Rome, Watertown and Ogdensburg Railroad in De Kalb
by Bryan Thompson
The first railroad in the town of De Kalb was the Watertown and Potsdam Railroad, completed in 1856.
This company struggled for years to raise enough capital to complete its line. One of the major bondholders was the Rome and Watertown Railroad. In order to finance the Watertown & Potsdam Railroad, the Rome and Watertown Railroad required a clause that allowed them to take control of the Watertown & Potsdam RR if one payment was late.
The directors of the Watertown & Potsdam RR were quite ambitious with their improvements even though they were heavily in debt. In 1856, the railroad had two stations that served the town of De Kalb: one at Bigelow (Richville Station) and one just over the Canton line by the Forest House Inn known as Hermon Station.
By 1858, they completed another station for De Kalb. This station was located near Redrock about ½ mile west of the current crossing on the East De Kalb Road. The new station included a water tower and woodsheds. The town opened a new town road to the station from the plank road (US 11) in 1858. This was only one of many new projects the Watertown & Potsdam RR took on in 1858.
Soon the Watertown and Potsdam was unable to meet the payments on their bonds and the Rome & Watertown took over control of the struggling railroad. A long legal battle ensued. Finally, as the companies were working to build a new branch line to Ogdensburg, they officially merged into the Rome Watertown and Ogdensburg Railroad on July 4, 1861.
As early as 1856, the St. Lawrence Republican reported that the Watertown & Potsdam Railroad was contemplating a branch line from near the Forest House to Ogdensburg. This contemporary newspaper account seems to belie the local legend that the road was originally supposed to run from East De Kalb to Ogdensburg but was moved due to the high price asked by the East De Kalb farmers for their land.
July 23, 1861 the St Lawrence Republican announced the contract for the new rail line had been let to G.B. Phelps to be completed by January 1862. The project was not actually completed until August 1862.
The actual route of the Railroad was finally announced August 27, 1861 in the St Lawrence Republican. " The road will leave the Potsdam and Watertown track near the gravel-pit in the town of De Kalb, about one mile west of the Forest House, run thence northwestward, near the Risley Road, descending with light grades to the road between Forest House and Rensselaer Falls." The Railroad had purchased the 12-acre gravel pit, from Edward Alexander in February 1860 for $435.60, in anticipation of construction of the new line.
By September 10, 1861 the St Lawrence Republican reported, "Work is being vigorously prosecuted all along the line of our new Railroad. Between Heuvelton and Rensselaer Falls and between the Falls and the Junction a good deal of the road bed is ready for the ties and iron." The first deed for the new right of way was only signed on August 10, 1861. The last holdout didn't sign until 1863. The prices paid per acre varied widely as each farmer negotiated with the railroad separately. The highest price given was $70 per acre to Horatio and Pernelia Risley and the lowest was $27 per acre given to George and Nancy Lobdell. Andrew Barton was the only farmer to include a reversion clause so the land would be returned to him if the railroad ever ceased to exist.
In the spring of 1862, the railroad constructed an engine house (with machine shop for repair of tools and rails), woodsheds, water tower, a freight station and passenger station at the new railroad junction. An oil storage structure stored oil for station use, section use and engines use through out the northern division. Ties and rails for the construction of the new line were off stored at the junction. The original rails were iron, 24 foot in length, weighing 448 pounds each.
As work continued, John W. Moak of Watertown, General Superintendent of the Rome Watertown & Ogdensburg RR, saw a potential business opportunity at the new Junction. In February of 1862 (six months before the new line.)
Map of John W. Moak’s 1862 Purchase Between the Railroad tracks and the Plank road at the new Railroad Junction.
Moak purchased from Edward Alexander all the land lying between the Main line of the Potsdam Railroad and the Plank Road (now US 11). This land extended from what is today the Post Office Parking lot all the way to the Eastern end of De Kalb Junction. The price given was $210. Less than two years later, J.W. Moak sold the last lot in the new commercial district in De Kalb Junction. He realized a 698% return on his original investment.
The people who purchased the commercial land from Mr. Moak were: Mrs. Mary Green, Joseph Rea, Thomas M. Craig and Clark Goulding. Of the four entrepreneurs all but Rea went on to have successful business careers in De Kalb Junction. T. M. Craig built the first store in the community on the corner where the park is today. The store initially serving the needs of the RR construction workers but went on to become a successful general merchandise operation.
