Portion of the abandoned grade of the Brookfield Railroad. Photo by Russ Nelson
Remembering the Brookfield Railroad
By Richard Palmer
The days of railroad development in upstate New York had not quite subsided in 1888 when the Unadilla Valley Railroad was conceived and eventually built between New Berlin and Bridgewater, a distance of 19 miles. Finally completed in 1895, it connected with the New York, Ontario & Western, on the south, with the Utica branch of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western to the north.
During its early stages several routes were proposed for the Unadilla Valley line and numerous meetings were held in various communities. Eventually, it was decided to continue the line northward from Leonardsville to Bridgewater, and not make a substantial detour through Brookfield.
Brookfield, however, was determined to have a railroad and so turned its attention to a long-discussed western connection with the D.L.& W. at North Brookfield, a distance of about seven miles. Brookfield Courier editor Frank Spooner, one of the chief promoters of the railroad, noted in an article in the Brookfield Courier on May 2, 1888:
"Under these circumstances we naturally return to the North Brookfield route, as it would be entirely impractical to build a branch to connect with the Unadilla Valley road should such a road ever be built. It would be building a branch on to a branch of a branch, and should the road be run either as an independent line or by the Ontario & Western we would be obliged to pay over two lines on Utica freights before they reached our line. Such a road would make is too dependent. In our opinion it is now
North Brookfield or nothing, and we are glad that the prospects for a road in that direction are so bright."
Spooner noted that the "western route" had been thoroughly investigated and was feasible for a narrow gauge line. He said the amount of business generated would be more than ample to cover the cost of construction and equipment and generate a good return on the investment.
Week after week Spooner, whose father, Henry, would become general manager of the railroad company, penned articles promoting construction of the line. Calling on his friends and neighbors to support the project, he said, "We can secure a railroad from this village to the main line of the
Utica division of the D.L.& W. by subscribing for $15,000 of stock...if every man does his duty we shall see the dirt flying on the new route by June 1st, and the trains will be flying by August 15th. Now is the time. Everybody lift!"
Throughout May of 1888, local interest in the new railroad grew to fever pitch. Several meetings to promote the railroad were held. Spooner, a masterful journalist, rallied support through long columns in his newspaper pointing out the benefits the railroad would bring to Brookfield - especially to the farmers for transporting milk. "Every farmer in the Beaver Creek valley and on the hills on either hand should not only help the project in the way of subscriptions but they should work for it in every possible way. the people of this village are responding nobly nd with the aid of the farming community the amount requisite to insure the road can easily be raised. No resident of the Beaver Creek valley should entertain for a moment the thought of letting this opportunity go unimproved."
Three possible routes from Brookfield to North Brookfield were proposed, the most feasible being around Keith Hill. A committee was formed to meet with property owners along the proposed route who, with the exception of two or three, indicated a willingness to grant a right of way at reasonable prices.
On May 16, Walter F. Randall, the engineer, and several local citizens walked over the Keith Hill route from North Brookfield to Brookfield. They were joined by a party of Utica people also interested in the project. Subsequently the engineer ran a level from North Brookfield to the summit on Keith Hill and found it was suitable for a standard gauge railroad. A more formal survey was made in June, 1888. The line was exactly 6.72 miles long.
The articles of association formalizing the Brookfield Railway Company were filed with the New York State Secretary of State on June 15, 1888. The line was to commence at North Brookfield Station on the D.L.& W. and run southeasterly to a point at or near the west end of Main Street in the village of Brookfield. The capital stock was $100,000, with 2,000 shares of $50 each.
The directors were Peleg and William Stanbro, Thomas A. Crandall, Henry L. Spooner, William E. Brown. H.L. Gates and J.D. Griffith. officers were William Stanbro, president; Peleg Stanbro, first vice president; W.E. Brown, second vice president; Morgan L. Brown, secretary; T.A. Crandall,
treasurer; and Henry L. Spooner, general manager. On June 22, the board met with Randall, who estimated the line would cost about $10,000 per mile. The contract was then awarded to I.J. Griffith of Utica. The line would be laid with new 56-pound (per yard) rail. The Brookfield depot was to be built on property owned by L.F. Clarke on the south side of the west end of Main Street.
