150th Anniversary of Railroading in De Kalb
by Bryan Thompson
December 2006 marked the sesquicentennial of the completion of the first railroad, The Rome Watertown and Potsdam RR, through the town of De Kalb. Probable no other improvement changed the face and nature of the township since settlement more than the coming of the railroad did.
The railroad allowed ready access to outside markets for local farms. This lead to the decline of grain farming due to competition from cheaper western grain and the rise of dairy farming and cheese production to preeminence. Suddenly factory made goods of all kinds could be transported cheaply and easily into town. A great diversity of seeds and plant stuffs transformed local gardens and overnight access to the ocean made oysters and other seafood a common commodity. Within twenty years of completion there were five trains a day in each direction stopping on the line.
As with any major venture the construction of the a railroad through this area was a long slow process. The first railroad in the area was proposed in 1829.
Over the years several others were incorporated but failed before they were built. The first railroad completed Stations on the Watertown and Potsdam RR from Lloyd’s American Railroad Map 1860 in St. Lawrence County was The Northern Railroad. This railroad was built along the northern route from Lake Champlain to Ogdensburg. This railroad was completed in 1850 after five years of construction and planning.
Stations on the Watertown and Potsdam RR from Lloyd's American Railroad map 1860
This Northern Railroad bypassed the towns of Canton and Potsdam running to the north through Madrid and Lisbon. This did not sit well with the citizens of Potsdam and in 1850 fifty-eight of their citizens organized the Potsdam Railroad to build a line from their village seven miles to Potsdam Junction (Norwood). This short line was almost completed by October 1852.
Meanwhile, encouraged by the success of the citizens of Potsdam, a meeting was held in July 1851 at Watertown to develop a route for a new railroad to pass through the villages of Gouverneur and Canton and include the new line from Potsdam to Potsdam Junction and the Northern RR line. The Watertown and Potsdam railroad was incorporated by the State of New York on April 7, 1852.
Additional meetings were held in Canton and Gouverneur to drum up local support. The cost of construction of the road was to be $5000 per mile. According to contemporary newspaper accounts these meetings raised the entire amount by selling bonds to local farmers, bankers and capitalists in denominations of $1000, $5000 up to as high as $15000. Some farmers accepted bonds as payment for their lands that the railroad passed through.
Construction of the railroad was contracted to the Springfield, Massachusetts firm of Phelps, Matoon & Barnes. Construction began in the spring of 1853. Initially the work was to be completed by July1, 1853. From the very beginning the project was plagued by delays and cost over runs. It took until October 15, 1855 to open regular service on the line from Watertown to Antwerp.
Work on the grade through the township of De Kalb began in 1855. A first hand account in the De Kalb Town Historian’s archives by a gentleman identified only as Uncle Bill who helped build the line at age 17 provides interesting insight into the construction of the railroad. “The track ran through some swampy land and lots of cattails all around. Also lots of timber on the lighter ground. I was told that while the surveys were made they encountered great difficulty in many places getting through this rough country. Much of the roadbed was built during the dry season when the water in the swamps was low. ”
Construction continued to fall behind schedule. The first train reached Gouverneur on September 12, 1856. Newspaper ads promised that the railroad would be completed to Richville Station (Bigelow) in time for the New York State Fair (held in Watertown the first week in October 1856). However, an article from the St Lawrence Plaindealer, October 16, 1856 announcing the commencement of service on the line from Canton to Potsdam stated that they “understood that the track was laid almost to Richville at that time”. By the end of October 1856, the tracks were completed to what is today Bigelow. The town of De Kalb had its first official train service. Until 1862 Richville Station (Bigelow) would remain the only station actually in the township of De Kalb although a mail hook was established at East De Kalb.
Wood burning Engine “Antwerp” on the Watertown and Potsdam RR
The fall of 1856 was unusually mild with no killing frost until after the 15th of October. The Watertown and Potsdam railroad proudly announced that they would have the bridge over the Grasse River finished and the entire line finished by January 1, 1857. However the weather didn’t cooperate, starting the first of November the weather turned cold and rainy. Work continued on the road through De Kalb Township despite the harsh weather.
Finally in early December the weather became too severe. According to the account of Uncle Bill, ”This railroad stopped at a place a short distance (from the Canton town line) near the old plank road which ran from Hermon to Canton Falls (Rensselaer Falls). At the end of this track we had to build some kind of contrivance to turn their engines around…At the end of this track was built a small building which was used as a waiting place for trains and a fueling building for the engines. ” This station known as the Hermon station was located just into the town of Canton where the current Forest House Road crosses the railroad tracks.
Despite the cold winter, work continued on the grade and tracks on into Canton. The line was way behind schedule and over budget. Perhaps to allay the fears of their creditors the Watertown and Potsdam railroad held a grand opening excursion on February 5, 1857. This was the first train to go over the entire length of the railroad from Watertown to Potsdam. According to Uncle Bill, ”The engine hauled a few cars carrying officials and friends. At that time the train moved at a slow speed passengers rode on flat bottom cars, planks were used as seats, the ladies used parasols to keep the smoke and cinders from getting in their eyes. ”(This must have been a cold ride in February??) The St Lawrence Republican tells a slightly different story, ” The party numbering about sixty persons, set off on Thursday morning (Feb 5) last at 8:15 AM and proceeded leisurely on their way, stopped at several depots, arrived at the Forest House at about noon. This is the farthest point heretofore run by cars. The iron on the gap between that place and Canton has been laid during the late cold weather and of course is not yet ballasted, which leaves the track uneven and must be passed over at a low rate of speed and with much care. These precautions being taken we passed safely and pleasantly on. ” The locomotive used for this maiden journal was dubbed the “Silas Wright” after Canton’s famous native son.
Following this initial run the line remained unfinished between the Forest House Road and Canton village until the week of the Canton Fair in midsummer 1857. Thus for six months the Hermon depot (Forest House Road) served as the end of the line with stage coaches carrying passengers from the Forest House to connecting lines in Ogdensburg, Hermon and Canton.
Richville Station circa 1890
There were twelve stations on the newly completed line. These were: Watertown, Brandford Corners, Evans Mills, Philadelphia, Antwerp, Keenes, Gouverneur, Richville, Hermon, Canton, Potsdam and Potsdam Junction (Norwood). The final cost of construction of the railroad rose to $20,000 per mile with stations. Almost four times the original construction estimate and the work was completed four years later than originally projected.
Not surprisingly within a few years the Watertown and Potsdam Railroad was in receivership. It was quickly reorganized as the Rome Watertown and Ogdensburg Railroad. But that story will be covered in a future issue.
A living testimony to the foresight of the original planners, the Watertown and Potsdam railroad’s original route is still in daily service today long after many other lines have disappeared.
Durant, S. W. and H. B. Pierce 1878, History of St. Lawrence Co. New York L. H. Everts & Co. Philadelphia, PA.
Hough, Franklin 1853 A History of St Lawrence and Franklin Counties, New York, from the Earliest Period to the Present Time Little and Company Albany, NY.
The St Lawrence Republican January 1852 to July 1857, microfilm Ogdensburg Public Library.
Walrath, Floyd F. E. 1961 The Early History of De Kalb Junction, New York. Unpublished manuscript in De Kalb Town Historian’s files.