EARLY DAYS ON THE ERIE
Text from"When Railroads Were New"by Charles Frederick
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,
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
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
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 requiredone 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
"Swinburne, I am going to make you to-day or break my
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,
There was a procession, led by Dodsworth's Band, to the scene
of a barbecue for which the whole country had been preparing for
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:
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
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
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.
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