The Story Of The Rome, Watertown, And Ogdensburg RailRoad Part 1

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The Story of the Rome, Watertown, and Ogdensburg RailRoad.

by Edward Hungerford.


Some railroads, like some men, experience many of the ups and downs of life. They have their seasons of high prosperity, as well as those of deep depression. Such a road was the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburgh. In its forty years of life it ran a full gamut of railroad existence. Alternately it was one of the best railroads in creation; and one of the worst.

The author within these pages has endeavored to put plain fact plainly. He has written without malice--if anything, he still feels within his heart a burst of warm sentiment for the old R. W. & O.--and with every effort toward absolute impartiality in setting down these events that now are History. He bespeaks for his little book, kindness, consideration, even forbearance. And looks forward to the day when again he may take up his pen in the scribbling of another narrative such as this. It has been a task. But it has been a task of real fascination.

E. H.



In the late summer of 1836 the locomotive first reached Utica and a new era in the development of Central and Northern New York was begun.

For forty years before that time, however--in fact ever since the close of the War of the Revolution--there had been a steady and increasing trek of settlers into the heart of what was soon destined to become the richest as well as the most populous state of the Union. But its development was constantly r.e.t.a.r.ded by the lack of proper transportation facilities. For while the valley of the Mohawk, the gradual portage just west of Rome and the way down to Oswego and Lake Ontario through Oneida Lake and its emptying waterways, formed the one natural pa.s.sage in the whole United States of that day from the Atlantic seaboard to the Great Lakes and the little-known country beyond, it was by no means an easy pathway. Not even after the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company had builded its first crude masonry locks in the narrow natural _impa.s.se_ at Little Falls, so that the _bateaux_ of the early settlers, which made the rest of the route in comparative ease, might pa.s.s through its one very difficult bottle-neck.

It was not until the coming of the Erie Ca.n.a.l, there in the second decade of the nineteenth century, that the route into the heart of New York from tidewater at Albany, was rendered a reasonably safe and (for that day) comfortable affair. With the completion of the Erie Ca.n.a.l, in 1827, there was immediately inaugurated a fleet of packet-boats; extremely swift in their day and generation and famed for many a day thereafter for their comfortable cabins and the excellence of their meals.

But the comfort of these ancient craft should not be overrated. At the best they were but slow affairs indeed, taking three days to come from Albany, where they connected with the early steamboats upon the Hudson, up to Utica. And at the best they might operate but seven or eight months out of the year. The rest of the twelvemonth, the unlucky wight of a traveler must needs have recourse to a horse-drawn coach.

These selfsame coaches were not to be scoffed at, however. Across the central portion of New York; by relays all the way from Albany to Black Rock or Buffalo, they made a swift pa.s.sage of it. And up into the great and little known North Country they sometimes made exceeding speed. That country had received its first artificial pathways at the time of the coming of the Second War with England, when it was thrust into a sudden and great strategic importance. With the direct result that important permanent highroads were at once constructed; from Utica north to the Black River country, down the water-shed of that stream, and through Watertown to Sackett's Harbor; and from Sackett's Harbor through Brownville--the county seat and for a time the military headquarters of General Jacob Brown--north to Ogdensburgh, thence east along the Canada line to Plattsburgh upon Lake Champlain.

These military roads still remain. And beside them traces of their erstwhile glory. Usually these last in the form of ancient taverns--most often built of limestone, the stone whitened to a marblelike color by the pa.s.sing of a hundred years, save where loving vines and ivy have clambered over their surfaces. You may see them to-day all the way from Utica to Sackett's Harbor; and, in turn, from Sackett's Harbor north and east to Plattsburgh once again. But none more sad nor more melancholy than at Martinsburgh; once in her pride the shire-town of the county of Lewis, but now a mere hamlet of a few fine old homes and crumbling warehouses. A great fire in the early fifties ended the ambitions of Martinsburgh--in a single short hour destroyed it almost totally. And made its hated rival Lowville, two miles to its north, the county seat and chief village of the vicinage.

There was much in this North Road to remind one of its prototype, the Great North Road, which ran and still runs from London to York, far overseas. A something in its relative importance that helps to make the parallel. Whilst even the famous four-in-hands of its English predecessor might hardly hope to do better than was done on this early road of our own North Country. It is a matter of record that on February 19, 1829, and with a level fall of thirty inches of snow upon the road, the mailstage went from Utica to Sackett's Harbor, ninety-three miles, in nine hours and forty-five minutes, including thirty-nine minutes for stops, horse relays and the like. Which would not be bad time with a motor car this day.



The locomotive having reached Utica--upon the completion of the Utica & Schenectady Railroad, August 2, 1836--was not to be long content to make that his western stopping point. The fever of railroad building was upon Central New York. Railroads it must have; railroads it would have. But railroad building was not the quick and comparatively simple thing then that it is to-day. And it was not until nearly four years after he had first poked his head into Utica that the iron horse first thrust his nose into Syracuse, fifty-three miles further west. In fact the railroad from this last point to Auburn already had been completed more than a twelvemonth and but fifteen months later trains would be running all the way from Syracuse to Rochester; with but a single change of cars, at Auburn.

