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History | Gerald M. Best

Delaware & Northern Railroad
"Rails Rust in the Catskills"

Delaware & Northern Railroad
By Gerald M. Best

Though it barely entered the Catskills between Arena and Arkville, the Delaware & Northern Railroad has a place in this story; first, because of the headaches it caused Samuel D. Coykendall and second because in due time it became of considerable benefit to the Ulster & Delaware as a traffic feeder. Organized November 11, 1904, as the Delaware & Eastern, it was the brain child of Russell B. Williams, who after a long career with several railroads, became superintendent of the Scranton Division of the New York, Ontario, & Western Railway. He was an intimate friend of Joseph J. Jermyn, coal mine operator of Scranton and Pittsburgh, and he envisioned a railroad from the Scranton area over a more direct route than that of the N.Y.O.&W., to East Branch on the Delaware River, thence to a connection with the Ulster & Delaware at Arkville. As Williams had no means of organizing such a company, he interested Jermyn to such an extent that the latter approached Frederick F. Searing of New York City, a dealer in railroad securities and a promoter of new railroad projects. Searing and Jermyn obtained the backing of a surprising number of influential men in the steel and coal mining industries, including Colonel William Barbour, a director of the Hanover National Bank of New York, John W. Griggs, Governor of New Jersey, and officers of the Guaranty Title & Trust Co. of Pittsburgh.

Searing was a past master at the game of railroad promotion, and his announced intention was to build a railroad from East Branch on the N.Y.O.& W., to Arkville on the Ulster & Delaware, a distance of 37.5 miles. A branch line of 9.5 miles from Union Grove to Andes, would open up extensive tracts of timber, quarries of bluestone, and create an east means of transporting dairy products to market. Searing blandly stated that he expected that coal would be handled from East Branch to Arkville, enabling mines along the N.Y.O.& W. to get some of the Ulster & Delaware's business.

Capitalized at $1,000,000, Searing sold a considerable amount of stock and $800,000 of five percent 50-year bonds to pay for construction costs. Contracts were let in 1905. R.B. Williams resigned from the N.Y.O. & W. to become superintendent of the D. & E. Construction work, supervised by Frederick P. Lincoln, began at Arkville. The route passed through Margaretville where the road's headquarters had been established, and reached Union Grove, 10 miles from Arkville, at the end of 1905. Most of the grade for the track had been there since 1870, intended for a railroad which was killed off by the panic of 1873. This was the Delhi & Middletown, which Thomas Cornell had fostered, and money for the grade was furnished by Andes township, which nearly went bankrupt paying off $120,000 in township bonds. The Delaware & Eastern bought five locomotives, all Delaware, Lackawanna, & Western discards averaging 23 years in age. It also bought a large amount of new freight rolling stock, much more than a railroad 37.5 miles long would need. In the spring of 1906, track was laid south from Union Grove and north from East Branch, the last spike being driven at Downsville on November 17, 1906 on which date passenger service was begun over the entire line. The people of Andes clamored for a branch line to their town, pointing to the ready-made grade up the Tremperskill from Union Grove. This branch was built and opened for service on March 23, 1907.

All this was fine for the Ulster & Delaware and the N.Y.O.& W. This is until November 1906. Searing then let the cat out of the bag. He announced plans for a new railroad from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania to Schenectady, New York, a distance of 232 miles, to furnish fast and efficient coal deliveries to New England and eastern Canada via the Rutland and the Boston & Maine. The excuse for this railroad was that existing freight rates were exorbitant, and that competition would keep the rates down. A railroad to be called the Schenectady & Margaretville would be the northern part of the project, the Delaware & Eastern the center part, and the Hancock & Wilkes-Barre Extension Railroad the south part. On December 11, 1906, the New York State Railroad Commission granted permits to both roads to build their lines. Searing then leased the Delaware & Eastern, combined it with the two other projected railroads, and organized the Delaware & Eastern Railway. This was ratified at a special stockholders' meeting in New York in 1907 and the new company began selling capital stock, plus a six-million dollar bond issue. Part of the latter securities would be used to retire the existing bonds, and additional bonds to a total of over $40,000,000 would be issued.

The news of this grandiose scheme brought roars of outrage from S.D. Coykendall on behalf the Ulster & Delaware, L.F. Loree of the Delaware & Hudson, and T.P. Fowler of the New York, Ontario, & Western. Coykendall and Fowler were particularly disturbed because sections of this proposed railroad would parallel their main lines in a useless duplication of trackage. The three railroads combined in a joint suit against the Railroad Commission to cancel the permits. This dragged on through 1908 and was finally lost when the State Supreme Court ruled against the petitioners. The Delaware & Eastern Construction Co. was organized in New York under Searing's direction and a contract was let to W.J. Oliver & Co. to survey and grade the section from Grand Gorge on the Ulster & Delaware to Middleburgh. Nothing was done about starting the construction work during 1908, and well into 1909.