It was proposed to build a small depot at North Brookfield, and two or three platforms for flag stations at road crossings. Griffith hired a force of 130 Italian laborers who had been constructing the Waterville water works. About 70 arrived at North Brookfield on June 26 and took up quarters in a building on the Ephraim Berry farm.
Grading commenced on July 2. Although some time was lost due to bad weather, worked moved along briskly. Work was commenced in the village of Brookfield on July 9. About 20 local laborers - farmers with teams - worked with 20 Italians as shovelers on the east end of the line. A road
machine was soon brought in to expedite the work. Much time was spent filling in low places with cuts and fills. A trestle was built across the Gorton Lake stream. Residents were gratified with the way the work was moving along.
While contractors were at work they came upon what appeared to be an Indian burial mound on the Trask farm. Tradition had it that this mound, which rose abruptly to a height of about 50 feet, was the work of a pre-historic race and was dedicated as the final resting place for their mortal remains. Later, it became a cemetery for the first white settlers of the area.
On the top were several graves marked only by common flat, rough stones bearing no marks. Standing apart from the rest was a stone slab with the chiseled inscription: "Mr. John Anthony died August 11th, 1826, aged 62 years," along with the epitaph:
"God my redeemer lives
And often from the skies
Looks down and watches all my dust
Till He shall bid it rise."
As the railroad passed through the west side of the mound so as not to disturb the grave site.
The work of building bridges and trestle work was sub-contracted out to Land & Durocher of Utica. The firm had been in business for 40 years, having built bridges for the D.L. & W, the Utica & Black River and the Utica branch of the New York, Ontario & Western. By early August, three and a half miles had been graded, and about 125 laborers and 25 teams of horses working on the railroad grade. Some of the more difficult work was at North Brookfield that required a number of fills and cuts. A trestle was built over the roadway near North Brookfield. Officials of the Brookfield and D.L.& W. met late in July to work out satisfactory arrangements for use of terminal facilities. The D.L.& W. granted use of their then-new depot, yard and water tank.
The cattle passes, culverts and foundations for trestles were laid up in solid masonry. The railroad passed over the Foster, Trask, Kenyon, Gray, Sweet, Birdsall, Mason, Morgan , Nash and Berry farms, as well as that of the Baptist Church Society. Some effort was made to encourage extension of the line to Oriskany Falls and Oneida, but this never developed beyond informal discussions.
An additional 50 laborers were hired in September to help move the work towards completion before bad weather set in. Griffith hoped to have the grading completed by Oct. 1. But railroad building was a tremendous undertaking and delays and interruptions made keeping on schedule next to impossible.
Building the Brookfield Railroad had progress satisfactorily since the first sod was turned, and everything went smoothly until late September. It was expected by the contractor that the bonds issued by the company would be quickly sold so that the payment for the August work could be made by
September 15 and the 200-plus laborers could be paid. Also, owing to unavoidable delays in obtaining satisfactory titles for the right of way, the bonds which the company were to deliver to the contractor would not be ready until about Oct. 1 so the payroll could be met. The contractor found his money used up and he had nothing to pay his workers.
During this time the Italian laborers became very restless and finally, near the end of September, went on strike for back wages. Their quitting necessitated the laying off of the teamsters. So construction work ceased. A gang continued to work on the east side of Keith Hill until September 29. The men at work on the trestles continued their work until the morning of September 27 when the whole force of Italians at North Brookfield confronted them and compelled them to stop working.
Local residents sensed trouble and summoned the sheriff who, with about 15 deputies, soon arrived and broke up the mob. One elderly resident recalled many years later:
"To us, in those days, an Italian was a jabbering wild man brought over to this country to dig. We never thought then that we would see their sons become leaders in our country, that our daughters would marry them. Today we are proud of them as our brothers and neighbors."
