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The Story Of The Rome, Watertown, And Ogdensburg RailRoad Part 7

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Here indeed was the golden age of the Rome road. Its bright, neat, yellow cars, its smartly painted and trimmed engines all bespoke the existence of a prosperous little rail carrier, that might have left well enough alone.

But, seemingly it could not. There is a man living in the western part of this state, who recalls one fine day there in the mid-seventies, when Mr.

Massey--the President of the road, came walking out of the Watertown station, talking all the time to Mr. Moak, its General Superintendent--came over to him:

"We're going to be a real railroad at last, John," said he. "We're going through to Niagara Falls upon our own rails and get into the trunk-line class."

He was giving expression to a dream of years. A moment ago and we were speaking of the operation through two or three summers of sleeping-cars between Watertown and the White Mountains over the R. W. & O., the Northern (at that time, already become the Ogdensburgh & Lake Champlain), the Central Vermont, the Montpelier and Wells River, and the Portland and Ogdensburgh. The officers of the Rome road felt that, if they could bridge the gap existing between the terminals of their line at Oswego, and go through to Suspension Bridge or Buffalo, where there were plenty of competing lines through to Chicago and the West, that they could both enter upon the competitive business of carrying western freight to the Atlantic seaboard, and at the same time stand independent of the New York Central. Eventually their idea was to take a concrete form, but again I anticipate.



In that brisk day there was, in the slow and laborious process of building a railroad, leading due west from Oswego. It was called the Lake Ontario Shore Railroad, and its construction was indeed a laborious process. For many years it came to an end just eighteen miles beyond Oswego. Finally it reached the little village of Ontario, fifty-one miles beyond. And there stopped dead. If it had forever been halted there, it would have been a good thing. Its promoters were both industrious and persistent, however.

They chose to overlook the fact that the narrow territory, that they sought to thread, promised small local traffic returns for many years to come; a thin strip it was between the main line of the New York Central and the south shore of Lake Ontario, and although nearly 150 miles in length, never more than twelve or fifteen in width, and without any sizable communities. The prospect of a profitable traffic, originating in so thin a strip, was small indeed.

The prospectors of the Lake Ontario Shore Railroad did not see it that way. They stressed the fact that at Sterling they would intersect the Southern Central (now the Lehigh Valley), at Sodus the Northern Central (now the Pennsylvania), at Charlotte; the port of Rochester, the Rochester & State Line (now the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh) all in addition to the many valuable connections to be made at the Niagara River. Yet for a considerable time after the road had been pushed through Western New York, it came to a dead stop at Lewiston. Its original terminal can still be seen in that small village.

It was then thought possible and feasible to build a railroad bridge across the Niagara and the international boundary between Lewiston and Queenstown, in competition with the Suspension Bridge, which from the very moment of its opening in 1849 had been an overwhelming success. The energetic group of Oswego men who had promoted the building of the Lake Ontario Shore, hoped to duplicate the success of the Suspension Bridge there at Lewiston. They saw that small frontier New York town transformed into a real railroad metropolis.

"And what a line we shall have, running right up to it!" they argued.

"Seventy-three out of our seventy-six miles, west of the Genesee River, as straight as the proverbial ruler-edge; and a maximum gradient of but twenty-six feet to the mile! What opportunities for fast--and efficient operation!"

They had capitalized their line at $4,000,000 and in October, 1870, when I first find official mention of it, they had expended $54,300 upon it. Its officers at that time were:

_President_, GILBERT MOLLISON, Oswego _Treasurer_, LUTHER WRIGHT, Oswego _Secretary_, HENRY L. DAVIS, Oswego _Engineer_, ISAAC S. DOANE, Oswego

_Directors_

Luther Wright, Oswego Alanson S. Page, Oswego Fred'k T. Carrington, Oswego Gilbert Mollison, Oswego Reuben F. Wilson, Wilson Joseph L. Fowler, Ransonville Oliver P. Scovell, Lewiston George I. Post, Fairhaven William O. Wood, Red Creek Burt Van Horne, Lockport James Brackett, Rochester D. F. Worcester, Rochester

It is needless to say that the railroad bridge was never thrust across the Niagara at Lewiston. That project died "a'borning." And so, almost, did the Lake Ontario Shore Railroad. As I have just said, the building of the road finally was halted at Ontario, fifty-one miles west of Oswego.

Finally, by tremendous effort and the injection of some capital from the wealthy city of Rochester into the project it was brought through in 1875 as far as Kendall, a miserable little railroad, wretched and woe-begone with its sole rolling stock consisting of two second-hand locomotives, two passenger-cars and some fifty or sixty freight-cars.

