History of the Syracuse & Utica Railroad
Scene at Utica about 1850 showing train arriving from Syracuse. Engine is believed to be the famous "Lightning."
(From Oneida County Historical Society Year Book, Vol. 1 1881 pages 144 through 155. Transcribed by Richard Palmer)
The following paper on the organization and construction of the Syracuse & Utica Railroad Company was read before the Oneida County Historical Society, in Utica, last Tuesday, by D.E. Wager, Esq. of this city. While suited to the general reader, it is of special local interest, as it narrates the details of the struggle that occurred to bring the road to Rome.
The contemplated movement for the construction via Utica, of the New York, West Shore & Buffalo Railroad, with a view of adding another link in the chain of railroad connections between the Atlantic and the great west, can hardly fail to recall the events of 40 and 50 years ago, relative to the efforts then made to construct the first railroad through Central New York; and it may also serve as a reminder to old residents of Oneida, Madison and Onondaga counties of the struggle and sharp contest which took place, regarding the location through Oneida county of the Syracuse & Utica Railroad.
Prior to 1826, there was not a railroad in America. In that year a railroad four miles in length, called the "Quincy Railroad," was built in Massachusetts, used to transport granite from the quarries. The motive power was horses; the use of steam was an after-thought, and not dreamed of when railroads were first projected.
In April of the year that the Quincy Railroad was built the Legislature of New York chartered the "Mohawk & Hudson Railroad Company" to construct a railroad between Albany and Schenectady. This was the first chartered railroad company in the union authorized to carry on a general transportation business of freight and passengers.
It was the year the erie canal was brought fully into use, and the public had seen and felt the beneficial results arising from internal improvements of this kind. The capital of the company was $300,000, with liberty to increase it to $500,000. If the road was not completed in six years, the charter was forfeited; no restriction was imposed as to the charges to be made for carrying passengers; nor was the company prohibited from carrying freight, nor required to pay tolls thereon,
nor restricted as to the charges to be made for carrying freight, except that such charges were not to exceed the amount of the tolls and duties, (together with the charges for carrying freight,) which property was then subjected, as the cost of transportation on the Erie Canal.
The state reserved the right to become the owner of the road at any time within five years after its completion, by providing for the repayment to the railroad company the cost of construction and interest thereon, first deducting the tolls the company had received for carrying passengers and freight.
In the meantime, and before work on this road was begun, railroads in other states were commenced, completed and brought into use, and locomotives propelled by steam placed thereon. In August 1830, and about twenty months before the six years were up within which the road was to be built, the works of construction was commenced, and it was pushed forward with so much vigor and energy that in October, 1831, it was fully completed and carrying about 400 passengers daily on an average.
This was the first railroad built in the state; it was, of course, crude in its plan, imperfect in its construction, and expensive both in its construction and operation. The road-bed was mostly of solid stone, and with such a firm and unyielding foundation, it acted the purpose of an anvil and the rolling stock as hammers, to batter up and wear out in a short time the timbers, cross ties and rails of the
track. Its cost was $68,000 per mile, and the inclined plane and stationery engine thereat near schenectady, (so well remembered by older travelers,) and which skill and railroad experience had not then learned to dispense with or obviate, were an additional expense of $1,000 per month.
But imperfect and expensive as the construction and operation of that railroad were, they had their advantages, for they served as lessons in the construction of subsequent roads; and besides, that mode of carrying passengers and freight was such a vast improvement on all former or other modes of transportation, it very naturally stimulated similar enterprises, and served to whet the appetite of the public for the chartering and construction of more railroads.
Utica and Schenectady and Utica
Each year for the then next ten years subsequent to the incorporation of that railroad company, the legislature of New York granted many charters for the construction of railroads in various parts of the state; but nothing, however, was done under any of them (except the one granted in 1831, and the road finished in 1833 to construct the road in 1831, and the road finished in 1833 to construct the road between Schenectady and Saratoga,) until after the charter in 1833, to construct a railroad between Schenectady and Utica; the last named road to run from Schenectady on the north side of the Mohawk River to the village of Herkimer, thence to Utica, at a point to be designated by the Common Council of the last named place; the point so designated was east of and at the foot of Genesee Street.
