hands on the old-fashioned Marsh Harvesters gathered up armfuls of grain for binding. At the end of the journey the Erie Railroad had a collection of flags that would have done credit to a victorious army.


The party reached Elmira, two hundred and seventy-four miles from New York, where the night was to be passed, at
7 P.M. As the President alighted a national salute was fired. There was an imposing procession to escort the President to one hotel and Webster to another; two banquets were served, with Downing, the caterer, and his staff helping the hotel men.


All night long the streets were filled with enthusiastic crowds. Hospitality was unbounded, and many citizens on all other occasions staid and sober men grew hilarious as the night wore on. Elmira has never had another such night as that which marked the opening of the Erie from the ocean to the Lakes.

At 6.30 A.M., on Thursday, May 15, the special trains left Elmira for Dunkirk., where they arrived at 4.30 P.M.

The scenes of the day before were repeated at every station along the way. H. G. Brooks, an engineer, ran his locomotive out several miles to meet the trains, which had been consolidated for entering Dunkirk, and escorted them to the station under a canopy made of the intertwined flags of the United States, England, and France.

There was a procession, led by Dodsworth's Band, to the scene of a barbecue for which the whole country had been preparing for weeks.

There were two oxen barbecued, ten sheep, and a hundred fowls; bread in loaves ten feet long and two feet wide, barrels of cider, tanks of coffee, unlimited quantities of ham, corned beef, tongue and sausage, pork and beans in vessels holding fifty gallons each, and vast quantities of clam chowder.

President Fillmore manifested deep interest in the pork and beans, while Webster was attracted by the clam chowder. He was something of a specialist in making clam chowder himself, he said. He strongly recommended the addition of a little port wine to give the chowder the proper bouquet. After several dinners in as many different places, accompanied by much speech-making, the celebration was at an end.

The first trunk line, an unbroken road five hundred miles long, from tide-water to the inland seas, was now open for traffic, but that was about all that could be said. It began nowhere, ended nowhere, had no connections and could have none. The track was unballasted, and the rolling-stock was in such bad condition that the insecurity of travel over the road was notorious. In two months there were sixteen serious accidents on one division alone.


Part of these anomalous conditions was due to peculiar ideas of what a railroad should be that seem strange enough now but were not considered peculiar in those early days. The road was built to secure for New York City the trade of the southern part of the State. To make sure that none of this trade should go to Boston or Philadelphia or any other places which were casting covetous eyes in that direction, the Erie was prohibited, under penalty of forfeiture of its charter, from making any connections with any other road.


Even if connections had been desired, there could have been no direct interchange of traffic, because the Erie was built on a six-foot gauge, while all the other roads were adopting the standard English gauge of four feet eight and one-half inches.


When the railroad had reached Middletown, the chief engineer at that time, Major T. S. Brown, after a trip to Europe to study the best railroad practice there, urged a change of gauge to four feet eight and one-half inches. He said the gauge of the fifty-four miles of track then in operation could be changed then at a cost of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, but his recommendations were not approved.


When the Erie was confronted, forty years later, with the alternative of changing its gauge or going out of business, the change was made at a cost of twenty-five million dollars.

In this connection it is interesting to note that the problem of gauge was not finally settled by the railroads of the United States until 1886. Between May 22 and June 2 of that year upwards of twelve thousand miles of railroad in the South were changed from wide to standard gauge. The Louisville and Nashville, by using a force of 8,763 men, was able to change the gauge of 1,806 miles of main-line and sidings in a single day.

Notwithstanding the road was built to benefit New York, its terminus was twenty-four miles away from the city, and the company had refused an opportunity to gain an entrance over the Harlem Railroad. It didn't take long for some shrewd Jerseymen who were not in the Erie directorate to see that the natural terminus of the road was at a point in Jersey City opposite New York, and but a very little longer for them to preempt the only practicable route by which the Erie could reach that point. This was from Suffern through the Paramus Valley to Jersey City via Paterson.

The Paterson and Hudson Railroad, from Jersey City to Paterson, and the Ramapo and Paterson Railroad, from Paterson to Suffern, were duly chartered. The former was opened in 1836, the latter in 1848. The Erie might refuse to connect with other roads. But no legislative flat could prevent a passenger on the Erie from leaving it for another road that stood ready to save him twenty miles of travel and an hour and a half of time. The Erie tried every device of discrimination in rates and increased speed of its boats and trains, but utterly failed to convince the traveling public that the longest way round was the shortest road home. On February 10, 1851, the Erie capitulated on terms dictated by the shrewd Jerseymen, taking a perpetual lease of the short cut to the Metropolis.

