Frequently authors become so engrossed in detailed technical information as to what tracks go or went where, locomotive and car rosters, and corporate history, they tend to forget the human side of railroading. Tracks were laid and railroads were operated by people. That's why it's refreshing to occasionally find old newspaper articles about some of these people who made the railroad tick.
More often than not, articles of a human interest nature about old time railroads were not written by reporters who had any special knowledge of railroading. But reporters of generations back knew how to ask the right questions, thus preserving for all time a glimpse of how railroads were operated in the early days.
The following article, written by veteran reporter Roy E. Fairman who was a journalist for more than 50 years, appeared in the Syracuse Herald on February 13, 1931. - Richard Palmer
Century With the Railroad - Father Helped Construct Tracks With Strips of Iron -
Son Yet in Service - Early Construction Gives Great Contrast With Present Methods
By Roy E. Fairman
(The Herald's Roving Reporter)
One hundred years of railroading, virtually all with the same company - such is the record of the late Pierce Grace of Onativia and his son, Thomas B. Grace of Jamesville.
When Pierce Grace died in 1904 at the age of 80, he had rounded out an even 50 years on construction work for the Syracuse & Binghamton Railroad and its successor, the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western.
Thomas B. Grace, oldest station agent in the employ of the D.L.&W. system, is in his 51st year in the employ of that road.The Graces, father and son, have been dentified with the Syracuse & Binghamton branch of the road from its beginning. The father supervised the laying of its first tracks; the son has seen it
Thomas B. Grace, who learned telegraphy in the days with the dots and dashes were recorded on a strip of paper and who has been an operator or station agent since 1881, has witnessed the growth of Jamesville as a freight station with only a few cars a week until it now ships a greater tonnage per year than any other station in the entire D.L.& W. system.
Forty-five years ago the average weekly shipment from Jamesville did not exceed 15 cars. In 1929, Jamesville sent out 32,997 cars valued at more than $1,000,000, an increase of $124,612 over the shipments of 1928.
When Pierce Grace landed in America, an Irish immigrant in March, 1848, railroading was in its infancy. The young Irishman had a cousin who operated a brickyard in Troy and he worked there during the summer of 1848, getting a job that fall on the new railroad operating between Albany and Schenectady.
Grace was what was called an express runner, but a far cry from the express messenger of today. Railroad tracks were constructed of wooden rails with thin straps of iron nailed on the top side. It was no uncommon occurrence for these straps to become loose with the consequent danger of throwing the trains off the rails.
So, to ensure a safe passage of the train, a man on a small hand car operated by a crank, was started ahead of the train. This "express runner" could make upwards of 10 miles an hour and the speed of the train was limited to that of the runner ahead.
If a loosened rail strap was found, the runner stopped and the train was forced to halt until the repairs were completed. Each runner preceded the train for five miles when another took his place. After a year on this job, Grace joined a construction gang and soon became so expert in laying track and constructing curves that he was placed in charge of a work train and a big crew of men laying tracks of what later became the New York Central through the Mohawk Valley to Utica and Syracuse.
When the superintendent of the New York Central left that road to take over the Syracuse and Binghamton road then under construction, Grace went with him. He was then making his home in Syracuse, having married a Miss Catherine Lonergan, and purchased two lots in Tully Streets at $250 each. On each of these lots he built a small house, lived on one and leased the other.
When the Syracuse and Binghamton superintendent drove his construction foreman to Jamesville with a livery rig on June 6, 1854, he neglected to tell him that the former management was insolvent and that the track workers had not been paid in three months and were on strike.
There were two gangs near Jamesville, one Irish and one German. Grace visited the German gang first and when the workers learned he was their new boss, one yelled out in German: "Here's our new boss, wait until I throw him into the creek."
Now Grace had learned to speak German while laying tracks while laying tracks with German laborers in the Palatinate, and he came right back with: "Some one please hold my coat until I settle with this fellow." The Germans were so surprised to hear an Irishman speak their language so easily, that they offered no more trouble.
Grace promised both gangs that, no matter what happened in the past, wages from then on would be forthcoming and work resumed, the track construction was completed and the road opened all the way from Binghamton to Syracuse in October, 1854.