The capital stock of the company was $2,000,000, and the work on the road was to be commenced and $100,000 expended within two years and the road to be completed within ten years after the passage of the act, or the company to forfeit its charter. property was not allowed to be transported over the road, except the ordinary baggage of passengers, and the company was limited to four cents per mile for transporting passengers; and before commencing to carry persons, the company was required to pay, or tender to the Mohawk Turnpike Company $22.50 on each share of the stock of said turnpike company.
That turnpike was chartered in 1800 to construct a dirt road between Schenectady and Utica. the state reserved the right to become the owner of the railroad within ten years after its completion, the same as provided in the act incorporating the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad Company.
The work on this new link of railroads was begun in the fall of 1834, and was fully completed at a cost of $20,000 per mile in the summer of 1836, so that it was in running order and regular trips commenced August 2, of that year. The opening of the road was duly celebrated, and the newspapers all through the state announced the completion of that additional link with a grand flourish, and boasted a magnificent strain that the company had six locomotives, and 50 emigrant wagons, and that "each car would carry 24 passengers!!" The next year, after the Utica & Schenectady Railroad Company was chartered, the Auburn & Syracuse Railroad Company was organized, and the construction of the road between those two places was at once put under way, rapidly pushed forward, and completed in the summer of 1837, that it might be the means of attracting by that route other connecting links in the great railroad thoroughfare, which then seemed must be inevitably and soon constructed through the entire state.
The fact that there were to be railroad connections between Albany and Utica, and between Auburn and Syracuse, very naturally stirred up the people along the line, through Central New York, to fill up the gaps and supply the needed links that should make a completed railroad chain from the waters of the Hudson to those of Lake Erie.
These considerations, and the fact that railroads were not only paying investments, but were of incalculable benefit in developing the resources of the country, made it pretty apparent in the year 1835 that the legislature to assemble in January, 1836, would be besieged for charters for railroad companies; and in many localities at the fall election in 1835, members of the Legislature were selected in reference to their power, influence and usefulness in procuring charters for such purposes.
In the fall of 1835, David Wager, of Utica, was chosen State Senator from this county. To the assembly were chosen on a general county ticket John Stryker, of Rome; Henry Graves, of Boonville; John W. Hale, of Clinton; William Knight, of Paris, and Jared C. Pettibone, of Lee. It will be assumed that these men are sufficiently well know in Oneida county, even by younger residents and new comers, as to need no introduction or further mention.
In the Assembly from Madison County were William J. Hough, of Cazenovia; John B. Yates, of Chittenango, and Ephraim Gray, of Lebanon. Mr. Hough was a leading lawyer and prominent citizen of that county, and a few years later was elected to Congress. Mr. Yates was a wealthy and influential citizen, highly respected, and so closely connected with other public enterprises as to make him a power in the state.
He had been in Congress in 1814 from Schenectady, and about 1816 was practicing law in Utica, and about 1818 he made Chittenango his home, was in 1835 First Judge of Madison County, and by his liberal endowment of, and munificent donations to "Yates Polytechnic School" of his village, made himself popular and influential. He was a brother of Joseph C. Yates, Judge of the Supreme Court of the State in 1814, and Governor in 1823. He will also be membered as one of the managers of the lotteries in this state sixty years ago.
Mr. Gray was an early and old resident of his county and a farmer of influence. With persons of such position and influence madison county was ably represented and her interest well protected. Their geographical location would naturally lead them to favor the route of a railroad that would run as far south as the hills of Madison County would permit. In the Assembly from Onondaga County, were John Wilkinson, of Syracuse; David Munro, of the town of Camillus; Sanford C. Parker, of Marcellus, and Daniel Dennison, of Manlius.
Mr. Wilkinson was a lawyer of tact, and of busy, bustling habits; he was short in stature and small in size, but he made up for these in enterprise and in physical and mental activity. He was the first postmaster of Syracuse, and it was he who in 1820 gave that place its present name, it having been theretofore known successively as "Bogardus Corners," "Milan," "South Salina," "Cossit's Corners," "Corinth," and lastly Syracuse. Mr. Wilkinson was elected to the Assembly in 1834 and re-elected in 1835. He was among the foremost and strongest advocates of the route on which the road was subsequently located Mr. Munro was a farmer of large wealth and of considerable influence, and stood shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Wilkinson in the advocacy of the present route; but he did not stand shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Wilkinson in stature or size, for Mr. Munro was tall in height and was large in size as well as in wealth, for he weighed between 300 and 400 pounds.