Upon the heels of this pioneer chain of railroads--a little later to achieve distinction as the New York Central--came the building of a railroad to the highly prosperous Lake Ontario port of Oswego--the earliest of all white settlements upon the Great Lakes.

At first it was planned that this railroad to the sh.o.r.es of Ontario should deflect from the Utica & Syracuse Railroad--whose completion had followed so closely upon the heels of the line between Schenectady and Utica--near Rome, and after crossing Wood Creek and Fish Creek, should follow the north sh.o.r.e of Oneida Lake and then down the valley of the Oswego River.

Oswego is but 185 miles from Lewiston by water and it was then estimated that it could be reached in twenty-four or twenty-five hours from New York by this combined rail and water route.

Eventually however the pioneer line to Oswego was built out of Syracuse, known at first as the Oswego and Syracuse Railroad; it afterwards became a part of the Syracuse, Binghamton and New York and as a part of that line eventually was merged, in 1872, into the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad, which continues to operate it. This line of road led from the original Syracuse station, between Salina and Warren Streets straight to the waterside at Oswego harbor. There it made several boat connections; the most important of these, the fleet of mail and pa.s.senger craft operated by the one-time Ontario & St. Lawrence Steamboat Company.

The steamers of this once famous line played no small part in the development of the North Country. They operated through six or seven months of the year, as a direct service between Lewiston which had at that time highway and then later rail connection with Niagara Falls and Buffalo, through Ogdensburgh, toward which, as we shall see in good time, the Northern Railroad was being builded, close to the Canada line from Lake Champlain and the Central Vermont Railroad at St. Albans as an outlet between Northern New England and the water-borne traffic of the Great Lakes. The steamers of this line, whose names, as well as the names of their captains, were once household words in the North Country were:

_Northerner_ Captain R. F. Child _Ontario_ " H. N. Throop _Bay State_ " J. Van Cleve _New York_ " -------- _Cataract_ " R. B. Chapman _British Queen_ " Laflamme _British Empire_ " Moody

The first four of these steamers, each flying the American flag, were deservedly the best known of the fleet. The _Ontario_, the _Bay State_ and the _New York_ were built at French Creek upon the St Lawrence (now Clayton) by John Oakes; the _Northerner_ was Oswego-built. They burned wood in the beginning, and averaged about 230 feet in length and about 900 tons burthen. There were in the fleet one or two other less consequential boats, among them the _Rochester_, which plied between Lewiston and Hamilton, in the then Canada West, as a connecting steamer with the main line. The steamer _Niagara_, Captain A. D. Kilby, left Oswego each Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening at eight, pa.s.sing Rochester the next morning and arriving at Toronto at four p. m. Returning she would leave Toronto on the alternating days at 8:00 p. m., pa.s.s Rochester at 5:30 a. m. and arrive at Oswego at 10:00 a. m., in full time to connect with the Oswego & Syracuse R. R. train for Syracuse, and by connection, to Albany and the Hudson River steamers for New York. A little later Captain John S. Warner, of Henderson Harbor, was the Master of the _Niagara_.

The "line boats," as the larger craft were known, also connected with these through trains. In the morning they did not depart until after the arrival of the train from Syracuse. In detail their schedule by 1850 was as follows:

Lv. Lewiston 4 p.m.

" Rochester 10 p.m.

" Oswego 9 a.m.

" Sackett's Harbor 12 m.

" Ogdensburgh 7 a.m.

Ar. Montreal 6 p.m.

Lv. Montreal 9 a.m.

" Ogdensburgh 8 a.m.

" Kingston 4 p.m.

" Sackett's Harbor 9 p.m.

" Oswego 10 a.m.

" Rochester 6 p.m.

Ar. Lewiston 4 a.m.

Here for many years, before the coming of the railroad, was an agreeable way of travel into Northern New York. These steamers, even with thirty foot paddle-wheels, were not fast; on the contrary they were extremely slow. Neither were they gaudy craft, as one might find in other parts of the land. But their rates of fare were very low and their meals, which like the berths, were included in the cost of the pa.s.sage ticket, had a wide reputation for excellence. Until the coming of the railroad into Northern New York, the line prospered exceedingly. Indeed, for a considerable time thereafter it endeavored to compete against the railroad--but with a sense of growing hopelessness. And eventually these once famous steamers having grown both old and obsolete, the line was abandoned.

