The Story Of The Rome, Watertown, And Ogdensburg RailRoad Part 13

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To complete its line it was necessary that it should cross the lines of the then New York Central & Hudson River--not once, but several times. Up to that time the New York Central had generally pursued a pretty broad-gauge policy in permitting other railroads to cross its lines. Even in this instance it granted the necessary permissions, but this time Mr.

Parsons went north to the Grand Central Depot and not Mr. Vanderbilt south to Wall Street. Mr. Vanderbilt was quite willing that Mr. Parsons should cross his tracks, when and where it was absolutely necessary, but, of course, Mr. Parsons would reciprocate, if ever the occasion should arise and permit the New York Central to cross the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburgh tracks, if ever it should become necessary? What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

What could Mr. Parsons do? Mr. Parsons acceded. Of course. Reciprocal contracts covering all future grade-crossing matters were signed; and duplicate copies of the peace treaty, signed, sealed and delivered. After which work on the Buffalo, Thousand Islands & Portland went ahead quite merrily once more.

It was in December of that same year, 1890, hardly more than six months after Mr. Austin Corbin had made the first of his Queen-of-Sheba visits to Watertown that that brisk community found that it was to have a very special gift in its Christmas stocking. Watertown was not only going to have one new railroad. It was going to have two. Intimations reached it--in that strange but sure way that big business always has of sending out its intimations--that Watertown within the twelvemonth was to be upon the lines of the New York Central. That seemed to be too good to be true.

But it was true. Telegraphic confirmation followed upon the heels of mere rumor. The Vanderbilts, tired of shilly-shallying with Parsons and his railroad and of playing second fiddle to Ontario & Western, were going to build their own feeder line into Northern New York. Already, it was organized and named--the Mohawk & St. Lawrence--preliminary surveying parties were already struggling through the deep December drifts.

All the oldtime rage and rivalry between Utica and Rome as to which should be the recognized gateway broke out anew. The jealousies of thirty and forty years before were renewed. Even Herkimer joined the squabble, pushing forward the narrow-gauge line that had been built from her limits north to the little village of Newport and Poland some years before.

Finally talk led to promises. Subscription papers were pa.s.sed. Rome trotted out the terminal grounds and the right-of-way for the Black River & Utica Railroad that had pa.s.sed her by there before the beginnings of the sixties. Utica met her offers. Yet it seemed as if Rome was to be chosen.

The congestion of the New York Central yards in Utica--it was, of course, well before the days of the Barge Ca.n.a.l and the straightening of the Mohawk--made Rome the most practical terminal.

Railroad meetings were again the order of the day throughout the North Country. Carthage vied with Gouverneur and even Cape Vincent, stung to the quick by the neglect of her port by the Parsons' management, joined in the clamor. And Watertown? Watertown was beside herself with enthusiasm.

She saw herself as the future railroad capital of the state. Corbin and his local backers were not slow to take advantage of the situation.

Adroitly they urged that while the Mohawk & St. Lawrence would approach the city from the southeast and the upper Black River valley, the Camden, Watertown & Northern would reach it from the southwest. They even hinted at the possibilities of a union station. Perhaps, the union station would be big enough to take in a recreant but reformed R. W. & O. And some one hinted that the Canadian Pacific by a series of wondrous bridges was to build into the town from Kingston and the northwest. In the union station of Watertown of a decade hence one was to be able to go in through limited trains-de-luxe to almost any quarter of the land. And this in a town which up to that day, at least, had never seen a dining-car come into its ancient station.

All that winter Watertown ate railroads, slept railroads, dreamed railroads. Surveyors went across back lots and put funny little yellow wooden stakes in the snow drifts, where there had been potato rows the previous summer and the next might see the beginnings of a great railroad yard. Soft-voiced and persuasive young men went before the Common Council and had all manner of permissive ordinances pa.s.sed without a single word of protest. Plans and routes by the dozen were filed with the County Clerk. A local poetess burst into song in the _Times_ in commemoration of the spirit of the hour.

As I look back upon the printed records of these proceedings, after thirty years, quite dispa.s.sionately, it seems to me that there was, after all, an extraordinary vagueness in the plans of these railroad promoters of that strenuous time. The railroad lines ran here and there and everywhere upon the map. But very little real money was expended, either in land or in construction. The promoters, of both of the proposed new railroads, who suddenly had become wondrously accessible to the dear public and its advance agents, the newspaper reporters, were taking very few real steps toward the real construction of a railroad.