This alarmed the people of Piermont, who petitioned the legislature to come to the rescue of their town with a law compelling the Erie to continue to run its trains to that out-of-the-way terminus. But the legislature, like the railroad, gave up the attempt to prescribe routes of travel by statute and left Piermont to oblivion.

An event of far greater historical importance in the same year was the discovery that trains could be moved by telegraph. Although seven years had elapsed since Morse had sent his first telegraph message from Washington to Baltimore, capitalists were still scornfully skeptical of the investment value of his wonderful invention, and other folk were more or less incredulous of its practical utility. Such occasional messages as were sent began with "Dear Sir," and closed with "Yours respectfully."

No one dreamed of using the telegraph to regulate the movements of trains. The time card was the sole reliance of railroad men for getting over the road. The custom, still in vogue, of giving east and northbound trains the right of way over trains of the same class moving in the opposite direction had been established. If an east-bound train did not reach its meeting point on time the west-bound train, according to the rules, had to wait one hour and then proceed under a flag until the opposing train was met. A flagman would be sent ahead on foot. Twenty minutes later the train would follow, moving about as fast as a man could walk. Under this interesting arrangement, when a train which had the right of way was several hours late, the opposing train had to flag over the entire division at a snail's pace.

On September 22, 1851, Superintendent Charles Minot was on Conductor Stewart's train west bound. They were to meet the east-bound express at Turner's. As the express did not show up Minot told the operator to ask if it had arrived at Goshen fourteen miles west. On receiving a negative answer he wrote the first telegraphic train order ever penned. It read as follows:

To Operator at Goshen:

Hold east-bound train till further orders.

"CHARLES MINOT, Superintendent."

Then he wrote an order which he handed to Conductor Stewart, reading as follows:

To Conductor Stewart:

Run to Goshen regardless of opposing train.

"CHARLES MINOT, Superintendent."

When Conductor Stewart showed this order to Engineer Isaac Lewis that worthy read it twice with rising amazement and indignation. Then he handed it back to the conductor with lip curved with scorn.

"Do I look like a d— fool?" snorted Lewis.

I'll run this train according to time card rules, and no other way."

Upon hearing of this Superintendent Minot used all his powers of persuasion to induce Lewis to pull out; but the engineer refused in most emphatic terms. He wasn't prepared to cross the Jordan that morning, so he proposed to abide by the rules in such cases made and provided. No other course being open Minot ordered the obstinate engineer down and took charge of the engine himself. Lewis took refuge in the last seat of the rear car, where he would have some show for his life when the inevitable collision occurred, while the superintendent ran the train to Goshen. Finding by further use of the telegraph that the opposing train had not reached Middletown he ran to that point by repeating his orders and kept on in the same way until be reached Port Jervis, saving two hours' time for the west-bound train.


The account of the superintendent's reprehensible conduct when related by Engineer Lewis caused a great commotion among the other engineers. In solemn conclave they agreed that they would not run trains on any such crazy system. But Minot issued an order that the movements of trains on the Erie Railroad would thenceforth be controlled by telegraph, and they were.


When the Erie was at last in operation from Jersey City to Dunkirk it had cost $43,333 a mile exclusive of equipment, or six times the original estimate made in 1834, yet it was a railroad more in name than in fact. Motive power and rolling stock were insufficient and dilapidated, while the track demanded an expenditure of large sums before traffic could be handled with profit.


But in spite of all its drawbacks this first trunk line justified the enthusiasm of the bride which expedited its building, and even justified the reckless language of President King, who thought "Eventually it might earn two hundred thousand dollars a year on freight"; for the receipts on through business in the first six months after the line was opened to Dunkirk were $1,755,285, and the first dividend, 4 per cent, was declared for the last six months of 1851.

The opening of the Erie to Dunkirk and the completion of a through route from New York by way of Albany to Buffalo a few months later, upon the opening of the Hudson River Railroad, completely revolutionized travel between the East and the West. People congratulated one another on the comfort, safety, and cheapness of travel with which, in that progressive age, the great distance between the Mississippi and the Atlantic could be "traversed in an almost incredibly short space of time." Before these roads were opened for traffic the journey from St. Louis to New York was a formidable enterprise which nothing but the most urgent necessity could induce any one to undertake. The usual route was by steamboat to Wheeling or Pittsburg, thence by stage through a nightmare of rough roads, sleepless nights, stiffened limbs, and aching heads to Baltimore or Philadelphia, thence to New York.

But the opening of the Eastern roads and of a road from Cincinnati to Lake Erie reversed the current of travel. Instead of going by way of Baltimore or Philadelphia to New York, nearly all the traffic moved to Cincinnati by boat, from whence New York could be reached by rail by way of Dunkirk or Buffalo in less than forty-eight hours, and Washington in about fifteen hours more. This was less time than was required to go from Cincinnati to Pittsburg by steamboat. The routes by Wheeling and Pittsburg were practically abandoned, while travel by the new railroads, according to the newspapers of the day, became "almost incredibly great."

