Railroad hauled stone for Erie Canal construction

Sketch of wooden rail used.

                                       By Richard F. Palmer

    During the 1820s or before it was discovered the quality of limestone at what was eventually known as the Split Rock quarries about five miles west of Syracuse was very suitable for building material. The site was situated in the town of Onondaga. Since the stone was near the surface it was easily accessible and did not require heavy excavation.  The expense lay in the cost of haulage from the quarries to Syracuse.
   However, stone from these quarries had been used in the construction of the five locks between the Salina branch canal and Onondaga canal in 1823, the locks at Lodi, as well as for much of the front stone for the locks on the Oswego canal. After the railroad was built, the quarry furnished stone for the so-called "first enlargement" of the canal.
   In a report to the New York State Canal Commissioners, dated March 5, 1836, John B. Jervis and Holmes Hutchinson, two noted civil engineers of the day, wrote that stone from the Onondaga quarries was of "close, firm texture,"  and many years' trial "as proved it to be equal to the best building material of this kind in New York State." Although the stone was somewhat expensive to cut, it possessed a toughness and durability that rendered it valuable for the construction of culverts, aqueducts and locks.   Since the normal mode of wagon transportation was very costly, the report recommended the construction of a railroad from the quarries to the canal in Geddes to "materially lessen the cost of cartage." This would enable the state to procure a a supply of stone for public works projects at a reduced price "at nearly if not all seasons of the year."
    As it developed, practical all of the stone used in the reconstruction of the canal between Syracuse and Rochester, including the second Rochester aqueduct over the Genesee River between 1836 and 1842 was taken from the Onondaga quarry. The use of the stone in that important structure gave these quarries a great reputation, which continued for decades. The deposit was seen as practically inexhaustible, and the material excelled in durability and beauty. At the time the cost of transporting stone by wagon from the quarry to the canal was equal to one half the price of transporting freight on the canal from Syracuse to Rochester, a distance of 98 miles - depending on travel conditions. (1)

   The demand for this fine building material induced some local entrepreneurs  to consider building a railroad to to connect the quarries with the canal.  The result was the passage of two legislative acts on May 13, 1836, incorporating two companies, each with power to construct a railway from Syracuse to the quarries. The companies were created for a period of 50 years and each were capitalized at $75,000 with shares of $100 each. The first was called the "Syracuse Stone Rail-Road Company" and its purpose was to construct a railroad between the village of Syracuse and the stone quarries on the south half of farm lot No. 88 in the town of Onondaga. The line was to begin in the village of Syracuse and run thence to the quarries on such route as might be best adapted to the purpose of transporting stone to the village of Syracuse.     The commissioners named in the respective acts were required to open subscription books and distribute  stock  within one year. The second organization was called the "Syracuse and Onondaga Rail-Road Company."  Moses D. Burnet, Eliu Walter, Stephen W. Cadwell, Harmon W. Van Buren and Stephen Smith were named as commissioners. (2)
    The quarries sought to be reached by the Syracuse Stone Railroad Company lay on what was then termed "the stone house farm," owned by Henry Benedict, a well-known character in his day, and remembered by the older residents of the neighborhood. These quarries were known as the "Benedict stone quarries."
    The Syracuse and Onondaga Railroad Company was incorporated for the same period. Under the terms of its charter it was authorized to construct a railway from the village of Syracuse to "the stone quarries in the town of Onondaga." Vivus W. Smith, Daniel Elliott and Henry Raynor were under the act named as commissioners to open subscriptions for the capital stock and distribute the same, and the first meeting of the stockholders  for organizing a company was to be held within one year from the date of incorporation.
  Like the first company, it had authority to purchase such stone quarries as might be required for carrying on its operations. The point which this company desired to reach was "Split Rock," which was closer to Syracuse than the Benedict quarries and from which much of the building stone then used was obtained.  Those involved in these enterprises were reputable business men. They believed this railroad would be a profitable and safe investment. For several months there was sharp rivalry between the two companies. This ended by a compromise in which both interests were recognized and the Benedict line was abandoned.