In the long run, just as most folk had anticipated from the beginning, it was the wealthy and prosperous Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburgh that took over the Lake Ontario Shore and completed it; in 1876 as far as Lewiston, and a year or two later up the face of the Niagara escarpment to Suspension Bridge and the immensely valuable connections there. The merger, itself, was consummated in the midsummer of 1875. To reach the tracks of the new connecting link, from those of the old road, it was necessary not only to build an exceedingly difficult little tunnel under the hill, upon which the Oswego Court House stands, but to bridge the wide expanse of the river just beyond, a tedious and expensive process, which occupied considerably more than a twelvemonth.

All of this was not done until 1876 and by that time disaster threatened.

The Rome road had gone quite too far. Times were growing very hard once again. A tight money market threatened; the storm of '73 had been passed but that of '77 was still ahead. It began to be a question whether the R.

W. & O. could weather the large obligations that it had assumed when it had absorbed the Lake Ontario Shore. Traffic did not come off the new line; not, at least, in any considerable or profitable quantities. It defaulted on the interest payments of its bonds.

There was the beginning of disaster. The Rome road management realized this. They cut their dividends a little, and then to nothing. Watertown was staggered. For a long term of years up to 1870 the road had paid its ten per cent annual dividend with astonishing regularity. In that year it dropped a little--to eight per cent--the next year, to seven, and then in the panic year of 1873 to but three and one-half. The following year it had returned, with increasing good times, to seven. In the fiscal year of 1874-75 the Directors of the property had voted six and one-half. That was the end. The cancer of the Lake Ontario Shore was upon the parent property. The strong old R. W. & O. had permitted the default of the interest payments upon the bonds of their leased property. Confusion ruled among the men in the depot at Watertown. They were dazed with impending disaster.

CHAPTER VII

INTO THE SLOUGH OF DESPOND

The enthusiasm which Mr. Marcellus Massey showed over the extension of his railroad into Suspension Bridge was surface enthusiasm, indeed. In his heart he felt that it had taken a very dangerous step. His mind was full of forebodings. Some of these he confessed to his intimates in Watertown.

He felt that a mistake--if you please, an irrevocable mistake--had been made. And there was no turning back.

These forebodings were realized. As we have just seen, the Lake Ontario Shore defaulted upon its bonds in 1876 and again in 1877. The reflection of this disastrous step came directly upon the R. W. & O. It ceased paying dividends. The North Country folk, who had come to regard its securities as something hardly inferior to government bonds, were depressed and then alarmed. Yet worse was to come. On August 1, 1878, the R. W. & O.

defaulted in its interest on its great mass of consolidated bonds.

The blow had fallen! Failure impended! And receivership! Yet, in the long run, both were avoided. Into the directorate of the railroad, up to that time a fairly close Northern New York affair, a new man had come. He was a smallish man, with a reputation for keenness and sagacity in railroad affairs, second only to that of Jay Gould or Daniel Drew. There were more ways than one in which Samuel Sloan, known far and wide as plain "Sam Sloan," resembled both of these men.

His touch with the R. W. & O. came physically, by way of the contact of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western with it at three points; at Oswego, at Syracuse, and at Rome--this last, at that time through its leased operation of the Rome & Clinton Railroad, which ceased July 1, 1883. He had looked upon the development and the despair of the Rome road with increasing interest. His careful and conservative mind must have stood aghast at the foolhardiness of the Lake Ontario Shore venture. Sam Sloan would have done nothing of that sort. The railroad that he dominated so forcefully for many years--Lackawanna--would have taken no step of that sort. Trust Sam Sloan for that.

And yet, despite his evident dislike for the property, the R. W. & O. had its fascinations for him. He must have seen certain opportunities in it.

The fact that it touched his own road at so many points, and, therefore, was capable of becoming so large a potential feeder for it--despite the malign influence of those Vanderbilts with their important New York Central--must have appealed to the old man's heart. At any rate he took direct steps to gain control of the Rome road.

The precise motives that impelled Samuel Sloan to gain a control of the R.

W. & O., and having once gained a control of it, to conduct it in the remarkable manner that he did, in all probability, never will be known.

One may only indulge in surmises. But just why he should seek, apparently with deliberateness and carefully preconceived plan, to wreck what had been so recently the finest of all railroads in the state of New York is not clearly apparent even to-day.

