Sunday, July 3, 2016

History of the O&W Railroad

Walking along the Town of Marshall Towpath Hike and Bike Trail, and on until Dugway Road in the Town of Kirkland - which is actually the abandoned O&W Railroad bed - is very peaceful and relaxing. One can easily imagine people from the 1800s and early 1900s looking out the windows of the passenger cars of their trains as they traveled through and seeing essentially the same sights we enjoy today.

The history of the trains going through the Town of Marshall begins, really, with the Erie Canal. Many communities along the route saw increased businesses, more opportunities for employment, and soaring property values; and other villages and towns that weren't on the Erie Canal route wanted their own canal. The Chenango Canal was opened in 1837, "from Binghamton up the valley of the Chenango River and then to the Erie Canal, via Oriskany Valley."

The Canal transformed the little settlements along its path, and they flourished. However, although the cost of building the Canal was approved by the New York State Legislature, the tolls which were charged didn't make up for what the canal was costing the State. In 1876, the state announced the closing of the Chenango Canal.

Meanwhile, in 1836, the year before navigation began on the canal, the Utica & Schenectady Railroad had started operation between those two cities, and the Syracuse & Utica Railroad had begun construction as well. Even though the canal had proved to be a boon for the communities along the trail, it was obvious to a lot of people that railroads were the wave of the future: more freight could be carried, sometimes hours and days faster than the Canal. Also, the railroad wouldn't freeze in the winter months, as the canal did, so freight and passengers could be on their way no matter the weather. The trouble was the railroad didn't run along the Chenango Valley pathway. The New York Central Railroad was formed in 1853 from the U&S railroad and the S&U railroad along the course of the Erie Canal, and the New York & Erie Railroad ran trains to Binghamton, bypassing the communities along the Chenango Canal altogether.

In 1853, the demand from towns from the Oriskany, Chenango and Sauquoit Valleys became so loud that is was resolved a railroad connecting the New York Central line with the New York & Erie line was necessary for the continued prosperity of these communities. The Utica & Binghamton Railroad was formed. They proposed to construct a railroad between Utica and Binghamton along the Chenango Valley. Now to choose a route for the new railroad.

There were three routes proposed, but the one chosen - the canal route (Sherburne-Earlville-Hamilton-Bouckville- Solsville-Oriskany Falls-Deansville-Franklin Springs-Clinton) - was deemed to be the most economical to operate because the path ran through settled areas, which presented the greatest potential for passenger and freight business.

However, once the route was determined, there was bitter disagreement between those towns and villages which were on the selected route and those that weren't. Delaying tactics were tried which were mostly unsuccessful; but, even so, construction was put off on the Utica & Binghamton railroad. Then the New York State Legislature came out with more laws which made implementing the U&B railroad impossible. So that idea came to an end, but the desire to have a railroad along the Chenango Valley corridor didn't.

Two men reignited interest in a railroad: John Butterfield of Utica; and Othniel Williams of Clinton (he once lived in Waterville). In 1862, the Utica City Railroad Company was incorporated. That was initially once to be a only streetcar system from Utica to New Hartford, but Butterfield petitioned the New York State Legislature to change to name of the Utica City Railroad to the Utica & Waterville Railroad, the first sign that the railroad would extend further south and up the Chenango Valley.
In 1866, work began on the extension from Utica to Clinton. Efforts were made to extend the line beyond Clinton. Residents of the Town of Marshall, for example, were particularly anxious the railroad be extended along the canal route. The question of bonding came up to pay for the extension: in other words, through personal subscription or higher taxes.

In the meantime, two other railroads were organized to serve the communities south of Clinton: The New York & Oswego Midland Railroad and the Utica, Chenango & Susquehanna Valley Railroad. The routes proposed were to go along the Chenango Valley to Norwich, as was the Utica & Waterville, although through different towns and villages.  This led to a battle of finding bonding for the construction of these railroads, leaving some communities conflicted over which would best suit their needs.

Most communities pinned their hopes on the Utica & Waterville Railroad. Despite its name, Waterville was never on the proposed route of the railroad, so the name was unofficially changed to Utica, Clinton & Chenango Valley railroad and ran roughly along the canal route, which was deemed "the shortest and most feasible route, the easiest to grade, the cheapest to build, and the best route for business and travel." The Utica, Clinton & Chenango Valley railroad later extended a line into Waterville. In 1868 the name was officially changed to Utica, Clinton & Binghamton Railroad. In 1872, the New York & Oswego Midland railroad took it over, and it was later operated by the Ontario and Western railroad.