    The board of directors, as agreed upon by the combination, was composed of  Vivus W. Smith, John Wilkinson,  John G. Forbes, Elihu Walter, Moses D. Burnet, Henry Davis Jr., Daniel Elliott, Hiram Putnam and Stephen Smith. Elliott was elected president of the company, Wilkinson as treasurer and Smith, secretary.  Elliott superintended the construction of the road, and afterward continued as superintendent for a time. (3)
    The Oswego Palladium on July 12, 1837 published this news item:
   "It is expected that the railroad from Syracuse to the Onondaga stone quarries - in length about four miles - will be completed about the 15th inst. at an expense of about 50 percent of the capital stock, which is $75,000. There are employed about the quarries, about 1,500 persons, 1,000 of whom are artisans. The quarries furnish in great abundance the following varies, viz: 1 Grey Lime; 2 Blue Lime; 3 Water Lime; 4 Gypsum. These quarries will furnish the materials for locks, &c. on the Erie canal, and for several locks on the Black River canal near Rome. It is supposed  that the stone can be delivered on the banks of the canal ready dressed for building at the price of brick.  Watertown Eagle."
A long time elapsed between the date of the company's organization and the completion of the work, the line not having been finally fixed until October 16, 1838. The line began at the berm bank of the Erie at Geddes street and extended to "the stone quarries at Split Rock," following the valley of Harbor Brook most of the way. Midler & Sutherland, contractors,  did the work of grading, and about 200 men were employed. The total elevation from the canal to the quarries was 335 feet. This would require 20 level changes in a distance of four and a half miles.
    Since the railroad paralleled the highway, no land purchases were necessary. The line followed what is now South Geddes Street to Grand Avenue, then westward to Taunton, and up the hill and into quarries just above today's Split Rock Elementary School. The men were divided into two gangs, one working near the old toll gate of the Split Rock plank road, and the other above the Rock Spring brewery.  James Midler and his son, Philip P. Midler, of Syracuse, well-known local canal contractors, built the line. Philip was foreman of the project.  The railroad took about 16 months to complete.  The work of grading started a full year before the whole line was actually located by the company. While grading was progressing a construction car ran off track at a bridge which spanned the brook about two miles from the city, killing a man by the name of Louis Kenyon, a resident of South Onondaga, and another by the name of Russell who lived in Cicero.  A man named Marshal was killed on the railroad on Sept. 23, 1837. Midler said in later years that all the original work on the canal, including the most important structures, was well done. Many of them still stand and have withstood the test of time. (4)
  As the road progressed, it became evident to many who had become subscribers to the stock that the enterprise might prove a failure financially, and the collection of installments payable on the stock was slow and uncertain. After the election of directors in 1839, Smith was succeeded in the secretaryship by E. Stiles.
    The railroad commenced operation in the fall of 1838. The rolling stock consisted of 10 wagons and four horses.  Even though the business was built on stone, it was on shaky ground financially. Only 55 percent of the stock subscriptions were ever paid in. The wagons cost $1,200 and the horses, $400.  The depot at the canal cost $1,000. Other expenses included the purchase of three acres along the road for $2,500 and land at the stone quarry, $3,000. In 1839 its indebtedness total $49,250. After deducting the cost of land not connected with the railroad, the total cost per mile was $9,500.
    The company derived its revenues  from the operation of the quarries as well as from transportation. Actual quarry work was done by a private concern to which the railroad paid 20 cents per cubic yard.  For transporting cut stone the railroad received 75 cents per cubic yard to the canal and $1 into Syracuse, for which prices the stone must be delivered to the construction site, loading and unloading. In Syracuse the cost of foundation stone (blue limestone) was $4.50 per cord (128 cubic feet) and for cut stone (ashlar) up to $50 per cubic yard, depending on the dimensions.  Usually two cubic yards of stone were loaded on a wagon and two horses used. A cubic yard weighed 4,500 pounds, so the total load transported at once was nine tons. At the quarries two horses were only able to pull one empty wagon up the hill at a time and had to return for the other one. Usually the horses made two trips a day in both directions.
