The Story Of The Rome, Watertown, And Ogdensburg RailRoad Part 12

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Both Britton and Parsons were constantly on the alert to discover the best available material on their property and Jones was appointed in the mid-eighties to be superintendent of the line east of Watertown, with headquarters at DeKalb. Later he was moved to Watertown and there became one of the fixtures of the town.

I cannot close this chapter of the second golden age of the Rome road without a pa.s.sing reference to George H. Haselton, who died but a year or two ago. Mr. Haselton was the successor of Griggs of Jackson and of Close, becoming Master Mechanic of the road in 1878, or at about the time its shops were moved from Rome to Oswego. He builded in the latter city the engines that were the precursors of the mighty power of to-day. He used great facility in building and rebuilding the early locomotives of the R.

W. & O.--in keeping them in service, seemingly forever and a day. In the North Country a locomotive goes in for long service and, in its difficult climate, hard service, too. There still is, or was until very recently at least, a locomotive in service at the plant of the Hannawa Pulp Company at Potsdam, which although ordered by the Union Pacific Railroad from the Taunton Locomotive Works was delivered to the Central Vermont in May, 1869. First named the _St. Albans_ and then the _Shelbourne_, she was inherited by the Rutland Railroad and then, after many rebuildings turned over by its Ogdensburgh branch (the former Northern Railroad) to the Norwood & St. Lawrence Railroad. Fifty years of service through a stern northland seemed to work little damage to this staunch old settler. She was typical of her kind--old-fashioned built, and with old-fashioned standards of the service to be rendered.



The all but defunct Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburgh, of 1880, was not a property to attract any considerable amount of attention from the financiers and big railroaders, who had located themselves in the city of New York. A local and feeding line of but some four hundred miles of trackage--and most of that in an utterly wretched and deplorable condition--it commanded neither the attention nor the respect of the metropolis. The Vanderbilts in their comfortable offices in the still-new Grand Central Depot, snapped their fingers contemptuously at it. They would have but little of it. They did not need it. It fed their prosperous main line anyway. As we have already seen, William H. Vanderbilt had at one time acquired a considerable interest in the Utica & Black River Railroad. Twice he had actually moved toward securing control of that snug little property. It seemed to be a far more logical feeder to the New York Central than the Rome road might ever become. Yet, eventually Mr.

Vanderbilt sold his Black River stock.

"I am not going to dissipate my energies in sundries," he then told one of his cronies. "I am going to stick by the main line hereafter."

As I have already intimated if he had succeeded in acquiring the Utica & Black River, there at the beginning of the eighties the entire railroad history of the North Country might have been changed, down to this very day. It was in that uncertain hour that the elaborate but ill-fated West Sh.o.r.e was being builded through from New York to Buffalo--a route ten miles shorter than the main line of the New York Central. The West Sh.o.r.e needed feeders, very greatly needed them, and it was having a hard time getting them. Remember too, if you will, that if the Utica & Black River had become the sole Northern New York feeding line of the New York Central, it is entirely probable and consistent that the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburgh would have been an extremely valuable and essential factor of the West Sh.o.r.e. The greater part of the state of New York would then have been placed upon a compet.i.tive railroad basis. Instead of being, as it is to-day, largely upon the monopolistic basis.

The Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburgh of 1890 was an extremely different railroad from the woe-begone and utterly wretched property that had borne that name but a decade earlier. Reorganized, to a large extent rebuilded, it was a reincarnation of the excellent rail highway which the citizens of Watertown and other communities of the North Country had built for themselves away back there at the beginning of the fifties. Charles Parsons was never a popular figure in Northern New York. He made no efforts toward popularity. Yet simple justice compels the recognition of the fact, that in the rebuilding of the R. W. & O. he accomplished a very large constructive work. He had relaid and reballasted hundreds of miles of main line track and put down not only many miles of sidings but also a considerable quant.i.ty of new main line; between Norwood and Ma.s.sena Springs, between Oswego and Syracuse, between Windsor Beach and Rochester, chief among these extensions. He had built new bridges by the dozens; purchased and rebuilded cars and locomotives by the hundreds. It was almost as if he had built a brand new railroad.

Now--in 1890--he had 643 main line miles of as good a railroad, generally speaking, as one might find in the entire land. The Rome road owned an even hundred locomotives, ninety-eight pa.s.senger-cars, thirty-five baggage-cars, and 2609 freight-cars of one type or another. It was a monopoly within its territory. Its busy main-stem stretched all the way from Suspension Bridge (with excellent western connections) to Norwood and Ma.s.sena Springs (each with excellent eastern connections). It was in a superb strategic position as a compet.i.tor for through freight from the interior of the land to the Atlantic seaboard ports--either Boston, or Portland, or Montreal. Parsons was unusually expert in his traffic strategy. Frequently he went so far and dared so much that the line of the four-leaved clover gradually became something of a thorn in the side of some of its larger compet.i.tors. Parsons in compet.i.tive territory was a rate-smasher. He did not hesitate to put the screws upon the territory wherein his road was a purely monopolistic carrier. There are citizens dwelling in the northern portions of Jefferson county who still remember--and with bitterness in their memories--how he helped put the Keene mines out of business.