Following his first successful foray in commercial development, J.W. Moak in partnership with Addison Day (another RW&O RR executive from Rome) purchased 79 more acres of land from Alexander Hayes in December 1864 for $673. They hired local surveyor Henry Thompson to layout a residential street on what is today Green Street. The Green Street lots sold slowly over the next 18 years. This investment only garnered a 333% return.
The new line to Ogdensburg was officially open in late August 1862 with an excursion train for railroad dignitaries and investors. The train left New York City on Monday August 18th at 5 PM. Left Albany on the 19th at 7:30 AM, left Rome at 2 PM for Watertown where the guests stayed over night. On the 20th of August at 8 AM left Watertown for Ogdensburg via De Kalb Junction.
The party arrived in Ogdensburg shortly after noon where they had a few hours to rest before the gala banquet at the Seymour House. About 200 excursionists and local citizens attended the banquet celebration sponsored by the citizens of Ogdensburg. Any one of any social import was there.
At the banquet toasts were offered to:
The United States Government, The Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg RR, The State of New York, Canada, The City of New York, Northern New York, Reciprocity, The New York Central RR, New England, The Press, The Boundary Line, The Union, The Ladies, The Citizens of Ogdensburgh, The Queen of England. It was said to be the biggest gala that Ogdensburgh held up until that time.
During the first years of its operation, the Rome, Watertown and Ogdensburg RR was very successful. Until 1870, they paid 10% annual dividend to all their stockholders. In this era of many competing RR lines, each company had distinctive colors and advertising to draw business. The RW& O painted all their cars a distinctive bright yellow and their engines were "smartly painted with bright red wheels. The engine Potsdam had a lion painted upon her front boiler door.
All the engines were wood fired. Since wood was a much cleaner fuel than the later coal, RW&O engineers were dressed in white shirts as long as wood was used for fuel. The early wood engines had a top speed of 60 miles per hour. The fastest and most famous of these was the "Antwerp #17". It had the largest drivers and was an old Taunton engine purchased used from Vilas of Plattsburgh.
The Passenger Depot and water tower at De Kalb Junction.
The Ogdensburg line is to the right.
She originally bore the name "Plattsburgh" but was renamed and repainted when she came to the RW&O RR. It is this engine, under the guidance of engineer Jefferson B. Wells, that made the mail run from De Kalb Junction to Norwood with stops in Canton and Potsdam in just 35 minutes.
In regards to wood burning, the wood was racked in one cord and one half cord racks at the three woodsheds in St Lawrence County: Norwood, De Kalb Junction and Gouverneur. An early employee remembered "the most conspicuous thing about De Kalb Junction was the huge wood shed and wood pile beyond the depot". Engines were replaced at Watertown and De Kalb Junction with a new engine or tender filled with wood, depending on the schedule. William H. Tuller, an early employee, said farmers were paid 9 shillings per full cord of wood (about $2.25.)
The Richville Station at Bigelow
A problem with the early wood burning engines was that the water pump was run off the drive wheels. This meant that if the engine got stuck in the snow, the engineer and fireman had to quickly leave the cab and jack up the engine so the drive wheels could turn freely to keep the water flowing in the boiler until the tracks were cleared. Sometimes trains were stuck for days. The engines had to be kept in heated engine houses, such as the one at De Kalb Junction, to prevent the boilers from bursting in the winter cold.
Starting in 1866 until 1877, the RR ran three parlor cars, two of their own construction, which provided sleeping accommodations. One of these was know as the "De Kalb". These were literally parlors on wheels with large plate glass windows, comfortable chairs, and tables. At night, the tables were fitted with beds to allow sleeping accommodations. This style of car held very few people so the sleepers were always money losers but very good for publicity. In 1866, the company advertised that you could leave Watertown at 6:30 PM in your sleeper and arrive in New York City at 7:55 AM without ever leaving your bed.
Regular passenger trains consisted of a baggage car and two coaches, so they were light and easy to start with just one engine. In this era, the passenger cars were lighted with candles and sperm oil lamps, four per car and heated by a box woodstove. The R W & O RR boasted that they were the first to have enclosed vestibules on their cars and the first to have steel platforms.
From the time the first rails were laid in De Kalb, the Railroad symbolized progress and above else good paying jobs in an area where much of farm income was in barter. Engineers of the time made $50 cash per month. All sorts of other jobs were available for watchmen, black smiths, telegraph operators, signalmen and others. When the De Kalb Junction yard was created in early 1862, it became the home of the Superintendent (Road master) of the line east of Watertown. With the boss in town, many local men soon found their way onto the railroad payroll. Many went on to successful Railroad careers through out the system.