In the meantime, the Delaware & Eastern had its first serious accident. On Sunday, May 24, 1908, a passenger train consisting of engine No. 2, a milk car, a combination car, and a coach had made its daily run up the Andes branch. It was customary for the train to back down the Andes branch to the main line at Union Grove, continuing backwards on the main line to Margaretville. A short distance north of Union Grove the train crossed the Jacksonburg Creek bridge, the engineer stating that he had shut off steam and was drifting at about 15 m.p.h. When about 500 feet north of the bridge, the coaches derailed suddenly and ran along the ties and the embankment, the milk car turned on its side and the engine and tender slid down the bank into the river. The top of the engine's cab was ripped off and engineer Clair Cowan and fireman John Francisco went down with the engine. Francisco was thrown into the river, but Cowan was pinned down by the wrecked cab and only his face was above water. Francisco crawled into the cab and for several hours held Cowan's head in his arms, the conductor and several passengers helping pry a copper pipe leading to the steam gauge to permit the engineer to raise his head slightly. There Francisco sat, up to his own neck in the river, until a special train arrived from Margaretville. A chain was placed around the engine's steam dome, and after one false try when the chain broke, the engine was turned just enough to permit men to free Cowan from his watery prison. He had been there just five hours; outside a pair of badly mashed feet, he had no other injuries and was back to work in a few weeks, though he complained for years afterward that he could not walk barefoot. Francisco was the hero of the valley, but when questioned about it recently he said it was the longest bath he had ever taken in his life. The cause of the wreck was the subject of many arguments, but the best guess was that a spread rail derailed the rear truck of the coach, the track was torn up and complete derailment of the train ensued.

During the year following the accident the railroad operated at a loss, and apparently did not pay its taxes, for the township of Hancock sent constable Arthur Bullis to East Branch where he attached engine No. 1 for $700 in unpaid taxes. John Francisco recalls that it was the custom of the freight train crew to stay overnight at East Branch, leaving the engine on a siding near the bridge across the Delaware River, and when they showed up at 6 A.M. one Saturday in the first week of May 1909 they found their engine chained to the rails and padlocked, with constable Bullis standing in the cab's gangway, flourishing a six-shooter. The management in Margaretville was notified and the crew were told to take the day off. The constable kept steam up on No. 1 and obviously expected a rescue attempt, for several of his deputies joined him. Another engine was sent for the freight train, and things remained peaceful until about noon on Sunday, when superintendent Wagonhorst and 15 men, all riding the tender of engine No. 3, arrived on the scene. Breaking the padlock the constable had placed on the switch, the rescue crew backed No. 3 in on the siding, and ignoring constable Bullis in the cab, broke the padlocks on the chains around the driving wheel rims. Not trusting MCB couplers, they chained the two engines together, and to quote the Catskill Mountain News - "Bullis, who had kept steam up on the captive engine, threw the reverse lever and there began a tug of war beteen the two steel giants that would have been well worth going to East Branch to witness. The drive wheels slipped, sparks flew, the engines puffed and sputtered, the men on both sides used cuss words, and there was excitement galore. All East Branch was out to see it." Bullis probably took special pleasure from all this uproar, for he was a discharged employee of the Delaware & Eastern and had his own axe to grind.

The rescuers after failing in several attempts to jerk the prisoner loose, during which there was a wrestling match between the deputies and the rescuers for possession of the chains, fireman John Francisco again became the hero by solving the problem very neatly. During a lull in the hostilities, Francisco sneaked along the side of the rescue engine's tender with a larger pipe wrench and unscrewed the relief valves from the fronts of the steam chests on the captive engine. When another battle of the giants began, steam came roaring out of the holes in No. 1's steam chests, engineer Clair Cowan on the rescue engine gave it full throttle, and Francisco began oiling the track as the two engines moved towards the bridge across the Delaware. When it was obvious that Bullis and his men had lost the battle they jumped off their engine. The aftermath was the arrest of Bullis on charges of assault and threatening engineer Cowan with a revolver. The constable was soon out on bail, and Hancock township countered by arresting superintendent Wagonhorst and several of his men on a charge of riot. The matter was settled when the Hancock tax collector realized that the expense of trying all of the men involved might be more than the taxes due, and in time the railroad paid the taxes and No. 1 did not have to sneak in and out of East Branch any more.

In the fall of 1909 the promoters of the Schenectady & Margaretville, claiming to have raised sufficient money to begin construction, authorized Oliver to start grading at Grand Gorge. Oliver also got the contract to build two steel trestles and two tunnels. A trestle at Grand Gorge which was to outshine the Lyonbrook, Cadosia, and Liberty trestles of the N.Y.O.& W. would leave the south slope of the Bear Kill valley at Grand Gorge. It would then cross over the Ulster & Delaware and the Bear Kill, curving east to the north ridge almost 180 feet above the town of Grand Gorge. Grading began on the north side of Bear Creek at the north end of the projected bridge, and descended 50 feet to the mile for nearly five miles to the junction of the Bear with the Schoharie Creek. Some grading work was done in the valley of the Schoharie as far as Breakabeen. Land for stations at Gilboa and North Blenheim was purchased, and a right-of-way secured through these villages.