Mr. Parsons, stung to the quick apparently by the newfound energy of his friend, Mr. Vanderbilt, retaliated at once by threats of building a line from his southeastern terminal at Utica through the Mohawk valley--even through the narrow _impa.s.se_ of Little Falls--to Rotterdam Junction and the Fitchburg some seventy miles distant. To link Utica with Rome and (by a more direct line, than by the way of Richland), with Oswego and his straight through route to Suspension Bridge would be the next and a comparatively easy step. That done he would at least have a powerful, compet.i.tive route, as against the New York Central's, east to Troy and Boston--and for ten months of the year by water down the Hudson to New York. Yet I cannot find any record of Mr. Parsons buying any real estate in the Mohawk valley.

Finally the Camden, Watertown & Northern did buy two plats of land somewhere in the outskirts of Watertown, a fact which was promptly recorded and spread to the four winds. It did more. It began laying track.

It laid nearly a hundred feet of unballasted track in the yards of Taggart Brothers' Paper Mill and all Watertown went down in the chilly days at the beginning of March and venerated that little piece of track. It was a precious symbol.

To offset land-buying and track-laying the Vanderbilts sent the flower of their railroad flocks up to see Watertown, to see and be seen, to ask questions and to be interviewed. More maps were filed. One only had to squint one's eyes half closed and see the New York Central feeder following the north side of the river through the town, and the Camden, Watertown & Northern squeezing its way, somehow, along the south side of it. The enthusiasm quickened. A despatch from Utica said that the contractors, their men and their horses were setting up their quarters upon the old Oneida County Fair Grounds. Actual construction of the Mohawk & St. Lawrence was to begin within the fortnight. Watertown braced up and finished the subscription for the purchase of the right-of-way and depot site for the new road through its heart.

And then?


On the fourteenth day of March, 1891, at one o'clock in the afternoon, a quiet little telegraphic message--unemotional and uninspired, flashed its monotonous way over the railroad wires into the gray old Watertown pa.s.senger station back of the Woodruff House. It read, as follows:

OSWEGO, March 14, 1891.

_To all Division Superintendents_:

The entire road and property of this company has been leased to the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, and by direction of the President, I have delivered possession to H. Walter Webb, Third Vice-President of that company. Each Superintendent please acknowledge and advise all agents on your division by wire.

(Signed) E. S. BOWEN, _General Manager_.

And Watertown?

Poor Watertown!

It was as if a man had touched the tip of a lighted cigar to a tiny, but much distended gas-balloon.



Out of the vast wreckage of great hopes and broken ambitions there slowly arose the smoke of a great wrath. Watertown, in particular, smoldered in her anger. Her position was a most uncomfortable one. Her pride had not only been touched but sorely tried. She felt, and truly, that she had helped to shake the bushes while the New York Central got all the plums.

It hurt. Her traditional rivals pointed their fingers of fine scorn toward her. Ogdensburgh chuckled with glee. Oswego chortled.

Yet out of her uncomfortable position she was yet to gain much. She was in a position not only to demand but to receive. And because of the inherent power of that position the ranking officers of the New York Central made every effort to placate her. For one of the very few times, if not indeed the only time in his life, Cornelius Vanderbilt--then the ranking head of the family--made public appearance upon the stage of her Opera House, before a great throng of her citizens, who crowded that ample place and sat and stood there with anger in their hearts, but with justice in their minds. They had not appreciated being made dupes. And yet they stood there willing to give the newcomers the square deal. Which spoke whole volumes for their upbringing.

That was a memorable night in the history of Watertown; the evening of March 24, 1891. The meeting at the City Opera House had been hastily arranged. The telegraph wires only that morning had announced the coming of Mr. Vanderbilt, accompanied by Mr. Chauncey M. Depew, his personal friend and adviser and at that time President of the New York Central & Hudson River, as well as a small group of other railroad officers. The party had left New York the preceding evening. All that day it held meetings in the North Country--at Carthage, at Gouverneur, at Potsdam and at Ogdensburgh. To a large extent these meetings were, however, somewhat perfunctory. The real event of that memorable day was the evening meeting at Watertown. In announcing the affair, but a few hours before, the editor of the _Times_ (we suspect Mr. William D. McKinstry's own brilliant hand in the penning of these paragraphs) had said:

"Of course Mr. Depew will be the spokesman of the party. Having had his dinner, which will be at his own expense, he will be in a good mood to meet our citizens, and will, of course, have many pleasant things to say.

But we hope he will come no joke on our citizens. With us, this railroad business is no joking matter. It affects us closely; it comes right into our homes, affects our comfort of living and the prosperity of our business enterprises. It puts more or less coal in our fires to warm our homes, according to the price we have to pay for it, and it makes a difference with how we are to be fed and clothed. This new railroad monopoly has the power, if it chooses, to make us the most happy, contented and prosperous people, or the most dejected and discontented....