Mr. Parker was a person of prominence and engaged in the milling business; for some reason or other he cast his influence in favor of the more southern route. Mr. Dennison favored the present route. He was member of Assembly not only in 1836 but again in 1837.
When the legislature convened in January, 1836, it was besieged with petitions and applications for the granting of charters to construct railroads in almost every part of the state. At that session some 58 railroad charters were granted or old ones renewed, and among the list was one granted to build a railroad from Johnstown to Fonda, one to build a railroad from Herkimer village to Trenton, one to build a railroad from Carthage, Jefferson County, to the St. Lawrence River, one to build from Utica to Oswego, one from Attica to Buffalo, one from Auburn to Rochester, and one from Utica to Syracuse. It is with this last named road that this article has mainly to do.
At the commencement of the session the friends of the last-named road and of the two routes were on hand in force, and at once began the maneuvering, marching and counter-marching of the two hostile forces. One party insisted that the road should be constructed wholly on the south side of the Erie canal, starting at a point in Utica near the present site of the city hall, thence through New Hartford, Westmoreland, vernon, and as near Oneida Castle and the Madison county hills as the grades would permit.
This was the shorter distance, and brought the road nearer the southern and more cultivated portions of Madison county and the little hamlets or county villages of Cazenovia, Chittenango, "Quality Hill," &c., and hence was strongly favored and strenuously urged by the assemblymen from that section and by about the whole of Madison county. Most of the Utica influence favored that route, too, for that would insure a break in the railroad chain in utica, and make that locality what the site of Rome had been near a hundred years before, a "carrying place."
It was argued by Uticans that if there was no break and there should be a continuous chain of railroads, Utica in due time would become but little better than a way station upon the great thoroughfare, and its growth and business facilities greatly crippled and dwarfed. the other party favored a route that would take the projected railroad along or near the sixty-mile level of the erie canal, and it was urged that although the distance by this route might be a few miles further, yet it was more than compensated by the more favorable grades, and by the cheapness of construction and the small amount that would have to be paid for land damages.
The Romans and the northern portion of Oneida county, of course, favored this route, as did the greater part of onondaga county, as well as capitalists in other parts of the state who wished to invest their money in roads that could be constructed and kept in repair the cheapest, and, as a consequence, yield the quickest and largest dividends. A road built strictly on the Erie Canal level would make the road eight miles longer than it now is, and might take it westward from Rome via Higginsville, Durhamville, and
into Onondaga county through the "Cicero Swamp," much further to the north through Madison county than it now runs; and although the friends of this route promised or conceded to the Madison county people that the road, after it reached rome going west, should be constructed on or near its present location, yet the friends of the southern route were suspicious and unwilling to yield, except by compulsion.
It must not be forgotten that at that time that, with the exception of about fifteen miles, the whole route between Utica and Syracuse, now traversed by this road, was a swamp, and much of the way a wild and unbroken forest. The site of the present flourishing village of Oneida was a wilderness. there was a saw-mill but then recently built, a log house for the sawyer, and one erected by Mr. Sands Higginbotham, who had previously purchased a large tract of wild land in that locality. the village of Canastota was but a hamlet, brought into existence and notice by the construction of the canal.
In the early history of railroad charters in this state, the legislature named the commissioners whose duty it was to open the books for subscription to stock, and when the stock was subscribed, to distribute it among the subscribers. The owners of the stock elected the directors of the railroad company and the latter located
the road, unless the location was designated in the charter itself. It was, of course, important that the right railroad commissioners should be named, as upon them might depend the destiny of the road.
It seemed to be conceded that there were to be 25 railroad commissioners, of which Oneida county was to have seven, Madison county four, Onondaga county seven, and the other seven to be selected from the state at large; and it also seemed to be understood and agreed that the senator and assemblymen were to name the commissioners from their county, and each was to name one. Mr. Stryker, from this county, was the principal champion and wire-puller for the Rome route, and Pomeroy Jones, of Westmoreland, for the southern location. From this county, David Wager, as senator, named his choice for commissioner Julius A. Spencer, of Utica, then a director of and for a long time connected with the Utica & Schenectady Railroad. Mr. Stryker named Henry A. Foster; Mr. Graves named David Moulton, of Floyd, Mr. Pettibone named Timothy Jenkins, of Oneida Castle; (Mr. Pettibone
had a brother living in Vernon, and hence was half inclined to favor that route;) Mr. Hale named Pomeroy Jones; Mr. Knight named Israel S. Parker; the seventh commissioner from this county was Riley Shepard, of Augusta.