    The total quantity of stone shipped over the railroad in 1838 was about 3,000 cubic yards, and was expected to increase to 4,000 cubic yards the following year.  Occasionally a passenger rode in the stone cars for a fare of six and a half cents. The annual receipts from that source totaled $100.  Ten platform cars were used on the railroad which was operated by gravitation, controlled by brakes. The horses rode down on the cars and drew them back to the quarry.  There was a heavy grade up to the quarries, where an incline plane was also located.  Old timers recalled riding down on the cars as a novelty. An account published in a book called the "New York State Tourist" in 1842 stated:
    "By taking a ride by the railroad five miles up the hill to the quarries where a thousand men are seen at work raising stone from the surface and hewing, shaping, modeling, etc., for the new locks that are to be made on the Erie Canal, and in entering the cave or chasm that is here found and enjoying the extensive prospect from the summit, we can promise the explorer and geologist a real treat."
    Like most other railroads at that time, construction was dictated entirely by considerations of economy. The roadbed was designed for a single track and was just wide enough to accommodate cross ties. Culverts were made of rough logs pile atop one another.  The rail superstructure was entirely of wood. Rough-hewn blocks of wood 12 inches or more in diameter and eight to nine feet long were embedded firmly in the ground at right angles to the course of the line. The center-to-center distance between these timbers was nine feet on straightaways and six feet on curves. The cross-timbers were mortised to receive stringers, which were secured with wedges. These timbers were also rough logs, simply sawed flat on one side and hewn to square where they were secured in the cross-timbers to ensure they were firmly seated and that the top surfaces formed an acceptable level.
    Centered on these stringers were the battens, three inches wide and 1 1/2 inches thick. On top of these were fastened strap rails 2 1/2 inches by 5/8 inch. Both the rails and the battens were fastened to the stringers by iron nails. The track was the standard gauge of 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches. The space between the timbers was filled with dirt up to the wooden areas. (5)
    Considerable stone was transported over the road, which had a connection at Geddes street with the Auburn & Syracuse Railroad. It had an arrangement with them to run its cars into the city to any point that was convenient for the delivery of stone. The stone laid in front of the old "Townsend block" at West Water and South Clinton streets which was the first business structure in the city at that time, was brought down to Syracuse on the railroad, having been finished at "the Rock" before shipment.
     Finally an accident occurred by which one man was killed, and Elliott, the superintendent, badly hurt. A loaded train standing at Split Rock became loosened from its fastenings, and plunging down the steep incline was upset at the first sharp curve, throwing the brakeman under the wreck and pitching Elliott a distance of 20 feet. Fortunately he landed in a mud hole and his life was saved. The brakeman met instant death.   
   There seems to have been frequent changes in management. Storrs Barrows appears to have taken over from from Elliott. He  established a yard at the termination of the line at the canal.  In March, 1839 he advertised in the Western State Journal, a local newspaper, that he would contract to deliver the Syracuse and Onondaga Railroad depot, "any quantity of Building, Kettle, Flagging, and Dimension Stone. He will also contract to deliver at said depot, any quantity of first rate plaster."  Barrows managed the line at his own risk. He kept the books and if there was a surplus at the end of the year, he remitted it, after first deducting his own salary. The business, however, did not flourish. Generally, expenses exceeded income. There was plenty of stone at "the Rock," and an unlimited market for it in all directions. But the transportation by railroad proved too expensive.
   Railroads constructed of wood also quickly wore out and had to be constantly repaired. Battens and strap rails were difficult to keep in alignment and had to be constantly adjusted. The  use of rough logs made it easy for water to penetrate under the timbers, making them vulnerable to rotting. After this railroad was closed, Barrows became superintendent of the Skaneateles Railroad until 1850 when that, too, was abandoned and replaced by a plank road. (6)
  There is some confusion over the fate of the property. On December 21, 1838 the board of directors voted to hold a public auction at the Syracuse House which was held on January 2, 1839. Moses D. Burnet bid in some of the property for $3,898.60. At that time Philo D. Mickles was president of the railroad company and Vivus W. Smith was secretary. Mickles was an inventor and salt manufacturer. His father had owned a furnace on Onondaga Hill and made cannon shot during the War of 1812. John Watson, master in chancery, sold the other property of the company at auction at an auction at the Syracuse House on April 1, 1840, with Eleazer Loomis the highest bidder at $690. However, it seemed at least for awhile it was business as usual. The Western State Journal published a notice on May 13, 1840 that the annual meeting of the Syracuse & Onondaga Railroad Company would be held at 10 a.m. June 1 to choose nine directors and three election inspectors.
