by Bryan Thompson
Next time you cross the railroad tracks heading south towards the Hermon-De Kalb Central School on the East De Kalb Road look carefully on your right. Just beyond the gray house, notice the long raised railroad grade beside the evergreens. This grade is all that remains of the northern terminus of the Clifton Mines railroad.
Click the map above to enlarge the image...
The railroad was built to carry ore from the Clifton Mines (located off the Tooley Pond Rd. 4 miles south of Degrasse) to the mainline of the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg Railroad at East De Kalb. This route was chosen as ore and pig iron were already being hauled by team to the station at East De Kalb. The NYS legislature passed an act on April 20, 1864 allowing the company to "build and own a railroad, tram road, turnpike or macadamized road from their mines in Pierrepont to the R. W.& O. R.R."
The Clifton railroad was a unique engineering enterprise even for it's time. The railroad was built starting from the mine rather than the mainline in East De Kalb. To accomplish this the first engines were transported overland through the woods from Lewis county by ox teams! The route of the railroad was so crooked only 4 wheeled traction type engines could be used. The line had an unusually large number of trestles as it was felt that it was cheaper to build with wood than to haul in fill.
Then there was the railroad track, it was constructed entirely of wood. "The track was of a standard gauge and the ties were of spruce with 4 inch notches cut near the ends." The rails were maple 4 by 6 by 12 or 14 feet scantlings, held in place by wedges driven into the notches. This meant that no rail spikes were necessary for the initial construction. The RR route was surveyed in the winter of 1866 and construction began that spring. Accounts differ as to when the railroad was actually completed to East De Kalb. It probably was not completed before the end of 1867 because the deeds for the 4 rod right of way in the Town of De Kalb were written in the Fall of 1867.
Because of the wooden rails and many curves the ore cars had 4 wheels rather than the 8 on regular railroad cars. These cars could not run on the R. W. and 0. RR track. This necessitated the transfer of all the ore and pigs from the Clifton railroad cars to the standard cars at East De Kalb.
The Clifton ore cars were described by W. E. Dodge as "short, dumpy affairs on four wheels, with a low box on top that would slide to one side and dump." These cars were pulled up onto a wooden trestle next to the mainline tracks at East De Kalb and the ore and pig iron were dumped down into regular railroad cars.
The engines, built for the railroad, were almost as odd as the roadbed. The first two engines, painted bright red, built on four wheels, were enclosed like horse drawn street cars with windows all around. These wood fired engines had upright boilers and engines at opposite ends of the car. The engineer and fireman were forced to stand between the boiler and the engine to operate the train, probably not a comfortable place to be on a hot summer day.
The third engine was of similar construction (cab all around), except it had a horizontal boiler and thus could be fired from a tender behind it as with conventional RR engines. The last 3 engines built for the railroad were more conventional with horizontal boilers and a cab behind. However the engines carried a water tank like a saddle on top of the boiler. Each of these engines were ever heavier in an attempt to carry heavier loads.
The construction of this railroad bed used massive amounts of timber, all purchased locally, which was a great boon to the local economy. Jim Kirkbride estimated that 462,000 board feet of maple 4 by 6s and over 38,0008 foot spruce ties were used to construct the track. After the railroad was completed all the wood for fuel was also purchased locally. The economic future must have looked bright in 1868.
However the Clifton railroad, built with so many "experiments", was not destined to last long. There were problems from the beginning. Train traffic soon developed polished surfaces on the maple rails. In order to have sufficient traction on the uphill grades the tracks had to be sanded.
The four wheeled engines and cars ground into the many curves in the track and soon "great slivers would be torn up from the rails". One day one of these took the seat out of the pants of an engineer. That was the last day of work on the Clifton railroad for that engineer!
To remedy the wear problem, iron straps 3/4 inch thick by two or three inches wide and longer than a rail were spiked about every three feet to the inside of the rails at curves and road crossings. However trains passing over the metal plates gradually drew the spikes out and a new more dangerous iron splinter would form, as the iron straps sprang loose. These iron plates would pass over a wheel, break through the floor of the ore cars and cause derailments.
All of these track problems made travel on the railroad very slow, not more than 8 mph according to an August, 1868 NY Times article. At its peak in 1869, "three or four trains of from 8 to 14 cars" made the trip from Clarksboro to East De Kalb each day. Projected passenger service never materialized and the few passengers who rode the line were "obliged to content themselves with a seat upon a load of ore, supplemented... by the soft side of a board".
In September 1869, the newly completed steel mill at Clarksboro burnt. All operations at the mine and railroad ceased, even though the iron furnaces, located at a separate sight were still functional. Attempts were made soon after to reopen the enterprise, but it was determined to not be economically feasible.
Professor B. Silliman, a mining engineer, visited the mine sight and railroad in 1873. He reported that "a few months use served to reduce the wooden rails to splinters, and render quite useless an expenditure of several hundred thousand dollars". Several other contemporary accounts agree that the operation failed largely due to the poorly constructed railroad.
Within a few years it became obvious to local residents that the trains would never run again on the Clifton railroad. They helped themselves to the tracks and ties which became floor joists and, firewood.. Perhaps if you look carefully in your granary or woodshed you might find a piece of the old track today. That and a few old grades are all that remains to remind us of the Clifton railroad.
Anon. (Monday, August 23, 1920) "Days When Clifton Was A Thriving Community" Canton, NY: St Lawrence Plaindealer.
Anon. (Thursday, August 6, 1868) "Clifton Iron Company- Clifton Iron Estate" New York City: The New York Times.
Dodge, William E. (September 29, 1971) "When the trains on the old Clifton railroad regularly ran off the track." Canton, NY: St Lawrence Plaindealer.
Ellsworth, Richard (April 25, 1956) "St. Lawrence County's Wooden Railroad" unpublished speech.
Everts, L.H. (1878) A History of St. Lawrence County New York Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co..
Kirkbride, James (April 27, 1977) The Old Clifton Railroad" unpublished speech given at Edwards Historical Association.
Palmer, Richard et al. (1969) "Wooden Rails In the Wilderness" Canton, NY: The Quarterly, (April and October 1969) St Lawrence Co. Historical Association.
Powell, Rosina (November 25, 1971) "East De Kalb once busy little village" Canton, NY: St Lawrence Plaindealer.