A rival line upon the north edge of Lake Ontario, the Richelieu & Ontario, continued to prosper for many years, however, after the coming of the railroad. Its steamers--the _Corsican_, the _Caspian_, the _Algerian_, the _Spartan_, the _Corinthian_ and the _Pa.s.sport_ best known, perhaps, amongst them--ran from Hamilton, touching at Toronto, Kingston, Clayton, Alexandria Bay, Prescott and Cornwall, through to Montreal, where connections were made in turn for lower river ports. The last of these boats continued in operation upon the St. Lawrence until within twenty years or thereabouts ago.

It is worthy of note that the completion in 1829 of the first Welland Ca.n.a.l began to turn a really huge tide of traffic from Lake Erie into Lake Ontario, and for two decades this steadily increased. In 1850 Ontario bore some 400,000 tons of freight upon its bosom, yet in the following year this had increased to nearly 700,000 tons, valued at more than thirty millions of dollars. In 1853 a tonnage mark of more than a million was pa.s.sed and the Lake then achieved an activity that it has not known since.

In that year the Watertown & Rome Railroad began its really active operations and the traffic of Ontario to dwindle in consequence. Whilst the cross-St. Lawrence ferry at Cape Vincent, the first northern terminal of the Rome road, began to a.s.sume an importance that it was not to lose for nearly forty years.

Steamboat travel was hardly to be relied upon in a country which suffers so rigorous a winter climate as that of Northern New York. And highway travel in the bitter months between November and April was hardly better.

A railroad was the thing; and a railroad the North Country must have. The agitation grew for a direct line at least between Watertown, already coming into importance as a manufacturing center of much diversity of product, to the Erie Ca.n.a.l and the chain of separate growing railroads, that by the end of 1844, stretched as a continuous line of rails all the way from Albany--and by way of the Western and the Boston & Worcester Railroads (to-day the Boston and Albany) all the way from Boston itself--to Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Prosperity already was upon the North Country. It was laying the foundations of its future wealth. It was ordained that a railroad should be given it. The problem was just how and where that railroad should be built. After a brief but bitter fight between Rome and Utica for the honor of being the chief terminal of this railroad up into the North Country, Rome was chosen; as far back as 1832.

Yet it was not until sixteen years later that the construction of the Watertown & Rome Railroad, the pioneer road of Northern New York, was actually begun. And had been preceded by a mighty and almost continuous legislative battle in the old Capitol at Albany ... of which more in another chapter.

In the meantime other railroads had been projected into the North Country.

The real pioneer among all of these was the Northern Railroad, which was projected to run due west from Rouse's Point to Ogdensburgh, just above the head of the highest of the rapids of the St. Lawrence and so at that time at the foot of the easy navigation of Ontario, and, by way of the Welland Ca.n.a.l, of the entire chain of Great Lakes.

The preliminary discussions which finally led to the construction of this important early line also went as far back as 1829. Finally a meeting was called (at Montpelier, Vt., on February 17, 1830) to seriously consider the building of a railroad across the Northern Tier of New York counties, from Rouse's Point, upon Lake Champlain, to Ogdensburgh, upon the St.

Lawrence. The promoters of the plan averred that trains might be operated over the proposed line at fifteen miles an hour, that the entire journey from Boston to Ogdensburgh might be accomplished in thirty-five hours.

There were, of course, many wise men who shook their heads at the rashness of such prediction. But the idea fascinated them none the less; and twenty-eight days later a similar meeting to that at Montpelier was held at Ogdensburgh, to be followed a year later by one at Malone.

So was the idea born. It grew, although very slowly. Communication itself in the North Country was slow in those days, even though the fine military road from Sackett's Harbor through Ogdensburgh to Plattsburgh was a tolerable artery of travel most of the year. Money also was slow. And men, over enterprises so extremely new and so untried as railroads, most diffident. For it must be remembered that when the promoters of the Northern Railroad first made that outrageous promise of going from Boston to Ogdensburgh in thirty-five hours, at fifteen miles an hour, the railroad in the United States was barely born. The first locomotive--the _Stourbridge Lion_, at Honesdale, Penn.--had been operated less than a twelvemonth before. In the entire United States there were less than twenty-three miles of railroad in operation. So wonder it not that the plan for the Northern Railroad grew very slowly indeed; that it did not reach incorporation until fourteen long years afterward, when the Legislature of New York authorized David C. Judson and Joseph Barnes, of St. Lawrence County, S. C. Wead, of Franklin County and others as commissioners to receive and distribute stock of the Northern Railroad; $2,000,000 all told, divided into shares of $50 each. The date of the formal incorporation of the road was May 14, 1845. Its organization was not accomplished, however, until June, 1845, when the first meeting was held in the then village of Ogdensburgh, and the following officers elected:

_President_, GEORGE PARISH, Ogdensburgh _Treasurer_, S. S. WALLEY _Secretary_, JAMES G. HOPKINS _Chief Engineer_, COL. CHARLES L. SCHLATTER

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The Story Of The Rome, Watertown, And Ogdensburg RailRoad Part 1 summary

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