But on that long ago day in 1888, about 70 Italians, not in an amiable mood, descended upon the village of Brookfield, apparently bent on raising havoc. A militia company of 60 to 70 volunteers was quickly drafted.
Muskets and other arms were provided and a headquarters was set up in the Grand Army of the Republic rooms. Eventually the sheriff and his men arrived and the volunteers were deputized. Fortunately, no violence occurred and cool heads prevailed.
The following Monday the directors met with representatives of the laborers. Assurances were made that momentarily put off the Italians. They said they would return to work when called to. Meanwhile, efforts were made to secure cash from the sale of bonds so the workers could be paid. This did not occur in time to stave off trouble. But the problem did not go away. The laborers had not received any pay for about a month and a half. They finally asserted that if they did not get their pay they would take the value of it out of somebody's hide. Such threats continued community-wide uneasiness.
Through a lack of comprehension and understanding of the railroad's state of affairs, the laborers placed the blame upon the contractor and the railroad company alike. The blame solely rested with the contractor...or so Frank Spooner claimed in his newspaper. On Oct. 10, 1888, he wrote:
"The Brookfield Railway Company made a contract with Mr. Griffith to the effect that he should build the road ready for rolling stock receiving in payment a certain sum of cash and labor or material and a certain other sum in bonds, the company to provide the right of way. The company has fulfilled to the letter on its part with the contractor and holds a receipt from him for the whole amount it was to pay him in money and labor and also for the first issue of bonds upon the engineer's estimate.
"Of course under this contract the company has no part in the hiring or payment of labor and in reality has no more to do with the construction of the road than any outside party. Its responsibility ends with fulfilling the terms of the contract with the contractor which it has done in every particular. The contractor has failed to meet his payments for labor done and upon him alone rests the responsibility. it is a matter of much regret that he has thus failed to do his part. It at least prevents the completion of the road this season.
"What course the company will take cannot be foretold, but we have faith that it will take the right horn of the dilemma and ultimately put the project successfully through. The board of directors meet today for the consideration of matters now in hand.
"The Italians were informed yesterday of the true state of affairs and were told there was no immediate prospect of their being paid. They were also told that a sufficient sum would be raised to pay their fare to New York if they would leave peaceably,but they would not listen to this proposition and it is now a matter of entire uncertainty what move they will make. It is sincerely hope that matters will right themselves soon."
Another meeting of the railroad's board of directors was held on October 11 to discuss how to pay off the debt against the contractor for labor and complete payment for work already accomplished. The next meeting of the directors and stockholders was held October 15 at Clark's Opera House. Lewis W. Babcock chaired the meeting. Remarks were made by several stockholders who expressed a willingness to "make things right."
Waterville attorney L.H. Edwards was retained as legal counsel for the laborers. He said it was not his intent to destroy the project, and he was willing to make concessions. He told the crowd to "take hold of the matter" and, if possible, settle it in a fair and equitable manner. Spooner said since the right of way paid for and more than three-fourths of the grading completed, he considered the project still feasible.
Most residents indicated they wished the matter of back pay for the laborers settled so the contractor could complete the railroad. A committee was formed to this end, but the project eventually died a quiet death - and Brookfield was left without a railroad.
Brookfield Historian Cowen wrote:
"Another railroad was started about 1887 from the railroad (DL&W Utica branch) at North Brookfield to Brookfield, a distance of about six miles over Keith's Hill. Farmers left their fields to work with their teams drawing gravel to make the fills. About 150 laborers were employed, sawmills sawed the timbers to build the trestle, blacksmiths made the iron necessary and the roadbed was nearly completed when for lack of funds the work was stopped.
"It is said that those who worked for the company received pay for only nine days of their labor. This caused a near riot. All Madison County sheriffs were called and many deputized. At last it was given up as a bad job. Today few signs are left of the Brookfield Railroad." (From: The Waterville Times, Sept. 1, 1948)