The road completed, Grace took a job as section foreman at Apulia, where he remained five years. He had charge of a section 12 miles long, about twice the length of sections of today, and had a gang of 15 men. Pierce Grace bought seven acres of land at Apulia Station and built a house, part of which is included in the present hotel there. A maple tree which he planted across the tracks from the station has now grown to generous size.
Irishmen were scarce in the Apulia area and he was a great was a great curiosity, residents of the southern part of Onondaga County traveling many miles to get a glimpse of him.
In 1859 Grace bought a farm near Cuyler and gave up railroad work until q873 with the exception of a short time as roadmaster in charge of construction of the last like of the Elmira, Cortland and Northern road between DeRuyter and Cazenovia.* It was on the Cuyler farm that Thomas B. Grace was born in 1865. The summer of 1873 found Pierce Grace in charge of a force of men paving Main Street in Cortland. That same year he returned to the employ of the D.L. & W. as section foreman at Onativia, where he remained until his death. His wife survived him six years, dying in 1910, also at the age of 80.
One of Thomas B. Grace's first railroad memories is that of the last wood-burning locomotive on the D.L.& W., which operated a work train. Onativia was one of its fueling stations and schoolboys esteemed it a great honor to be allowed to ring the bell.
Grace attended school in Lafayette until he was 14 when he started in to learn telegraphy. A one-room schoolhouse stood where Lafayette High School building now is. Miss Hulda Shaw was teacher. James and Michael Crowe, who operated a store in Lafayette, were his schoolmates. James Crowe later became his brother-in-law.
Homer Case was station agent at Onativia when Tom Grace learned the Morse code and how to apply it to telegraphy. Case also served as supervisor of the town of Lafayette. In 1891 Grace became night operator at Jamesville for a year, served in the same capacity in Onativia for three years and then became station agent at Stiles, the station at Long Branch, which has long since been abandoned.
In addition to being agent at Stiles he also was postmaster and operated a coal yard until he was assigned to Jamesville as station agent in 1896. He is in his 34th year in that capacity.
In Grace's early railroad days, there were no blocks, no semophores, and trains were dispatched by what was known as the single system, with single copies of orders given to conductors and engineers. Extra sections of trains were called wildcats.
Passenger coaches were heated by stoves and lighted by candles. Each car was braked by hand and pins and links were the couplers. The Buffalo division of the D.L. & W. had not been built and coal trains were operated through Jamesville to Oswego and western bound coal there placed on boats. The cars were small "jimmies," with a capacity of from six to eight tons each.
Jamesville had more industries then, but the amount of freight shipped out was far less than that of today, when the mammoth stone quarrying operations of the Solvay Process Company give Jamesville the biggest annual tonnage on the D.L. & W. System.
The bicycle works employed 200 men and made parts for many famous bicycles, including the Stearns Yellow Fellow and Barnes White Flyer Syracuse wheels. I.A. Weston was the inventor of the wire wheel which became standard equipment of bicycles and racing sulkies.
Mr. Grace has seen 50 fatalities during his railroad career, not one of which, he says, the railroad was to blame for. Most of them were trespassers on the railroad right of way. Five were killed in a crossing fatality in Jamesville about 15 years ago. Mr. Grace works in the same station house he went to as an operator in 1881. It was built in 1876.
Frank E. McCormick, general superintendent of the New York Central, worked in that station. So did Michael C. McGowan, chief dispatcher in New York City, and J.W. Skeels, vice president of the Lehigh Valley.
Mr. Grace operated a coal business in Jamesville, being one of the oldest coal dealers in Onondaga County in point of service. He has driven an automobile since 1908, owning the second such machine in Jamesville, a two-cylinder Buick.
He has an attractive home, which he built on the walls of a residence erected in 1812. These piles of masonry are as solid as when cemented together with some of Jamesville's own water lime more than a century ago.
*Note: The railroad between Cazenovia and DeRuyter was the Cazenovia, Canastota & DeRuyter, subsequently the Utica, Ithaca & Elmira, Elmira, Cortland & Northern, and finally, the Canastota branch of the Lehigh Valley.
Thomas B. Grace, of Jamesville died in Syracuse on January 8, 1956 at Onondaga General Hospital at the age of 90. He is buried in St. Mary's Cemetery. His father, Pierce Grace, died at Onativia on March 29, 1915.