Under the circumstances, then, such superlatives as these from the American Railroad Journal anent the formal opening of the Erie Railroad to Dunkirk seem quite pardonable:

"The occasion was an era in the history of locomotion. Its influence will at once be felt in every part of the United States. The Erie Railroad is the grand artery between the Atlantic and our inland seas. Its branches compared with other trunk lines would be great works. . . . The New York and Erie Railroad lays high claims to being one of the greatest achievements of human skill and enterprise. In magnitude of undertaking and cost of construction it far exceeds the hitherto greatest work of internal improvement in the United States, the Erie Canal. When we consider its length, which exceeds that of the great railway building by the Russian Government from Moscow to St. Petersburg; when we reflect upon the extensive tracts of country teeming with rich products it has opened up, it is doubtful whether any similar work exists on the earth to compare with it."

Yet Dunkirk was scarcely more satisfactory as a western terminus than Piermont as the eastern. The struggle to create a railroad, instead of being at an end, was only begun.

Although the first public meeting to create the sentiment which ultimately led to the building of the Erie was held at Jamestown in 1831, when the road was finally opened twenty years later, that town was left thirty-four miles from the line. Being determined to have a railroad the people of Jamestown in May, 1851, organized the Erie and New York City Railroad to build from Salamanca, named after the Duke of Salamanca, financial adviser to Queen Isabella, of Spain, who was instrumental in placing a quantity of bonds in Spain, through Jamestown to the Pennsylvania State line.


About the same time it occurred to Marvin Kent, a manufacturer of Franklin, Ohio, that the real terminus of the Erie should be at St. Louis through a connection with the struggling Ohio and Mississippi, which was also of six feet gauge. Acting on this idea he procured a charter from the Ohio legislature for the Franklin and Warren Railroad to build from Franklin east to the Pennsylvania State line and south to Dayton. A formidable obstacle to the execution of this project for a through route from New York to St. Louis and the west was the State of Pennsylvania, which interposed between the Franklin and Warren and the Erie and New York City. There was no railroad connection across the State of Pennsylvania between New York and Ohio, and there was no prospect that there ever would be any if the selfish jealousy of Erie, Pittsburg, and Philadelphia could prevent it. These cities had resolved that all the traffic between the East and the West through Pennsylvania should pay tribute to them.


A combined lobby from these cities controlled the legislature and so effectually prevented all the numerous attempts to charter any railroad that threatened their commercial supremacy. But a way out was found even from this hopeless situation. When it was made an object to the Pittsburg and Erie Railroad that company stretched its privileges to cover the construction of a "branch" across Pennsylvania that would make a connecting link between the New York and Ohio roads then projected. Following the devious ways necessary to legalize its operations, and hindered by the delays required to capitalize it, this "branch" in the course of seven years became first the Meadville Railroad and then the Atlantic and Great Western. The Erie made the surveys for this connection, which would have been so helpful, and promised to finance it; but for several years was too desperately hard up to fulfil that promise.

Not until the assistance of James McHenry, an Irishman, who after being brought up in America went to Liverpool and made an immense fortune by creating the first trade in America dairy products, had been secured were the funds to build the Atlantic and Great Western forthcoming. McHenry's indorsement was enough to give the road good standing with English investors. Their capital was lavished on the project as foreign money had never before been lavished on anything American. Agents were kept in Canada and Ireland to recruit labor, which was sent over by the shipload during the Civil War.

By virtue of achievements in railroad building then unparalleled the first broad-gauge train from the East was able to enter Cleveland November 3, 1863. On June 20, 1864, a special broad-gauge train arrived at Dayton from New York. From Dayton connection was made by the Cincinnati, Hamilton and Dayton by way of Cincinnati, and the Ohio and Mississippi with St. Louis, thus opening a broad-gauge route from the ocean to the Mississippi. The Atlantic and Great Western was leased by the Erie January 1, 1869, and thus became a link in the present main line.


Before this the Erie had become great enough to rouse the cupidity of rival manipulators, who in their struggle for possession nearly ruined the property. High finance was then a new art and its methods were crude.


But the Erie survived it all, and half a century after it was ushered into Dunkirk with such elaborate ceremony it had developed into a system of nearly two thousand five hundred miles with annual earnings of more than forty million dollars.


ERIE Page | Stories Page | Contents Page

Home
This page is from Thomas Ehrenreich's Railroad Extra website, and is reproduced here as a memorial to him and his dedication to preserving the history of railroading in America. Please note I have no access to the original source material and cannot provide higher resolution scans.
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery . The Railroad Extra pages are ©2001 Thomas Ehrenreich.