Five of the above commissioners were positively in favor of the Rome route, and although Mr. Jenkins lived at Oneida Castle and along the southern location, yet he was not hostile to, and in case of a pinch would not act against the Rome location. The commissioners from Madison county were John Knowles, of Chittenango; Ichabod S. Spencer, of Canastota; John Williams, of Cazenovia, and Benjamin Enos, of DeRuyter. From Onondaga County were Vivus W. Smith, Miles W. Bennett, Horace Wheaton, Thomas J. Gilbert, E.L. Phillips, Aaron Burt and James Beardsley - most, if not all of them friendly to the canal location. the commissioners in the state at large (named by a select committee of the legislature, to which the charter was referred for amendments and perfection) were Henry Seymour, of Utica, father of Gov. Seymour; (Mr. Seymour was among the first canal commissioners of the state, one of its warmest and most active friends, and formerly state senator; he warmly favored the Rome route, and having been so long a friend of the canal, His influence was great;) James Hooker, of Poughkeepsie; Holmes Hutchinson, of Livingston county; James M. Allen, Frederick Whittlesey, or Rochester, Rufus H.King, of Albany, and Charley Oakley, of New York City.
The Rome route had a decided majority of the railroad commissioners as thus constituted, and hence the friends of the southern route were obliged resort to other tactics to carry their measure. John B. Yates was chairman of the railroad committee in the Assembly, and hence in that respect the southern route had an important advantage. that committee reported the fore part of the session a bill chartering the company, but required the road to be constructed wholly on the south side of the erie canal! This was a death blow to the Rome route, but the friends of the canal line succeeded in having the bill referred to a select committee consisting of Charles A. Floyd, of Suffolk County; C.T. Chamberlain, of Allegany, and G.W. Patterson, of Livingston, to amend and report the bill complete.
This move was ominous, and petitious and remonstrances poured into the legislature from Madison county and portions of the southern part of Oneida county against locating any part of the road on the north side of the canal. On the 3d of May, 1836, that select committee reported the bill as amended, authorizing the directors of the company to locate the road. this was, of course, just what the rome friends desired, and was perhaps more than they could reasonably expect, considering the strong influence and persistent effort in favor of the southern location. The bill, as thus reported, was vigorously assailed by Mr. Yates and others. Mr. Yates moved to refer the bill back with instructions to the select committee to report the bill as it had been first reported by the railroad committee, (locating the road on the south side of the canal). Mr. Wilkinson opposed this motion, claiming that it was impracticable if not impossible to so locate the road, especially in portions of Onondaga county.
Mr. Stryker urged that the Rome or canal route was almost a dead level the entire length of the road, and although the distance was a few miles greater, yet the grades were enough better to compensate for the difference in length.
The motion of Mr. Yates was defeated. Mr. Parker, of Onondaga, to get rid of the commissioners named in the bill, moved that the governor appoint them. this was voted down. Orville Robinson, of Oswego, struck the popular feeling in the assembly when he moved that the majority of the directors should locate the road "on the most direct and eligible route." This was carried, and the contest was ended in the Assembly, and the Rome route practically adopted, for although it might not be the most "direct," yet it was the "most eligible," and it was supposed that the directors to be selected would so determine. On the 11th of May, 1836, the bill was made a law and the above persons named as railroad commissioners. the capital stock of the company was $800,000, and if the road was not commenced in two years, and at least $25,000 expended, and was not finished four years after the passage of the act, the charter was forfeited.
The railroad commissioners organized by the election of Henry A. Foster as president of the board, and I.S. Spencer, of Canastota, (brother of the late Joshua A. Spencer,) as secretary. the president named as as a committee from this county to prepare and report a plan for receiving subscriptions and distributing stock, David Moulton, Israel S. Parker and Pomeroy Jones.
