Remembering Vanderbilt Square Station
This was the first permanent railroad station in Syracuse, built for the Syracuse & Utica Railroad in 1839 and used for 30 years. View is looking east on Washington Street. The station was flush with South Salina Street. Note the turnout at the right to allow freight trains to bypass the station.
Originally there was a bell in the tower that announced the arrival of trains. Large doors, later removed, were closed during inclement weather after trains had passed. By the 1930s nearly 100 passenger trains daily passed through Washington Street. Two more stations subsequently followed this one at the corner of South Franklin and West Washington streets. Dick Palmer collection.
Syracuse Post-Standard, Sat., Oct. 7, 1895
In The Old Days
Lively Times When the Station was Located in Vanderbilt Square
The new station is of course a beauty amply provided with everything which can conduce to the comfort of the traveling public but still there are these who are not mindful of its remote predecessor, the dingy old structure of wood which for 30 years stood in Vanderbilt Square.
Many are the reminiscences connected with it which linger in the minds of the older residents of the city. One of these is William H.H. Smith, who for 13 years, beginning in August, 1839, was connected with the small beginnings of what was eventually to become the mighty New York Central railroad. Mr. Smith served until 1852 in the capacity of collector whose duties were similar to those of the conductor of the present day and is consequently well acquainted with the earliest phases of railroading in New York state.
A Standard representative called upon Mr. Smith last evening at his residence in Irving street for the purposes of hearing Mr. Smith discourse on the primitive means of locomotion in vogue in the early ‘40s. Mr. Smith willingly complied and spoke in part as follows:
“The old Auburn road was opened in the spring of 1839 and about the same time the station in Vanderbilt Square, which had been begun the previous year, was completed. Previous to this time the road ended in Geddes where there was a small station which, however, proved quite sufficient for the needs of the 6,000 people which then represented the sum total of Syracuse’s population. The Auburn road was considered a great achievement in the early days although it was only about 30 miles long. The rails were of wood and the ‘trains’ consisted of a single car drawn by a horse. J.M. Sherwood, an old stage man, drove the horse. A year or so later, the wooden rails were changed for strap iron and the use of steam came into vogue.
“There was formerly a mill pond back of where the present state armory now stands which furnished power for the Old Red Mill which stood near the site of the high school. This pond was crossed by a trestle work which remained there for a number of years. in September, 1838m two locomotives were pt on the road which were called the “Auburn’ and the ‘Syracuse.’ They were but small affairs compared with the gigantic engines now in use but still they served to pull the few cars which composed the train at a moderate rate of speed.
“The cars were four wheeled and were divided into three compartments each of which was capable of holding eight passengers. On top of the cars were such signs as ‘A.B.C. No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3.’ The tickets were stamped in a similar way so that all the traveler had to do was to consult it and it would show him just where he belonged. The old station extended from South Salina to Warren street and was considered quite a palatial structure. The ticket office was on the north side of the building downstairs and the reception room was on the floor above. There were doors at both ends which were opened to allow trains to enter and closed immediately after their departure.”
Mr. Smith was asked to relate any interesting anecdotes which might occur to him and acquiesced as follows. “A strange thing happened in the old station once. I think it was in the early ‘40s, which made no end of talk at the time and went all over the country. One day who should arrive at the depot but Alexander Bodisco, envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary from the Czar of all the Russias to the United States. Mr. Bodisco, accompanied by numerous friends was on his bridal trip to Niagara Falls. He had married a Georgetown schoolgirl and was bound to impress the populace with a sense of his high and mighty dignity.
“The late Dudley P. Phelps was ticket agent at the time and accordingly sold a ticket to a man who desired to travel on this train. Now the wedding party wanted the whole car to themselves and so gave Mr. Phelps to understand. He could not oblige the Russian minister, however, as there was no room for the man in any of the other cars and by the rules of the company he was entitled to a seat wherever he could get one.
“Then the Russian was furious. An official belonging to his suite marched up to the ticket office and told Mr. Phelps if he was where he could get at him he would give him a sound caning. At this Mr. Phelps, like an American, walked out of the box to give the foreigner an opportunity to make his words good. The Russian carried a small rattan cane and true to his words he gave one blow with it and would have struck a second had he not been prevented.
“All this time Mr. Bodisco had been walking up and down swearing and storming with rage but he speedily cooled off and ended by making a very handsome apology. The train then resumed its westward way with the obnoxious passenger aboard and the Russians departed considerably wiser than they were then they arrived. George Dawson, editor of the Albany Journal, subsequently wrote up the incident in a very graphic manner and it went the rounds of the press all over the country, as I have said.
“In 1839,” resumed Mr. Smith, after a short pause, “there was a good deal of competition between the canals and the railroads, which extended, occasionally, to the most bitter rivalry. The Erie Canal authorities had their runners who used to come over to the old station and sing the praises of travel by water to the end that they might induce passengers to journey that way. The chief of these was the late Capt. Austin Meyers, who ran a packet boat at the time from Syracuse to Utica. It was the custom of the railroad men to prevent the runners from getting into the station by every means in their power, while passengers were around, and to this end they kept the doors closed at both ends of the depot and everywhere else so far as practicable.