In an earlier chapter of this book I referred to the large part that James Sterling had played in the upbuilding of this iron industry. After several successive failures the mines had, sometime in the seventies, been put upon a basis, seemingly permanent. Their ore was good--and popular. At the time that Parsons first a.s.sumed control of the Rome road, the Keene mines were shipping out from six to eight carloads of hemat.i.te daily--to connecting lines at Syracuse, at Sterling and at Charlotte--at an average rate of $1.25 a ton. Parsons advanced the rate to $1.50 a ton, and they quit. They have remained idle ever since; their abandoned shaft-houses melancholy reminders of a vanished enterprise. Yet the ore is still there, in vast quant.i.ties; richer than the Messaba and in the opinion of many experts, extending up to and under the St. Lawrence, and into the province of Ontario.

Oddly enough, as Keene quit other mine districts of Northern New York began to open up. It had been known for many years that in the neighborhood of the small village of Harrisville in the north part of Lewis county there were valuable deposits of black, magnetic iron ore. To reach these beds, to open and to develop them had long been the dream of certain North Country men, notably George Gilbert, of Carthage and Joseph Pahud, of Harrisville. As far back as 1866, a line had been surveyed from Carthage to Harrisville, twenty-one miles. Yet, it was not until twenty years later that a standard railroad was put down between these two villages.

In the meantime--to be exact, in the summer of 1869--the so-called "wooden railroad" was built for the ten miles between Carthage and Natural Bridge. Literally this line--its corporate name was the Black River & St.

Lawrence Railway Company--had rails hewn and smoothed from maple. It was so very crude that it was doomed to failure from the beginning. Yet its right-of-way served a similar purpose for the Carthage & Adirondack Railroad which was organized in 1883, and which opened its line through to Jayville, thirty miles distant three years later; and on to Bensons Mines in the fall of 1889. A little later it was completed to Newton Falls, its present terminus.

One other small railroad was built out from Carthage a few years later. It deserves at least a paragraph of reference. The quiet old-fashioned North Country village of Copenhagen, situated upon the historic State Road from Utica to Sackett's Harbor, between Lowville and Watertown, had not ceased to regret how the building of the Black River road--which quite naturally had followed the water-level of the river valley--had completely pa.s.sed it by. Copenhagen also wanted a railroad. It waited for forty years after the completion of the Utica & Black River before its desire was fulfilled.

Then, by almost superhuman effort on the part of its citizens, as well as those of Carthage, it built its railroad to that village, eleven miles distant. A former citizen of the town, one Jimmy March, who had won fame and success as a contractor in New York City, bought a second-hand pa.s.senger-coach from the Erie Railroad and presented it to the Carthage & Copenhagen. A locomotive was purchased with a few work-cars and a brave but almost hopeless transportation effort begun.

The Carthage & Copenhagen already has ceased to exist. The recent development of the state highways and with them, of the motor-truck and the motor omnibus sealed its fate. In 1917 it was abandoned and its track torn up, for its wartime value in sc.r.a.p iron: Its little yellow depot at Copenhagen still stands. And upon it, but two or three years ago, there still was affixed the blue and white signs of the telegraph company and the express company. Yet no longer a track led to it; only a half-hidden and weed-grown row of rotting ties, stretching away off in the distance toward Carthage. In truth it has become but a mere mockery of a railroad depot.

The day of the small railroad apparently is gone; its fate sealed. True it is that the little railroad from Norwood to Waddington and the one that the Lewis family built from Lowville to Croghan and Beaver Falls are both still in operation, but these have large local industries to serve--they are, in fact, hardly more than independently operating industrial sidings.

So, too, has continued the branch road from Gouverneur to Edwards, which Engineer Bockus helped open in 1893 and upon which he has run ever since.

Charles Parsons had but little use for the small railroad. He thought of railroads in large units indeed. His thought of the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburgh was, forever and a day, as a trunk-line, nothing less.

Sometimes he talked, rather airily to be sure, of buying the Ogdensburgh & Lake Champlain or even the Wabash. Yet, in reality, he would have had nothing of either of these somewhat moribund properties. He did not need them. They were not germane to a single one of his plans. For one, and the most important thing, neither of them could stand alone. The R. W. & O.

could. In the largest sense, it was a self-contained property; with its monopolistic control of a huge territory, rich in basic wealth and still in a period of healthy and continued growth.