Books of subscription were opened July 19, 20 and 21, 1836, at the Syracuse House, in Syracuse; at J.C. Spencer's Coffee House, in Canastota; at T.H. Pratt's Canal Coffee House in Utica; at the Mansion House in Albany, and at the Farmers' Loan and Trust Company's office in New York City. Although the capital stock of the company was but $800,000, yet nearly two and a half millions of dollars were subscribed outside of the city of New York viz: in Syracuse, $643,000; in Canastota, $447,000; Utica, $1,066,000; Albany, $250,000. It was then a delicate task to distribute the stock, and give no real ground of complaint; but it was done.
On September 22, 1836, the first election of directors of the railroad company was held at the Syracuse House in Syracuse, at which the following were elected directors, viz: Henry Seymour, David Wager, Henry A. Foster, David Moulton, Samuel French, John Wilkinson, Oliver Teall, James Beardslee, James Hooker, Isaiah Townsend, Miles W. Bennett and Charles Stebbins. Henry Seymour was elected president of the road, H.A. Foster, vice president; Vivus W. Smith, secretary; M.S. Marsh, treasurer, and Aaron Burt, superintendent. John Stryker was selected as attorney for Oneida county to perfect the land titles, John Wilkinson attorney for Onondaga County, and S. T. Fairchild for Madison county.
Oliver H. Lee, formerly engineer on the Utica & Schenectady road, was made chief engineer, with J.P. Munro and C.B. Stuart, (the later of Vernon, and in 1847, state engineer) as assistants. Surveys of the different routes were at once commenced. At the election held in July, 1837, the same officers were re-elected, but as president Van Buren had called an extra session of Congress to convene in September of that year, which necessitated Mr. Foster's absence, (Mr. Foster had been elected to Congress in 1836) he resigned as vice presidency and directorship, and john wilkinson was made vice president, and John Stryker director in the places thus vacated.
In August, 1837, Mr. Seymour died, and Mr. Wilkinson was made president of the road, which position he held for sixteen years, and until the consolidation of the several links into the New York Central and Hudson River railroad company in 1853. Mr. W. was in his day as great a railroad man and had as great a reputation as have since Erastus Corning, Dean Richmond or the Vanderbilts.
Construction of the Road
In December, 1837, the company advertised for proposals to furnish 7,000,000 feet of timber, board measure, of white and yellow pine, cedar and hemlock for rail, sills and ties; and march, 1838, proposals were invited to grade 33 miles of track in sections of one mile each, and to be completed January 1, 1839. the whole contract for grading was made may 1, 1838, and in september of that year, proposals were invited for 255,000 feet of white oak for "ribbon pieces," and to be 1 1/2 by 3 inches in size, 10 to 15 feet in length, and to be free from wane, sap and knots, and to be delivered along the line of the road as soon as the canal opened in 1839; also for 50,000 cast iron knees.
Within 14 months after the road was put under contract, it was fully completed - most of the way upon piles, a system then for the first time brought into practice use. The pile system was mainly the invention of e.p. williams of utica, who was formerly engaged in the construction of the first railroad in this state, and who subsequently went south and perfected his system.
The piles were first thoroughly soaked in salt to add to their preservative qualities, and provision made for re-salting as it became necessary. they were driven, by steam power, to a depth of 25 to 30 feet in the marshy ground, by splicing. On the top of the piles were placed long timbers of pine, on which rested the "ribbon pieces" of oak, and on these ribbon pieces, were spiked the flat iron rail.
The long timbers of the track were kept from spreading by cross ties. Not infrequently the spikes and the flat rail worked loose, and in such cases the latter paid an unwelcome visit to the inside of the coach, by protruding through the floor, to the imminent peril of the lives of the passengers. A passenger coach in those days seated 24 persons, they facing each other, after the style of an omnibus or street car, with no stove inside, or other means to warm the travelers in the winter, then those vehicles have, or as provided in meeting houses in olden times.
The road was fully completed the last of June, 1839. Its cost was $700,000 - $100,000 less than its capital stock. On Thursday, June 27, the first train of cars reached rome from utica, and the editor of the 'Rome Democratic Sentinel' boasted in its issue of July 2 1839, that on the Thursday previous he had shaken hands in the streets of Rome with persons who had left Utica 45 minutes before. The arrival of that train in Rome was the occasion of great excitement and of unusual rejoicing; it was welcomed by the firing of cannon and the cheers of assembled thousands. in the afternoon the train proceeded to Syracuse, and among the number was one who went on the first canal boat west.