“Capt. Meyers used to be very pugnacious about being kept out and tried to get even in every way he could. One hot summer day he came over to the station and after making an examination of the building he finally found an open window. Taking his stand here the captain began to shout in stentorian tones, bidding all to beware of the railroads and to patronize his packet boat for a change. Now this open window led into the ticket office and so the whole speech was perfectly audible to Mr. Phelps within.
“Although the day was oppressively warm Mr. Phelps determined to close the window, and accordingly did so with great suddenness. So far so good, but as bad luck would have it Captain Meyers’ fingers were on the sill at the time and were therefore badly jammed Eager for revenge the captain called his runners about him and waited for Mr. Phelps to make his appearance with his cash, as was his daily custom. When the ticket agent finally appeared a ring was formed in an instant and the captain immediately made a rush for Mr. Phelps. Capt. Meyers had a heavy seal ring and managed to cut Mr. Phelps’ face quite badly, but no further harm ensued, for seeing what was going on I took a hand myself and managed to separate the combatants.”
Mr. Smith then related some interesting reminiscences of the different railroad lines of long ago. “There were a number of railroads,” said he, “which connected with one another but were all under different management. for instance there was one from Syracuse to Utica, from Utica to Schenectady, from Schenectady to Albany, and Syracuse to Auburn. These roads were all one track affairs with numerous side tracking places so that when an express came along the small freight trains of that time could get out of the way.
“A great event was the appearance in this city of the ‘Diamond car.’ It was so called because its windows were diamond shaped. Its seating capacity was 60. It was built for a road from New York to Harlem but after its completion it was discovered the car was too tall to pass under the bridges so it was sold to the Auburn and Syracuse Railroad.
“the various roads which formed a continuous line from New York to Buffalo furnished the only land passage from the seaboard to the Great Lakes. many of the most prominent men in the country traveled that way with most of whom I enjoyed a personal acquaintance. Among them were John Quincy Adams, Lewis Cass, Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, William H. Seward and Daniel Webster. There are no such men as these alive in the country today.”
Mr. Smith concluded his entertaining remarks by saying that there was formerly a railroad from Rochester to Batavia built for the express purpose of bringing wheat from the Genesee Valley and that it afterward consolidated with the Attica and Buffalo line so that there was a continuous passage between Rochester and Buffalo.
Eleazur A. Williams was also seen at his residence in South Warren street. Mr. Williams was never connected with any railroad but as he has lived in this city for half a century he has a vivid recollection of the early days of steam locomotion. Said he: “In 1845 people would leave Albany in the morning and arrive here at night where they invariably stopped over. Of course there was no such things as sleepers and indeed there was no use for them as everybody was somewhat timid about traveling in the night time and considered a very reckless and dangerous proceeding.
“The old Syracuse House was the headquarters for transients although the Empire House, which was built in 1844, was largely patronized. The trains would move at a slow and dignified rate of speed so that collisions were little feared. I have been in one or two myself and thought nothing about them. The rails were of the strap variety and the great cause for fear in those days was from what were called ‘snake heads.’ This accident was produced by the top piece of the rail flying up and running through the bottom of the cars. Whenever this happened, which was quite frequently, there would be general consternation among the passengers and a wild rush for safety. There were only two or there trains a day.”
Mr. Williams spoke of the old station as follows: “A curious feature of the building was a large bell in the ticket office which was tolled every time a train was about to leave. This custom, however, seems to have survived in street car traffic for it is only last year that the bell in the First Ward was removed. Along the sides of the old station were rows of restaurants which were for the most part of a tough character, although one or two were respectable.
“When the building was torn down in 1869 there was a general rejoicing although a small amount of opposition originated in certain quarters. Some people thought that when the site was changed to one further west that everyone would have to migrate into the country in order to find it but the city was very small then and the wisdom of the New York Central people in retaining substantially the old location for their newest depot is to be commended.”
To an observer the coming and going of groups of travelers at railroad stations is always interesting. In this respect the difference in scenes at the first and third Central stations must be very striking, especially on the opening day. Then there was but one train and people had no reason to ask which one they were to take, no checks, no tickets. There was not a multiplicity of tracks and switches, flagmen and signals. It was a comparatively straight forward business. But in those days there were many questions for officials to answer for these people taking “their first ride on the cars.”
One feature that was prominent at the old which is not seen at the new was the stage coach or omnibus which connected the country town with the Central station. The life of the stage driver was full of hardships. He started at early dawn from a distant village in all kinds of weather, through snows and through mud; he had to reach the city on time with his load of passengers and baggage. He drove spirited and flourished a long whip, and to be a good reinsman was as great an honor as to drive the engine No. 999 today.
The passengers were left at the hotels or at the station, the horses fed and groomed and preparations made for the return trip. At one time stage lines connected Syracuse with Cazenovia, Manlius, Jamesville, Lafayette Square, Liverpool, Phoenix and all the near by towns. The stage driver was a popular person about the station and a prominent individual at his native town.