Once, there at the beginning of the nineties, Grand Trunk made tentative offers for the control of the rebuilded property. It hinted at a willingness to pay par for such an interest. Parsons paid no attention to the offer. Some people said that he was waiting for the Canadian Pacific to come along and buy his road; there have always been plans for international bridges across the St. Lawrence; all the way from Cape Vincent to Morristown.

But even Canadian Pacific was not the big thing in Parsons' mind. I think it may be safely said that from the middle of the eighties he had realized the necessity that would yet confront the Vanderbilts of owning the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburgh. At that earlier time they were having their hands full with the aftermath of their victorious but terribly costly battle with the West Sh.o.r.e. It would be some years before they would be in a position to go further afield than their own main line territory. But Parsons could wait--wait and upbuild his property. And show his constant independence of the New York Central.

In a hundred different ways he showed this. More than ever he became a thorn in the side of the bigger road. He slashed more through rates--and raised more of the local ones to make good the loss to his treasury.

Northern New York groaned, and yet was helpless. Parsons laughed at it. As far as possible he kept out of it. He cut the wires. His right-hand man, Hiram M. Britton, began breaking physically under the pressure and the criticism, finally was forced to leave his desk altogether to seek, vainly, the restoration of his health in Europe.

Mr. E. S. Bowen succeeded Mr. Britton as General Manager of the road. A quiet, gentle sort of a man--a native of Lock Haven, Pa., and a former General Superintendent of the Erie--of far less dominant personality than his predecessor. He came quite too late upon the property to make a large personal impress upon it. The memories that he left of himself are mostly negative. He was thorough, conscientious, apparently seeking to please, in an all but impossible situation. He was the last General Manager of the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburgh Railroad.

The steadily increasing clamor of the North Country against the road and its management brought a man up from the South with a definite scheme for building a compet.i.tive relief line into it. His name was Austin Corbin, and while primarily he was always promoter rather than railroader, he did have one or two railroad successes distinctly to his credit. In control of the Long Island, his had been the vision that planned the creation of a great ocean terminal at Fort Pond Bay, near Montauk Point. From here Corbin saw four-day steamers plying that would connect America and Europe.

A day would be saved in not bringing these fast super-craft in and out of the crowded harbor of New York. It was a fascinating plan and one which still is revived every few years.

Corbin did some distinctly creative work upon the Long Island; and yet forever was promoter, rather than railroader. He had a.s.sociated with himself, A. A. McLeod, who a little later was to achieve a spectacular notoriety by successfully uniting--for a short time--such conservative properties as Reading, Lehigh Valley and Boston & Maine into a single, sprawling, top-heavy railroad. Together these men had picked up for a song an unhappy railroad, which stretched more than halfway across New York State and which was known as the Utica, Ithaca & Elmira. Corbin acquired this road in 1882. It was a wonder. It reached neither Utica nor Ithaca nor Elmira. Starting at Horseheads, four or five miles north of Elmira, it twisted and turned itself through the hills of the Southern Tier and of Central New York, narrowly missing Ithaca--which steadily and consistently refused to build itself up the hill to meet it--threading Cortland and finally terminating at Canastota.

This road came almost as a gift to Corbin and his a.s.sociates. Its sole value was that in its brief course it intersected nearly all of the important railroads in New York state; the Pennsylvania, Erie, Lehigh Valley, Lackawanna, and the New York Central. Corbin renamed the road, Elmira, Cortland & Northern, and in 1887, extended it north from Canastota to Camden, intersecting the Ontario & Western and the Rome road. He was then within about fifty miles of Watertown. At about the same time he gave his property its own entrance well within the heart of Elmira.

Vainly Corbin tried to peddle this road either to the Pennsylvania or to the Vanderbilts. He finally offered it to them at the a.s.sumption of its mortgage-bonds and its fixed charges. Even then it fell dead. As a last resource he determined upon Watertown. Word of that small but growing city's traffic plight had come to him. He jumped aboard a train and went up to the rich county-seat of Jefferson, cultivated the friendship of its men of affairs. Alluringly he spoke to them of the road he owned, of its rare connections, its peculiar value as a coal-carrier, his ambition to thrust it still further across the state.

So there was formed, in May, 1890, the Camden, Watertown & Northern Railroad to fill at least the fifty mile gap between Camden, which was nothing as a railroad terminus, and Watertown, which even then had a heavy originating traffic. Watertown even in 1890, was employing 2500 workers in its factories which alone burned more than 33,000 tons of coal annually. It was receiving 68,000 tons of freight a year and sending out about 178,000. It was a fair fling under any conditions for a competing railroad; under the peculiar conditions that then prevailed seemingly a double opportunity.