On July 30, 1867, work began to extend the Utica & Waterville railroad, or the more aptly titled Utica, Clinton & Binghamton railroad, from Clinton to Deansville. 300-350 men worked on the railroad. A "turntable" was built so the locomotive could get back to Utica. Embankments were cut back and the roadbed was stabilized, and in 1868, regular service commenced. A year later, the track was enlarged to Oriskany Falls, and in later years, beyond. A trestle 1,950 feet long (called the "mile-long trestle"), going into Oriskany Falls was built, and the dirt for this came from Deansville. The fill was brought on flat cars and unloaded by having a sort of an iron plow (like a village snow plow) drawn by the engine over the cars filling in the sides; then it was leveled off by workmen. The prefabricated bents needed to support the trestle were delivered by nine boatloads down the Chenango Canal.

The site of the Deansville Depot was selected - on the south side of the road leading to Waterville, hoping for some interest from the residents of Waterville to ride to Clinton. It was the first traditional railroad board-and-batten depot built along the line of the Utica, Clinton & Binghamton Railroad (later the O&W). It is a unique structure, at 24' x 72'. The first station agent was James J. Hanchett, a prominent member of the community. The first conductor was Jack Excell, who formerly ran a stagecoach from Utica to Binghamton.

The railroad was a windfall for Deansville (later Deansboro) for many reasons, most particularly due to shipping hops and grain, and receiving the all-important coal. Its importance was highlighted when land was purchased for the new condensery, called the United States Condensed Milk Company and later the Mohawk Condensed Milk Company, near the railroad in 1902. Instead of many local farmers having to take their milk to Waterville or Clinton other places, they were able to come right to Deansboro to have it processed and shipped via railroad to New York City. The condensery also received coal to fuel its operations.
O&W Railroad through the Quarry, ca. 1910

But the railroad was also a boon to passengers, who wished quick, convenient, and comfortable travel to Clinton, Utica and all places which, before the railroad, would have taken days of difficulty to reach. The cars were clean, checked baggage service was offered, and business people and shoppers could leave and return home on the same day! Commuters who took the train from Deansboro north, including students who went to Clinton High School, paid for the sidewalk from the Depot to Route 12B, and put their initials in the cement of each slab. If one looks closely, it's possible to see an initial or two, but most have eroded with time.

Ella Ingersoll, who lived on Main Street, Deansboro for many years, and whose father-in-law Clarence Ingersoll worked as a station agent on the O&W, grew up in a farm north of Deansboro in the Town of Kirkland. The railroad bisected the farm and because of the number of trains going through in those times (1905), there were many hobos hitching rides. Mrs. Ingersoll remembered at least nine passenger and milk trains, plus freight trains. During the summer, there was a path from the tracks to the woods behind the family farm which was called the Hobo Jungle. The hobos helped themselves to whatever they needed: vegetables from gardens, eggs, milk to drink. Many thefts were blamed on the hobos.  Sometimes when a farmer needed extra hands during hop picking or haying, he would stop by the Hobo Jungle to see if anyone wanted to work. Once the railroad disappeared so did the hobos.
Many accidents occurred on the new O&W railroad involving brakemen, hobos, and others. There were also stories of collisions, animals killed while crossing the track, and derailments along the line.  Most notably, a brakeman met his demise in Deansville when he apparently slipped from the top of the train cars while attempting to apply the brakes. There was a grisly report in 1902 of the train hitting a man apparently lying on the tracks near Deansville. The engineer, Irving Clark, sounded the whistle, put on the air brake and attempted to reverse the engine with little success because he was coming down a slight grade. The victim died in the hospital from shock following the injuries he received. No blame or censure were attached to the conductor; the coroner found no cause to do so because of the conductor's actions to avoid the accident.

However, perhaps the Superintendent of the O&W railroad had that incident and others in mind when the following order was issued in 1907: "Trains must not exceed a speed of 40 miles per hour on descending grades and on curves, and must not exceed a speed of 60 miles per hour on any portion of the road."  Also, in 1910, the Marshall Town Board declared the crossing to be dangerous, served the O&W railroad with the resolution, and electric bells were installed at the crossing.

