History of the Development of the Early Railroad System of Tompkins County
Source: Ithaca Journal Centennial Number - 1915, Page 26
By Jason P. Merrill

As I look back into the forest of time covering a period of more than a half century, to my first connection with the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad for materials I find that owing to the disappearance of all early records pertaining to the road I am compelled to rely upon tradition and personal reminiscences for the subject of this article.

The Ithaca & Owego Railroad company was organized in 1827 and chartered in April, 1828, it being the second chartered road in the State and it is a mooted question if not the second in operation in the United States. The project was conceived by Ebenezer Mack while editor of The Ithaca Journal.

Its first officers were Francis A. Bloodgood, president; Richard Varick DeWitt, treasurer, and Ebenezer Mack, secretary.

Surveyor's Field Notes

Preliminary surveys were made following the selection of officers and in this connection it might be interesting to know that the only original and authentic scrap of paper to be found relating to the old Ithaca and Owego road was in the possession of Samuel W. Reed of this city setting forth the personnel of the first organized corps of engineers, it being the first page of the surveyor's field book, and while the ancient and mildewed document has been subjected to the ravages of time it is still in a good state of preservation and in a bold, legible hand, presumably that of Mr. Willsey. Here it is:

"Ithaca, Dec. 1st, 1831 I.& O. Railroad - surveying party with G. Willsey, surveyor. David Lee, chains, flag and axe. Cornelius Hardenburg, axe and stakes."

The road was opened for traffic in 1834.

Horses Drew Cars at First

The rails were strap iron, spiked to stringers and the cars were drawn by horses from the time of the opening in April, 1834, to 1840, when an engine, built in Schenectady, was brought to Ithaca to take the place of horses. An expert engineer accompanied the locomotive. His attempt to put it into commission failed. Its construction was thought to be too light, and it was sent back to Schenectady, and its weight and power were increased so much that new complications arose, the additional weight proved too much for the strap rails, and the idea of operating the road by steam was abandoned for a time.

A mechanical genius by the name of John Aldrich, who resided near Mott's Corners (now Brooktondale) expressed a belief that he could improve the engine's efficiency to the extent that it could be operated successfully. He was engaged to try his hand and he made good.

Mr. Aldrich made material improvements, but in doing so the weight was further increased and when he made his initial trip over the road the weight caused the ends of the strap rails to roll up and forced themselves through the bottom of the cars. Track hands were employed to follow the train and spike the snake heads, as they were called, down to the stringers or ribbons. Mr. Aldrich continued to run the engine for some time when he concluded that the bridges were too light to safely sustain the weight of the train.

He reported his apprehensions to the officials who neglected to heed his warning. Aldrich refused to take the train out and "Kirk" Hatch was employed to take his place.

First Fatalities

Hatch made but few trips when the engine broke through Smith's bridge near Candor and Hatch and his fireman, "Al" Dixon were killed, this being the first fatal accident on the Ithaca & Owego railroad, and probably the first fatal railroad accident in the United States. The next accident, serious though not fatal, was sustained by a passenger at the time the road was being operated by horse power.

The Ithaca end of the road had two inclined planes, the first one beginning at a point about where South Geneva street intersects the Spencer road and ending where the Driscoll coal office on East Hill is now.

Here the main power housed, used for hauling up and letting down cars, and where incoming passengers were discharged and outgoing ones boarded the cars. The second or upper plane as it was called was located about a half mile south. From this point to the main power house, cars were run by gravity, the speed being regulated by hand brakes.

On the day in question a coach containing several passengers, Judge Dana of Ithaca, being one of them, was brought down by the brakeman who lost control of the car. All efforts to check it failed and he gave warning for all to jump. The command was heeded by all except one passenger named Babcock, who lay asleep in the coach. The car plunged through the lower house and like a cannon ball sped on its way down the steep incline, landing at the bottom, a mass of splinters. The largest one was said to be the sleeping passenger, who eventually recovered.

In the second fatal accident Charles Hill, a freight conductor, lost his life while making a flying switch at the upper switch. The third was that of Sam Williams, a trainman, killed at Candor. The last employee to lose his life was Engineer Orlando Seely in the passenger train accident at the South Aurora street crossing in this city. I am unable to recall or find any record showing a single fatality to a passenger on this road, the Cayuga Division, and I venture the assertion that this record, covering a period of eighty years, is without equal in its application to railroad passenger service.

Road Sold in 1842

On May 20, 1842, the Ithaca & Owego railroad defaulted in payment of interest and the road was sold to Archibald McIntyre and others of New York City. In 1855 the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad Company leased the road for ninety-nine years and the Ithaca & Owego was designated as the Cayuga Division, which marked the beginning of the great Lackawanna system of today.

The Ithaca & Owego road was originally standard gauge, changed to broad gauge when it became the Cayuga & Susquehanna, and in 1878 the gauge was changed back to the narrow standard. The upper plane was 2,225 feet long with a descent of one foot in twenty-one feet and the lower plane had 1,733 feet with a descent of one foot in every four and a quarter feet.

In 1863 the writer came to Ithaca in the employ of the Lackawanna as its first telegraph operator on the Cayuga division. The personnel of the executive and clerical force at that time was W.R. Humphrey, superintendent; J.P. Merrill, superintendent's clerk and train dispatcher; Horace Hill, station agent; Harlan Hill, ticket agent; Harmon Hill, freight clerk; Thomas Nelligan, baggage master; W.W. Bardon, road master; Frank M. Brown, master mechanic; Cyrene Elmendorf, master car builder; Cornelius Leary, coal agent; Henry Billings, B.A. Dana, John Barden and Charles Haydon, conductors; Griff Pultz, Isaiah Robinson, Orlando Seely, Jeremiah Burnes and Hicks Hillaker, engineers.

Alvin Merrill, my father, now in his ninetieth year, hale and hearty, when a little lad rode and drove an hold horse, Granny Gray, ballasting and grading the road in Caroline. His memory is clear as to work but not as to the dates. He makes it about 1832-33. He was one of the hands, the boys who sat on the cow-catcher, the front of the locomotives and with a pole drove the cattle off the track to make way for the locomotives to proceed upon their journeys.

At first horses snorted and stuck up their tails and ran in great fear away from the iron monster that was belching forth sparks, and flame and smoke from the wood-burning fire pots, but they became used to it. Cows made the same ado over it. They, too, became accustomed to it. Father was one of the hands that followed the train and nailed down the bent ends of the thin strap rails. He also attended the horses working the windlass in the pit at the top of the incline plane.

All but the writer have responded to Conductor Time's "All aboard," and taken passage to that land from whose border no traveler returns.

The present network of railroads in this county known as the Lehigh Valley Railroad system is comparatively modern and its divided histories are well known to our older inhabitants.

Charter of Ithaca & Owego Railroad, granted 1828; opened to traffic, 1834; sale to Archibald McIntyre and others, 1842; leased to Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad, for 99 years; broad gauge track changed to narrow, 1878.

Ithaca & Athens Railroad and Cayuga Lake Railroads opened to traffic, 1872; Geneva & Ithaca opened to traffic 1873.

The last railway to be chartered and constructed in this county is the Ithaca-Auburn Short Line. It is of very recent date. The Ithaca Street railway is not so recent in its history, but it has a record and is today doing the work it was designed to and has the reputation of being a surplus earning plant while giving general satisfaction to the traveling public.

Ithaca has had an extensive railroad history and it has the oldest running line in the state and nation. The Journal's editorials during five long years, from 1825 to 1830 really built the Ithaca & Owego Railroad and connected the Erie canal with the Susquehanna River and later with the then great and wonderful Erie Railroad.


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