Corbin, himself, became President of the Camden, Watertown & Northern. As its Secretary and Treasurer, James L. Newton was chosen. Around these men a most representative directorate was grouped; S. F. Bagg, B. B. Taggart, H. F. Inglehart, George W. Knowlton, George A. Bagley and A. D. Remington.

Whatever might have been Corbin's motive in the entire undertaking, there was no mistaking the motives of the Watertown men, who had gathered about him. They were determined to give their town a competing line; to undo, if possible, the fiasco of a few years before when the Carthage, Watertown & Sackett's Harbor had pa.s.sed from their hands to hands unfriendly and alien.

All these preparations Parsons watched with a great equanimity. He realized the potential weaknesses of the connecting link of the proposed new line; the terrific curves and the heavy grades of the E. C. & N.

Perhaps, he realized these fundamental weaknesses all the more because of the steadily growing alliance between his road and the Ontario & Western.

The R. W. & O. sought to dig more deeply than ever into the sides of the Vanderbilts by taking more and more traffic away from them; in the five years from 1885 to 1890, the business delivered by the Rome road to the New York Central at Utica, at Rome and at Syracuse had dwindled from two million dollars a year to a little less than a million, and that of the Ontario & Western had practically doubled.

The Vanderbilts have never taken punishment easily. But they are good waiters. And apparently they did not propose in this instance to be hurried into reprisals. William H. Vanderbilt hated to do business with Charles Parsons. He detested going down to the Rome road's offices in Wall Street, and there facing his new rival, a tall, cadaverous man, whose hair in his Rome road years had changed from part-white to snow-white, and who persisted in an inordinate habit of sitting at his desk in his stocking feet; sometimes Parsons flaunted his feet upon the radiator. If the pedal extremities of the fastidious Vanderbilt ever hurt him, he succeeded at least in keeping his shoes on. Decency compels many things.

Across from Parsons sat his son, another Charles, who held the post of Vice-President of the road of which his father was President. Together they smoked cigarettes, incessantly. It was not usual for elderly men in those days to smoke cigarettes and because the elder Parsons did it in his office, Mr. Vanderbilt distrusted him all the more.

And yet, there were about Parsons certain distinct qualities of charm and interest. A State of Maine man--he came from Kennebunkport--he was a born horse-trader, as his operations in the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburgh steadily showed. He was not a man to pay for that which he might possibly get for nothing. On one memorable occasion he came to the office of William Buchanan, the veteran Motive Power Superintendent of the New York Central, who designed and built the famous No. 999, in order to get some free advice on locomotive equipment. The Rome road then had a rather fair supply of antiquated motive-power--it still was using some of the converted wood-burners of its earliest days--and Parsons wanted to buy, second-hand, some of the older engines of the N. Y. C. & H. R. He argued that his bridges would not permit the purchase of heavy modern locomotives.

But the Central folk argued back that they had sc.r.a.pped all their light engines, save those that they still needed for certain local and branch-line services. In the long run they drew up plans for locomotives suited to the special necessities of the Rome road and presented Parsons with them. From that time on he came frequently to consult the technical authorities in the Grand Central Depot.

"I have a first-cla.s.s staff working for me and I don't have to pay it a blessed cent," he would chuckle as he went out of its doors.

The funny part of it all being that the Vanderbilts apparently were perfectly willing that he should make such use of their staff.

Here was Charles Parsons steadily proposing the most disagreeable things to the Vanderbilts. The Lehigh Valley which, like the Lackawanna of a decade before, had begun to tire of the Erie as a sole entrance into the Buffalo gateway, and was building its own line into that important city, was making eyes at the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburgh. Parsons, still smoking his cigarettes, made eyes back at the Lehigh Valley and its owners, the enormously wealthy Packer family of South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Together they slipped into an alliance. For ten years Charles Parsons had coveted an entrance of his own into Buffalo. The Packers wanted to get from Buffalo into the traffic hub of Suspension Bridge. On a compet.i.tive basis, neither the existing lines of the New York Central nor of the Erie between those two places were open to them.

The interests of the R. W. & O. and the Lehigh Valley in this situation were identical. It was quite logical therefore that they should get together and form the Buffalo, Thousand Islands & Portland; quite a grand sounding appellation for twenty-four miles of railroad, which was to run from Buffalo to Niagara Falls and Suspension Bridge. Once formed, there in the eventful midsummer of 1890, no time was lost in acquiring the right-of-way for this important railroad link. As a separate corporation it expended something over a million dollars for land and for preliminary grading.

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The Story Of The Rome, Watertown, And Ogdensburg RailRoad Part 12 summary

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