But accidents continued to happen. In 1923, a Franklin Springs man driving a truck loaded with crushed stone was injured and his truck demolished by a south bound milk train at the crossing near the condensary, prompting calls to the O&W for a watchman and a gate at all times at that crossing for the safety of motorists. In 1947, Allyn S. Earl escaped injury when the truck he was driving became stuck at the same O&W railroad crossing and was struck by a northbound freight. Mr. Earl tried to move the truck from the tracks, but when he saw it was impossible he jumped out. The rack was torn loose from the truck and thrown about 15 feet from the chassis, which was carried several feet down the tracks.  Virgil  Eastman also had a narrow, escape  from a serious if not a fatal accident.  He had been to the condensery for water and was about  to cross the railroad when the morning  local came along.  His truck was dragged for some distance and the rear was  completely  destroyed.  Mr. Eastman  escaped  with  only  a  few  bruises.

 On June 17, 1917, heavy rains caused the Oriskany Creek and all its tributaries to rise. Dams between Solsville and Deansboro were washed out. The worst trouble of all was a half mile  south of Deansboro, where the flood took out a cut about 24 feet high  and  nearly  two  miles  long. Passengers rode the train to the point of the washout, got out, and walked around the washout to get on the train to take them north or south, as was the case. Milk trains and freight trains used the lines of the Lackawanna rail road until they reached their own rails. These situations were only temporary, however; in only seven days - an amazing feat - the O&W engineers had rebuilt the railroad starting from Solsville to Deansboro, and the railroad resumed its regular service. Little by little things returned to normal.
Rebuilding the trestle

In 1922, according to the Deansboro Holler, published once in 1922, the O&W trains left Deansboro for Utica four times a day going north and three times a day going south. Trains passed the station as follows: Going north 7:45 a.m., 11:23 a.m., 8:25 pm, 5:57 p.m.; Going south 8:56 a.m., 1:53 p.m., 6:16 p.m.

However, as with the canal, the advent of another means of transporting people and freight - automobiles and trucks - caused the O&W to lose revenue, as fewer people were traveling or shipping their products by train. In 1931, passenger service from the Deansboro Depot ceased to exist, and in 1957, so did the freight service.  The O&W had gone bankrupt and in the summer of 1958, the tracks were taken up to be sold as scrap metal. But the rail bed and the depot still retained their usefulness.
Abandoned Rail Bed - looking North
Railroad Crossing - Van Hyning Road
coal sheds behind the Depot - now torn down

Allyn Earl bought the depot for his lumber and hardware business when the railroad came to an end. He added an upper window and changed the lower windows slightly. It is now owned by the Brothertown Association, Inc., who purchased it in 2000 and who are restoring it. Every Christmas, the Town of Marshall Parks and Recreation committee holds a party complete with a visit from Santa Claus in the depot, and wagon or sleigh rides down the railway.

In 1969, members of the Kirkland Bird Club hiked along the old O&W rail bed from the Dugway Road toward Deansboro, a nice walk today. Thanks to the efforts of Mike McLaren, who in 1995 obtained a grant of $5,000 through the Rural New York Grant program, administered by the Open Space Institute, the abandoned trail bed about a mile or two south of the depot is now a popular hike and bike trail, with snowmobiles and cross-country skiers in the winter, and runners and horses all year round. The Town of Marshall owns the right-of-way for the rail bed, and the trail, which goes from Route 315 by the depot until Van Hyning Road, is maintained by the Town of Marshall highway crew and by the snowmobile club, which grooms it in the winter. Barriers to keep automobiles off the trail were erected in order to provide runner, hikers and bikers with a true nature trail experience without having to be concerned about traffic. All-terrain vehicles are also banned from the trail for similar reasons, and dogs are asked to be on leashes.

In 2012, as a project to earn his Eagle Scout badge, Nicholas Scoones, a member of Troop 108, worked on improvements to the Hike and Bike Trail. He established mile markers, installed benches, and, with the help of a professor of biology, put up signs identifying the flora and fauna along the trail.  The trail has been part of what was the Towpath Run and Walk. and is now part of the Ruth Allen Memorial Run and Walk, which will be this August 13.

Many people in Deansboro miss the mournful sound of the train whistle as it passed through Deansboro. Amy Marris, who lived on Main Street, recalled her children running to see the train when they heard the whistle. Harry Goodson who lived on West Hill, remembers the sound, too, and misses it; so do a lot of people. Deansboro lost something when the railroad stopped coming through the hamlet. However, we can't lose sight of the fact we now have a hike and bike trail which is visited by local residents and people from out of town who want to enjoy nature and the out-of-doors. It is truly the jewel of our community. So whether it's called the Old Woman or Old and Weary, the O&W railroad was an important part of our history which lives on today.

For really enjoyable reading about the complete history of the O&W Railroad, read John Taibi's book Rails Along the Oriskany. It is available at the Deansboro Library and Reading Center.

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