RAILROAD BUILDING IN THE SHAWANGUNK
In building the railroad as far as Otisville, the original
plan of superstructure was adhered tothe laying of rail
on longitudinal sills, supported by countersunk cross-pieces.
The new era of railroad building began with the work from Otisville
westward. It had been demonstrated to railroad engineers that
the placing of sills between the rails and the ground was foolish,
unnecessary, and detrimental, as well as costly. No sills were
used beyond Otisville, and rails were placed upon cross-ties as
at the present day, except that at the joints they rested in chairs
instead of being firmly held by the continuous joints of to-day.
This abandonment of primitive methods in railroad building developed
a new industry along the line of the railroad: the getting out
and supplying the Company with ties. These were cut in the woods
contiguous to the railroad, and delivered to the Company's agents
at stated points. The railroad between Otisville and Port Jervis
passed down the west side of the Shawangunk Mountains, through
a country where, up to that time, the land had been considered
barely worth the taxes paid upon it. This applied particularly
to the territory on either side of the railroad, covering an area
of perhaps a mile wide and twelve miles in length. It was a thick
growth of chestnut and oak, of small size. Wood was the fuel used
then by the Company for its locomotives, and this stretch of Shawangunk
country was particularly desirable as a possession. Its timber
furnished the best of firewood, and its convenience to the railroad
rendered the obtaining of it easy and economical. When the agent
of the Company, however, attempted to purchase this hitherto worthless
land, it had assumed a sudden value. Tracts that could have been
purchased for three dollars an acre were held at fifty dollars,
and land that the tax-assessor had in vain sought an owner for,
was claimed by some of the most prominent farmers in the Neversink
Valley. Instead of purchasing to any large extent of the Shawangunk
land, the Company bought the cordwood of its owners, to be cut
by them and piled along the road. East and west of this stretch
of woodland were some of the richest farmers in Orange County.
During this time the laborers employed by the contractors on this
section of the road were Irish. On Sunday hundreds of them swarmed
through the adjacent country, despoiling the orchards of apples,
digging the farmers' potatoes, stripping the fields of their crops,
and helping themselves to everything which struck their fancy.
Resistance on the part of the farmers was useless, and during
the year the railroad was built down the Shawangunk Mountains,
the farms of that part of the country adjacent to the work were
almost as barren of good to their owners as if the land had been
stricken with famine.
One feature of the road on the Shawangunk Section was a rock
cut three miles east of Port Jervis, and a wall of solid rock,
of which the mountain was entirely composed, was necessary to
be cut through before the road could reach the Neversink Valley.
The rock was on the farm of a wealthy old Dutch farmer named Van
Fleet, who lived nearby.
The Company had already paid him well for right of way across
his property, the whole extent of ground over which the railroad
passed not being worth fifty dollars, and the contractors did
not suppose that he would charge them much for cutting a way through
the solid rock on the edge of his farm; but he was asked how much
it would be. His reply was:
"Vell, the rock is not vort much. I von't sharge you much
The workmen reached the point where the excavation of the rock
was to be made, and the contractors put their men upon it. They
were soon waited upon by the farmer, who told them they would
have to settle before they went on with the work. After much argument
with the contractors he was finally induced to set his price.
"Vell, dan," he said, "it is vort one hundred
dollars an acre."
It was too late to have appraisers appointed to condemn the
property, for the railroad must be completed to Port Jervis by
a certain time, and the old farmer stubbornly insisting upon his
price, there was nothing to do but pay him for it. Of the area
of rock necessary the least he would sell was two acres, the price
of which was more than he could have received for his best meadow
The making of this cut through the rock was not only expensive
in itself, but the consequential damages were considerable. The
flats, one hundred feet below the cut, were occupied by residences
and buildings of farmers. In blasting, large pieces of rock frequently
were hurled on and among them, sometimes crashing through the
roofs of houses and buildings, and now and then alighting in the
fields among the cattle with disastrous results. All these had
to be paid, for, and the farmers' bills were never light.
A correspondent of the New York Herald, December 18,
1847, wrote as follows of the Erie work at that interesting period:
"Only to think of a force fully as large as our army that
stormed and took the Mexican capital, and still holds it, battling
away here among the rocks, with picks, spades, hoes, hammers,
axes, and all manner of instruments, not excepting even the celebrated
'excavating machine,' patented by Otis F. Carmichael."
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