The rest of the week the cars ran free over the road. On Wednesday, July 3, the company commenced taking pay and the average receipts for many successive days were over $600 per day. Thursday, July 4, there was a great excursion over the road, and the day and the scene will not be soon forgotten by those who took part in the celebration. The road most of the way ran through a dense forest, and the road was upon piles, not filled in with earth between and the train seemingly run in the air. Everything was new and rural. The heavy forest all around,
with fresh openings for the track, piles of brush, new stumps, white logs stripped of their bark, the green foliage, the broken earth, the thousands of empty salt barrels scattered along the track, the great, excited and curious crowd, all made the day and the scene of thrilling interest.
The 'Democratic Sentinel' of July 9th, 1836, boasted that its editor, in company with a party of ladies and gentlemen, left Rome at 4 p.m. for Syracuse, and after staying there an hour and a half, reached Rome at 11 p.m.; that among the number was a gentleman (ex-Judge Foster) who went on the first canal boat.
In the spring of 1839, the primeval forest was cleared away to make room for the "Railroad House, at Oneida Depot." That building yet remains, as does the "Railroad Hotel" at Rome, erected the next year.
On Wednesday, July 10, 1839, the completion of the road was duly celebrated. Two carloads of prominent citizens came July 9, from Albany as far as Utica, where they were welcomed by John Wilkinson, and there they remained over night. Among the number were Solomon Van Rensselaer,
a solder of the Revolution; Charles E. Dudley, John Townsend and Francis Bloodgood, three ex-mayors of Albany, David Wood, president of the Mohawk and Hudson railroad; Gideon Hawley, Lewis Benedict.
A 5 a.m. wednesday, July 10, 1839, two extra trains left Utica for Syracuse, with two locomotives to each train, and with banners flying streamers flaunting, bands of music playing, and accompanied by the Utica Citizens' Corps, and prominent citizens.
All along the route large crowds of people gathered to welcome and cheer on the passing trains. The party reached Syracuse at 8 1/2 a.m., and was received at the depot with military honors by a corps of artillery and escorted around the village amid the roaring of guns, the ringing of bells and the huzzas of the multitude. Dinner was served, at which between 400 and 500 persons sat down. E. W. Leavenworth, president of the village, presided, assisted by ex-Mayor Townsend, of Albany.
Toasts and speeches occupied the principal part of the afternoon. At 4 p.m. the party started to return, and the editor of the Albany Journal, who accompanied the excursionists, gave a brief but glowing account of the trip and seemed to think the acme of rapid traveling was reached.
The same week the road was completed, its stock was sold at 10 per cent advance, and the Utica and Schenectady road declared its sixth semi-annual dividend of $5 per share. In that same month this portion of the state was excited and complimented by a visit from the illustrious Henry Clay, who visited Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and thence to Oswego and down the St. Lawrence.
He spoke in the Syracuse depot to a large crowd. A few weeks thereafter, President Van Buren went eastward from Buffalo over the whole length of the then completed railroad in the state, staying over Sunday at Geneva, speaking at the depot at Syracuse, and staying at Utica on the night of September 10, 1839.
Such in brief are some of the incidents in the organization, location and construction of the above road. But a few are now living who took an active and prominent part in the matters above referred to, and to some of them am I mainly indebted for the principal facts above narrated. The local newspapers of the day furnished but little from which to gather material.
The Roman (and he is yet alive) had no more vague idea of what railroads and railroad traveling were to be, who required for a right of way over his land, the privilege to peddle milk on each passenger train, than they who required each passenger train to stop 10 minutes at each station.
It is extremely doubtful whether the grades in the southern part of this county could be effectually used now as an argument to induce a railroad to make the curve at rome the present one does; but that argument, added to the tact, shrew management and strenuous efforts of ex-Judge Foster and Hon. John Stryker, were the means of preventing Rome being let eight or ten miles out in the cold; and yet, subsequent experience in history of railroads and of railroad connections, has demonstrated that it would have been an unwise measure and a short-sighted policy, both for Utica and railroads, to have a break in the link in that city, and thereby necessitated a transshipment of freight and passengers from one depot to the other. Far better and wiser as it is.