The first passenger railway in America
By Alvin Merrill (1908)

Very few people of the present generation know that the Lackawanna railway that connects Ithaca with Owego was the third railroad constructed on this continent and the longest when it was finished -- thirty miles long. The other two were short and unimportant, one near Schenectady, N.Y., and one in Massachusetts. Fewer still know that Ithaca was a famous commercial and shipping center at that time, in the thirties. And hardly anyone knows that Ithaca was the headquarters for the planning and building of this railway, to connect the Erie canal with the Susquehanna river, the Chesapeake bay, and the Hudson river near the Catskill mountains.

Although the history of the intellectual beginning of the Ithaca and Owego railroad (chartered 1827, as the Cayuga & Susquehanna Railroad,) under the guidance and ambition of Senator Ebenezer Mack, his brother, Horace, Francis Bloodgood, and other Ithacans, would be interesting. The purpose of the article is to show the practical and manual side of its construction as a public utility.

A description of the construction of the primitive railway calls for a mixture of humor and good sense that sounds more like a chapter from the novel of a satirist and wit rather than a truthful narrative of what was considered a great industry and financial achievement. It would be, if published at length, an excellent contribution to the historical literature of the state.

In 1835, when I was nine years old, and a resident of Caroline, Tompkins county, N.Y., I drove my father's horse, "Granny Young," riding bareback, hauling a flat car up Lane's hill. The car ran itself down the hill, a mile or more, in that town each way. It was used to haul gravel for grading the road-bed. The car brake was a handspike pressed against the car wheels with skill and bravery. I followed along on "Granny Young" until the car stopped, hitched on to it and took it to the end of the route. Two years later I was driving horses on the top of the inclined plane at Ithaca. The horses went round and round like those that work a threshing machine. The cars were let down and hauled up the high, steep hill by that windlass-like system. While two cars were going down it aided in hauling one car up the plane. A man went along with them carrying oak plugs to use as brakes in case the rope cable broke. The plugs were thrown into the car wheel spokes and caught the wheel against the car.

The train to Owego generally consisted of sixteen car. There were two "engine" houses, the lower one being on the Danby road at the brow of the hill. Four horses worked this windlass down in a pit. They were necessarily blind, for safety's sake, and simply rushed against iron yokes, fastened in a bean The belly-bands of the harness were wide and strong and often held the horse up clear from the floor when the cars got under too rapid headway on the steep plane and held them suspended in that position until the cars reached the level and ran into the car houses and were stopped by men who threw oak plugs into the wheels. The the horses were lowered again to their feet. When I was eleven (1839) I was promoted to the lower end of the plane where I hitched cars to the rope. In 1840 the first steam locomotive came to our relief. It came by canal, weighed seven tons, and was drawn up the hill be the company's horses.

One morning Superintendent Bishop said to us: "Boys, put your teams back and we will hitch up the engine and have some fun trying her today. Couple the cars together". Our coupling was white oak scantling from three to sixteen feet long, and often much longer than the cars, for the car were only twelve and fourteen feet long at the most. "We will try her once before the celebration of her first regular trip," he said. We were greatly pleased at the much talked-of change from horse power to steam power, and very curious about it. There was no bonnet on the smoke-stack, and when we started out the fire flew up, we thought to the sky, it was exciting to us.

But what a sight for the country people! Their horse quit their quiet grazing as we passed through the fields and forests, and ran like mad animals, with heads up and tails flying; cattle bellowed and pawed the earth and took to their heels as fast as they could until we parted sight of one another. They must have thought that our locomotive was an animal-devouring monster that spitted smoke and flame and fire from its nostrils. We traveled very fast then -- five miles an hour.

When we arrived at Lucky's where we had been in the habit of stopping the trains to water our horses at a boiling spring we stopped our fiery steed and filled his tender with that boiling spring water. We then moved two miles slowly, for our steam had gone nearly to zero. Before we stopped again, while going that two miles, and old gentleman jumped off the train and exclaimed: "Go to h--l with your locomotion, and I'll go on for I'm in a hurry!" We thought him a lunatic for not having patience with our first trip with the steam power.

We fired up and got to Wilseyville, where we were stalled completely. Superintendent Bishop sent me for a barrel of tar and I got it from Dolly, Hurd & Whitcomb, local merchants. It was poured on our wood (we did not use any coal for many years afterward) and soon had steam enough to take us to Gridleyville, our horse-changing station. We hitched on a big team and hauled our engine and tender back to Ithaca, where we arrived at midnight, and where the locomotive was laid up for repairs and improvements for three months. Three tons were added to her weight.