Some of the these local railroad men included: The Hines brothers, A. C. Hines, N.B. Hines and Omar A. Hines, who taught themselves to be telegraph operators using a wooden set they made on their farm in De Kalb in 1860. Others included P.E. Carney, Mr. Butler, Ben Batchelder, A. V. Huntress and many others.
A story of the R. W & O RR would not be complete with out a mention of the "special" trains that passed through town. Starting in 1873 for 25 years, the brightly decked Barnum & Bailey Circus passed through town on a special bound for Ogdensburg. One dark night in the summer of 1866, a special carrying US Marshals raced through town on their way to arrest the Fenian raiders near Malone.
One especially humorous incident in 1873 involved the special of the newly appointed R. W. & O. RR President Mr. Marcellus Massey. In a bid to impress the board of directors of the road, he ordered his train given right of way over all others. All the switches were spiked to avoid any possible delays.
Jeff Wells was at the throttle and Billy Lanfear was fireman. All was well until the train reached De Kalb Junction. The train swept past the depot and around the curve towards Ogdensburg at seventy miles per hour. The directors seated in the old parlor car "Watertown" were thrown about from their parlor chairs and the poor fireman Lanfear was nearly thrown from the engine cab. Only succeeding to grab on the engine's window at the last possible moment as his feet dangled out the door. One would wonder how impressed the directors were with their ride?
Massey led the erstwhile profitable railroad into a big expansion culminating in the purchase of the bankrupt, uncompleted, Lake Ontario Shoreline Railroad in 1876. This proved a disastrous business decision. The railroad borrowed heavily to build the new line to the suspension bridge to Canada. A recession followed in 1877 and by 1878, the formerly profitable railroad was in default. A hostile takeover by Samuel Sloan of the Erie & Lackawana RR soon followed.
Sloan mined the road to benefit the Erie & Lackawana. First he took all the company's supply of new rails to use to expand his railroad, giving back the old broken and worn iron rails he removed. The former Northern New York Corporation saw its offices moved from Watertown to Oswego and most local people removed from its leadership, including J.W. Moak. Sloan also converted all the engines to burn coal, a commodity that had to be supplied by his Erie & Lackawana RR. He ended all sleeper service and sold many of the line's best passenger cars to the Erie & Lackawana. The road was so poorly maintained, that within a few years, an employee had to walk ahead of the cars between stations to inspect the rails for safety. An elderly citizen of Ogdensburg says that it "was a nightly occasion for the R. W. & O. train to come in from the De Kalb with more thank half of its journals ablaze." (The Story of the Rome, Watertown and Ogdensburg RR, p. 136.)
On June 6, 1883, at a R.W.& O. RR board meeting, Sam Sloan was blindsided by one of his new board members, Charles Parsons. Parsons orchestrated the removal of Sloan as President of the RR. Parsons soon took control of the railroad and gradually rebuilt it until, in 1892, it was in a condition to be sold to the New York Central Railroad for a tidy profit. Thus ended the life of the R.W.& O. Railroad in the town of De Kalb.
The old freight station and signalman’s house at De Kalb Junction
Carney, P. E. (1926) A Chronicle of R.W. & O. Days Since 1851 New York Central Lines Magazine December 1926.
De Kalb Town Clerk(nd) De Kalb Town Book 3 Roads De Kalb, NY.
Hungerford, Edward (1922) The Story of the Rome Watertown and Ogdensburgh Railroad R.M. McBride & Co. New York.
St Lawrence County Clerk's office (ND)
Deeds L50C p 305, L51A p 496, L52B p 141, L53B p 127, 598, L53C p 147, 149, 150, 152, L54C p 135, 140, 142, 143, 153, 174, L56B p 3, L56C p100, L64A p 297, L67C p 35, 304, L 66A p 595, L69A p 32, 39, 65, 67, 68, 70, 72, 76, 80, 92, 98, 110, 118, 193, 195, 203, 233, 235, 237, 238, 284, 296, 298, 305, 323, 340, 69B p 306, L70A p 300, 418, 420, 635, 637, 638, 639, L70B p 247, L71B p 108 L72B p 548, L72C p 259, L73B p 296, L74C p555, L76B p595, 77A p 347, L77B p 245, L78A p 457, L83B p 77, L83C p 178, L86A p 526, L87B p 300, L89B p 470, L99B p 120,123 L108C p 139, L112C p 237, L115A p 544.
St Lawrence Republican (various) St Lawrence Republican Ogdensburg, NY.