From East Branch to Hancock the route was surveyed parallel to the N.Y.O.&W. on the hill a hundred feet above the latter, crossing the Delaware a mile south of Hancock and running along the south bank to Equinunk, 10 miles downstream, thence south through Honesdale to a crossing of the D.L.& W. at Moscow, then southwest to Wilkes-Barre. It all looked fine on paper, and work continued north of Grand Gorge through the winter of 1909-1910. In February 1910 contractor Oliver stated that he had ceased all work and would neither order the bridge material nor start boring the tunnels until he was paid $250,000 for construction work already completed. Apparently sensing the fact that he was not going to be paid, he simultaneously brought suit in the New York State Supreme Court for the same amount of his claim. On February 25, Andrew M. Moreland and Walter B. Trowbridge were appointed receivers of the Delaware & Eastern by the U.S. District Court, and a bondholders' committee assisted them in an effort to save at least a part of the investment. In March the brokerage firm of Searing & Co. closed its doors and declared bankruptcy. Thus did Williams' and Searing's dream of railroad empire die on the vine, no doubt to the vast relief of the three railroads from which it would have siphoned off considerable traffic. The collapse of the Delaware & Eastern ended efforts to build new railroads from Pennsylvania coal regions for all time. Investors with long memories recalled the West Shore's debacle, and did not flock to buy securities as Searing thought they would.

The receivers borrowed Jabez T. O'Dell, vice president of the Bessemer & Lake Erie, as an expert to appraise the Delaware & Eastern. In his report, which was full of caustic comments, he stated that the railroad had been built so cheaply that it was falling to pieces; that it could not possibly make money. It was taking in $2,100 a mile, cost $2,500 a mile to operate, and this ratio could not be changed without extensive and expensive improvements. Unable to refinance the railroad, the receivers marked time by cutting expenses to the bone. A year and a half later, encouraged by increased traffic, the bondholders reorganized the company as the Delaware & Northern Railroad with Moreland as president. All the new directors came from Pittsburgh, most of them representing banks holding bonds in the new company. They accepted preferred stock in lieu of bonds, and advanced money to place the railroad in first class condition. The roadbed was reballasted, additional locomotives and shop equipment purchased and surplus equipment sold. Overstocked with freight cars which had been bought for use on the Schenectady & Margaretville, the D.&N. sold most of them to other railroads. A good percentage of the freight cars, all brand new in 1906, had spent four years on sidings.

The reorganized railroad managed to meet expenses from 1911 through 1918; the biggest money maker was the dairy business, the road owning seven milk cars and using cars from its connecting railroads when needed. The bluestone quarries were closing down, and the traffic in finished lumber did not live up to the glowing prospectus turned out by Frederick Searing. Whenever there was a surplus, it was paid to the preferred stockholders, the last dividend of $15,000 being paid in 1918. Losses began to mount up after 1919, and on March 16, 1921, president Moreland and superintendent J.J. Welch were appointed receivers. The railroad was operated as economically as possible and the very unprofitable Andes branch was abandoned in April 1925 and the rails sold for scrap. Attempts at cutting wages resulted in walkouts of the employees, and a compromise was finally reached. A new gasoline motor car was purchased to replace the steam passenger trains, saving $30,000 a year. This unit carried mail, baggage, express, and passengers, and was affectionately called the Red Heifer by the residents along the line.

In 1928 the losses were so great that the directors, headed by J.J. Jermyn, petitioned for abandonment. An angel in the person of Samuel R. Rosoff of New York City came along at this time. He had built a highway in the valley ten years earlier and was familiar with the railroad and the people of the villages it served. He bought the railroad on December 20, 1928, for $70,000, and reorganized it as the Delaware & Northern Railway, running it on a shoestring through the depression years. At this time, New York City was preparing to build a dam across the east Branch of the Delaware near Downsville to create a reservoir to augment the water supply of the big city. Rosoff felt that the railroad was needed to haul supplies for the dam, after which it could be moved to higher ground. Litigation involving New York, the I.C.C., and the railroad ensued, and was settled when Rosoff agreed to sell the railroad to the city whenever the right-of-way was needed for the reservoir. Rosoff endeared himself to the people of the valley by running a school train each way daily except weekends and vacation times, and spent a considerable amount of his personal funds in keeping the railroad going. In 1939 he sold the railroad to New York City for $200,000, but additional court suits dragged on until finally, on October 16, 1942, notice of abandonment was tacked on the doors of the stations. The work of removing the rails and the bridges was hampered by spring rains, and it was not until the summer of 1943 that the last lot of ties had been cleaned up and shipped to a railroad in Michigan. The equipment was sold for scrap, and little remains today to show that there ever was a railroad from Arkville to East Branch.

As an afterthought, the failure of the Schenectady & Margaretville saved New York City a considerable sum, for when Schoharie Reservoir construction was begun in 1917, had there been a railroad in the valley at that point it would have been relocated high up on the mountainside at a cost far greater than the relocation of the Ulster & Delaware at Ashokan.



Best, Gerald M. "The Delaware & Northern Railroad." The Ulster & Delaware . . . Railroad Through the Catskills. San Marino, CA: 

             Golden West, 1972. 144-55. Print.

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