When three months had passed she was in fine shape and trim. A gala day was announced, a free ride was offered to all the world from Ithaca to Owego, and return. It was called a grand celebration: and such it was. Our train of sixteen flat cars stopped at every crossing for passengers. We made the roundtrip under Conductor Hatch with only one accident: John Haviland was crowded or fell off the train and was killed.

There were no fences along the railroad. The cattle and horses became accustomed to the fire, smoke, steam and noise of our monster, and too familiar with us. They grazed on the track between the rails and the train hand were obliged every little distance to jump off, run ahead and drive them off the track, which delayed us every time until it became monotonous and annoying. Conductor Hatch's genius rose to the necessities of the occasion. He secured an old banded flintlock musket, and a bag of dried peas. One of us train hands always sat on the front of the locomotive when it was running, and shot peas at the cattle and drove them from our pathway.

We ran no trains winters for that was impossible. Winters then were severe. Heavy snow and zero weather being common.

In 1845 I was appointed repairer of road on a five-nile section, from Puddleville to Smith's Gate. My main duty was to follow the locomotive and spike down "snake heads" and put in new "ribbons" wherever need. Snake heads were the ends of three-quarter inch thick strap iron rail turned up by the weight of the locomotive. The "ribbons" were made of oak, fastened with a wooden plug three feet apart, one on a tie.

The locomotive was called "Pioneer." She went down through a bridge at Woobridge's, north of Catatonk, and killed Engineer Hatch and Fireman Dickinson. We brought her to Ithaca and returned to horse-power again. I bossed a lot of men while tamping the new roadbed, our tamping bars being made of oak planks nearly a foot wide. The first locomotive run over the new "T" rail was the "G.W. Scranton," Joe Weed, Engineer. William R. Humphrey was superintendent and built a new station house on the hill above Ithaca. Civil Engineer McNiel, with Calvin Bogardus, Horace McCormick, Daniel Stevens, John Miller and myself laid out the seven mile zig-zag route down the hill to gain a distance of one mile, that made the inclined plane a thing of the past. No change has ever been made in that zig-zag route.

The next year I was made a brakeman, and with the fireman and conductor went ahead of the locomotive and spread pebble-stones on the rails to make the locomotive wheels hold to the track on the hill, because there were no sand boxes in those days. The next year I was made baggage master on the train, my duties being to act as baggage man, brakeman, and change mails. I had an accident occasionally when the car bounded off the track, but was not hurt much.

When the line was extended and completed from Ithaca to Scranton, and to Great Bend, I was sent to help establish the companies coal trade in Binghamton. In 1857 I was appointed station agent at Pugsley's station. It was so far out of the way for shippers that in three years I built the Caroline depot (1860) and remained in that depot for thirty years.

The first passengers coaches were built almost like the old stage coach, hung on leather springs and carried twelve passengers. The drive drove one horse, sat on "the boot" and carried the mails. We changes horses at Smith's Gate and at Owego and at Ithaca. Some part of the train jumped off the track from one to eight time between Ithaca and Owego every trip.

When we met freight trains we took our coaches off the track, with aid of horses and passengers. They helped us to put the coaches back on the track when the freight train had gone on their way. Time was of no account then to passengers.

One thing ought to be given to history. I remember well a little red car which the company purchased in Syracuse. We called it a "peach." It had a brake of its own and held twelve passengers. One day the driver let the horse loose, while the car was on the down track on the hill above the incline plane above Ithaca. He set the brake and depended upon it as an experiment. He did not intend to go down the hill, but expected to just before he struck it, where the village stage awaited the car and passengers. The brake failed to operate and the car ran away with its twelve passengers. All but one of them managed to scramble off. The car kept on the rails down that dreaded steep incline, about three-quarters of a mile, bounding like a rubber ball, to the bottom of the hill just in this way, and hit just right. The biggest piece of that car when it was picked up where it struck down town on the level ground was that man passenger. He was badly cut, and arm was broken and his body was bruised, but strangely enough, and fortunately, too, he was not killed. Ten years ago that man, a Mr. Babcock, came to Ithaca to look again at the place over which he took such a furious ride.

I have seen many travelers on horseback ride up to the coaches, mount them and lead their horses behind on the railroad track. But no one in this generation of railway "flyers" and "cannon balls" that glide at an every day speed of a mile in forty-five seconds, can comprehend the changes that have taken place since I rode "Granny Young" in 1835, hauling the gravel train that consisted of one flat car that ballasted and graded the then great and only Ithaca & Owego railroad bed. It seems much like a vast, drawn out dream to me, but it is a grand historical reality. I am sure that the evolution of the railway and its speed will continue until the real flying machine will replace it.

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Editor: D G Rossiter

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Last modified: Sat Aug 23 10:16:52 EDT 2014