Sloan was a man of many moods. Receptive and interested to-day, he was cold and bitter to-morrow. One might never count upon him. He flattered Marcellus Massey, raised his salary as the President of the Rome road from $7500 to $10,000 a year, and then induced him to purchase large holdings of Lackawanna stock, putting up as collateral his large holdings of the shares of the R. W. & O., just beginning their long drop towards a pitifully low figure--all the time holding the bait to the old President of the amazing property that he was about to upbuild in Northern New York.

So, eventually Sloan ruined Massey, financially and physically, and a broken hearted man went out from the old President's office of the R. W. & O. in Watertown.

In 1877, the year before the Rome road all but created financial disaster in Northern New York, Sloan had bought enough of its bargain-sale stock to have himself elected as its President. The official roster of the road then became:

_President_, SAMUEL SLOAN, New York _Vice-President_, MARCELLUS MASSEY, Watertown _Treasurer_, J. A. LAWYER, Watertown _General Freight Agent_, E. M. MOORE, Watertown _General Ticket Agent_, H. T. FRARY, Watertown _Supt. R. W. & O. Division_, J. W. MOAK, Watertown _Supt. L. O. & S. N. Division_, E. A. VAN HORNE, Oswego

_Directors_

Marcellus Massey, Watertown Samuel Sloan, New York William E. Dodge, New York John S. Farlow, Boston Percy R. Pyne, New York Talcott H. Camp, Watertown Moses Taylor, Scranton C. Zabriskie, New York John S. Barnes, New York S. D. Hungerford, Adams Gardner R. Colby, New York William M. White, Utica Theodore Irwin, Oswego

The North Country complexion of the directorate had all but disappeared.

As far back as 1871, Addison Day had ceased to be Superintendent of the road, and had become Superintendent of the Utica & Black River. He had been succeeded by J. W. Moak, a former roadmaster of the Rome road. Moak was not only equally as efficient as Day, but he was much more popular, both with the road's employees and its patrons. Yet one of Sloan's first acts was to relieve him of a portion of his territory and responsibility.

He made the point, and it was not without force, that it was all but impossible for an operating officer at Watertown to supervise properly the western end of the now far-flung system. So, he took the former Syracuse Northern, the Lake Ontario Shore and the branch from Richland to Oswego--all the lines west of Richland, in fact--and made them into a new division, with headquarters at Oswego. For this division he brought one of his few favored officers from the Lackawanna, E. A. Van Horne, who had been a Superintendent upon that property. Van Horne was a forceful man, who, as he went upward, made a distinct impress upon the railroad history of the North Country. He was quick tempered, decisive, yet possessing certain very likable qualities that were of tremendous help to him there.

Another of Sloan's early acts--more easily understood than some others--was to tear out the soft-coal grates of the fire boxes of the R.

W. & O. locomotives, and substitute for them hard-coal grates. Anthracite then, as now, was a great specialty of the Lackawanna. And in the road to the north of him Sloan possessed a customer of no mean dimensions.

For the next four or five years the R. W. & O. grubbed along--and barely dodged receivership. Its service steadily went from bad to worse. It now took the best passenger trains upon the line four hours to go from Watertown to Rome, seventy-two miles (in the very beginnings of the road, they had done it in an even three hours). No one knew when a freight car would reach New York from Watertown. Confusion reigned. Chaos was at hand.

And when Watertown merchants and manufacturers would go to Oswego to protest to Mr. Van Horne (Mr. Moak finally had been demoted, and Watertown suffered the humiliation of having the operating headquarters of the system moved away from it) they would hear from the General Superintendent of the property his utter helplessness in the matter; the threats from Sloan were that he might close down the road altogether, and Van Horne was beside himself for explanations:

"Gentlemen, I cannot do better," he said, over and over again, "our track is in deplorable condition. I dare not send a train over the road without sending a man afoot, station to station, ahead of it to make sure that the rails will hold."

So it was. The track inspectors' jobs were cut out for them these days.

They made some long-distance walking records. Yet, despite their vigilance, train wrecks came with increasing frequency. Morale was gone.

The fine old R. W. & O. was at the bottom of the Slough of Despond. Added to all this were the rigors of a North Country winter, which we are to see in some detail in another chapter. According to the veracious diary of Moses Eames, on January 2nd, 1879, the first train came into Watertown since Christmas Day. The following day it snowed again, and fiercely and the R. W. & O. went out of business for another ten days. That storm was almost a record-breaker: more than a fortnight of continuous snow and extreme low temperature.

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