It is a great power to have and it calls for the utmost consideration in its use...."

So was laid the platform for the evening meeting; fairly and squarely. To it the New York Central officers responded, fairly and squarely. Even the genial Doctor Depew, to whom a speech without a funny story was as a circus without an elephant, respected the real seriousness of the issue.

At the beginning he told some funny stories--of course. He alluded playfully to the fact that the citizens of Watertown had met them without a band--referring inferentially to the first official visit of Charles Parsons as President of the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburgh, upon which occasion the City Band had been engaged and the whole affair given the appearance of a _fete_. Mr. Depew alluded half jestingly to the demise of the Mohawk & St. Lawrence and then turned seriously to the real kernel of the situation--the inevitable tendency of American railroads toward consolidation into larger single operating units.

The merger of the Utica & Black River into the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburgh five years before had been in obedience to such a natural law.

The R. W. & O. system, reaching only Northern New York, disconnected and not united to the great railroad properties of the country which spread all over the face of the United States, had, partly by reason of its isolation, failed to properly develop the territory that it had set out to serve. It had been hedged in by barriers that it could not surmount.

It was a good speech, filled not only with good intention, but with a deal of economic hard sense. The crowded Opera House listened to it with courtesy, with attention and with applause. But always with a feeling that the deeds of the new management and not their mere words or promises would be the atonement for the indignity that had been heaped upon the town.

And the next evening the _Times_ again said editorially:

[Ill.u.s.tration: SNOW FIGHTERS A Scene in the Richland Yard on Almost Any Zero Day in the Dead of a North Country Winter.]

"... Mr. Depew appeared last evening and made the apology which is reported in full in our local columns. He did it nicely. He called it frescoing. Whitewashing is the common name for it when the job is done by less artistic hands. But, by whatever name, it was pleasantly received by an audience which packed the Opera House and a good feeling was created.

Mr. Depew ... did not go into any detailed statement of what the new management of the R. W. & O. proposed to do except to make the general statement that they had come to stay; that our interests were mutual; that in building up the prosperity of this section they would be adding to their own prosperity and that they would be one with us in every way. In carrying out this a.s.surance everything else must follow, and therefore it is sufficient and satisfactory to our citizens. They will give the management a good, fair chance to carry out this a.s.surance and wait confidently for acts to take the place of words ..."

That the new management had some real desire to a.s.suage the extremely irritated local situation became evident within the next few days. The members of the Vanderbilt party had had many quiet consultations with the leading men of Watertown and the North Country generally; had noted with great patience and care the many, many transport grievances of the entire territory. And proceeded wherever it was possible to remedy these, at once.

As a first earnest of its desires it tore down the high, unpainted, hemlock fence around the Watertown pa.s.senger station. That high-board fence had been an eyesore. It had been far worse than that however. It had been a slap in the face to the average Watertownian who for years past had regarded it as part of his inherent right and privilege to go down to the depot whenever and as often as he pleased, not alone to greet friends or to see them off, but also for the sheer joy of seeing the cars come in and depart. Upon the occasion of the state firemen's convention in the preceding August, the R. W. & O. management caused the ugly fence to be builded--as a temporary measure. But the firemen's convention gone and a matter of joyous memory, the fence remained. One might only enter within upon showing one's ticket.

Now, no matter how common and sensible a practice that might be elsewhere, in this broad world, Watertown resented it, as an invasion of personal privilege. It protested to the R. W. & O. management over at Oswego. Its protests were laughed at. The fence remained. The New York Central tore it down ... within a fortnight after it had acquired the road.

I have mentioned this episode in some detail because it is so typical of the fashion that so many railroad managements, and with so much to gain, go blindly ahead neglecting utterly the one great thing essential toward the gaining of their larger ends--public sympathy and public support.

Charles Parsons, with everything to gain from Northern New York, scoffed at these great aids, so easily purchased. Vastly bigger than Sloan in most ways, he, nevertheless, shared the contempt of the old genius of the Lackawanna for public opinion. The Vanderbilts rarely have made this mistake with their railroads. I think that it can be put down as one of the great open secrets of their success.

Similarly Parsons had offended Watertown by his treatment of its newly born street railway. It had been planned to extend in a single straight line from the northeastern corner of the city, just beyond Sewall's Island through High, and State, and Court, and Main Streets to the westerly limits of the town, and thence down the populous valley of the Black River through Brownville to the little manufacturing village of Dexter, eight miles distant. In this course it needed to cross the steam railroad tracks four times at grade--all of these within the city limits.

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The Story Of The Rome, Watertown, And Ogdensburg RailRoad Part 13 summary

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