   Another record shows that on  May 18, 1841 the property was sold at a sheriff's sale that included 56 acres in Lot 70 of the Town of Onondaga, along with the "rails, irons and other fixtures."  The high bidder was Henry Davis Jr. What remained was sold to Joseph M. Kasson, a contractor, who attempted to operate the road but unsuccessfully. He had built the Rochester aqueduct and owned quarries at Split Rock, which he hoped to render productive through the agency of the road. In this he was disappointed, and he finally became bankrupt. The iron was then sold to Dean Richmond of Buffalo and others involved in the transportation business, who are said to have secured a franchise to build the Detroit & Pontiac railroad in Michigan. This was a predecessor of the Grand Trunk Railway. Reaching Buffalo by canal, the iron was shipped on a vessel bound for Detroit, which at first thought went to the bottom of Lake Erie in a gale and was never raised. The fact was the vessel safely reached its destination and that the iron was delivered to the consignee.  However, there were still between 700 and 800 laborers employed at the Onondaga quarries in 1842. (7)
                                        Principle persons involved in the railroad
    Philip P. Midler was born in Pompey, August 6, 1819 and died in Syracuse on Oct. 28, 1901. He and his father, James, were canal and railroad contractors in the early days. -  Syracuse Evening Herald, September 3, 1899 and October 29, 1901.
    Daniel Elliott was a builder and architect. He was born January 9, 1783 and died April 1, 1842. He came from Auburn to Syracuse in 1837. He built several buildings including the first permanent railroad station in Vanderbilt Square in 1839. A son, Charles Loring Elliott, was one of the most noted American artists and portrait painters of his day. - Syracuse Standard, June 19, 1894.

Storrs Barrows was born October 5, 1802 in Windham, Conn., and died in South Trenton, Oneida County, N.Y. on March 5, 1877,  and is buried in Olden Barneveld Cemetery.  In the early days he was involved in various railroad enterprises. In later life he was a farmer and was one of the founders of the Trenton Union Agricultural Society.  He also took an active interest in meteorology and local history.  -Utica Weekly Herald, March 13, 1877.

 1. Report of the Canal Commissioners, in answer to a resolution of the Assembly relative to the quality of the stone in the Onondaga quarries.  This included the Report of Holmes Hutchinson and John B. Jervis, in relation to the quality of stone in the Onondaga quarries."  New York State Assembly Document No. 261, March 7, 1836.
2. Chapters 347 and 348, 59th Session, Laws of New York, passed May 13, 1836, pp 487-493.
3. "The Stone Railroad," Syracuse Sunday Herald, January 20, 1883.
4. Ibid.; Albany Argus, September 26, 1837.
5. vonGerstner, Franz Anton Ritter. Die Innern Communicationen Der Vereinigten Staaten Von NorAmerica (Vol. 1, pp. 155-157 (1842)
6.  vonGerstner, op. cit.;   Death notice of Storrs Barrows. Skaneateles Free Press, March 17, 1877; Notice of abandonment of Skaneateles Railroad, Skaneateles Columbian, August 29, 1850;  P. 27, Palmer, Richard F., Short Lines of Central New York, Central N.Y. Chapter, NRHS, 1996.
7. Mention of Mickles in the Syracuse Journal, March 20, 1939; "Grand Avenue Once Rail Line," Syracuse Post-Standard, September 27, 1936; Syracuse Sunday Herald, op. cit.Baxter, Albert  History of the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Munsell & Company (1891); Auburn Journal & Advertiser,  April 27, 1842.