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Tucked away in north central New York State is the small village of Munnsville. Perched on the hill above town is a gem of a station restoration, the former depot of the New York, Ontario & Western Railway.
The country depot was the hub of transportation for much of the 19th and the early part of the 20th centuries. The story of the O&W is a fascinating look back at life in America just after the Civil War. The O&W, originally called the New York & Oswego Midland was born in the "railroad fever" days that ran rampant across the country. Every town wanted to be on a railroad. The steam railroad had come of age and itís commercial benefits were obvious to even the most conservative of communities. Ralph Waldo Emerson had this to say about the phenomenon: "Railroad iron was a magicianís rod, in its power to evoke the sleeping energies of land and water." Even though the O&W was abandoned in 1957, its legacy is with us today and its popularity among railfans and historians alike has probably never been greater. What is it about this railroad that has kept over two generations of railfans since itís death in 1957 as fascinated as ever about its history?
The O&W certainly had a wealth of features to endear it to those of us who study the rail past. Geography and politics and people all played their part in deciding on the often non economical routing for this line. The O&W eventually connected New York City (via northern New Jersey) with the agricultural counties of New Yorkís lower Catskills, through the central part of the state to a small port called Oswego on Lake Ontario. A one time goal of a western extension died early in its history, yet the "and Western" lingered in her corporate name until the end. In between, the railroad became a coal hauler taping the rich anthracite deposits in the Scranton, Pa. area, funneling them north to Cadosia, NY and then southeast to New York (Weehawken, NJ) or north to Oswego. The railroad traversed a rich dairy land, and the milk business developed into a lucrative trade. Dozens of creameries, icehouses, and country depots were constructed along the O&W as this trade increased. Passenger trains exploited the scenic beauty of the railroad. The Catskill resorts began to flourish in the later part of the 19th century as the O&W was coming into her prime.
Munnsvilleís depot (called Munns on the railroad timetables) was built in 1870. Running north the important city of Oneida provided connections with the New York Central and the West Shore. About 1881, the O&W and West Shore had banded together in a scheme to unseat rival New York Central in the bid for domination of railroads in Upstate. Needless to say, the Central retaliated and the soon bankrupt West Shore fell under its domination in 1885. The O&W emerged shaken, but a better company after the aborted West Shore scheme.
A long period of stable management and steady improvements to the property combined to move the company to a respectable position among her peers. Up and down the Northern division the railroad was busy hauling milk trains, coal trains, and passengers in green wooden coaches behind quaint steamers. In summer, passenger extras to the Catskills in the south or to Oneida Lake and Sylvan Beach in the north kept the rails shinny. The Stockbridge Valley in which Munnsville is located continued to develop the milk business at several key stations including Valley Mills, Stockbridge, Pratts, Morrisville, Randallsville and Earlville. For several decades the sound of the telegraph key and distant whistle of a steam locomotive announced the daily trains at the Munns depot.
After World War I, change became quite rapid. The O&W became a throwback in time, a kind of anachronism of transportation. When the Depression of the 1930ís took serious hold, the railroad began to show a slow decline. And yet, the very old fashioned ways with which it conducted itís operations began to be noticed by the fledgling groups of rail enthusiasts who flocked to the O&W in the later 1930ís. The railroadís antiquated equipment and facilities became widely known and railfan tours of the property became popular. The railroadís own efforts to revive itself and pull itself out of bankruptcy made it a beloved underdog of sorts. World War II brought a reprieve and a false sense that all would be well for the line, now nicknamed the "Old Woman". After the War, the railroad sought to modernize and convert to a bridge traffic route. Alas the "Old Woman" became the "Old & Weary". It hung on for just over a decade after the War ended. In March 1957, it was all over. The locomotive whistle would no longer sound in the Stockbridge Valley, the Munns depot would go silent.
Today the depot has been lovingly restored to authentic appearance by its owner / occupant. The details are authentic railroadiana, and the pristine appearance of this over one hundred year old structure is astonishing. On a recent warm Spring afternoon we visited the station, not knowing what to expect. We were overwhelmed by nostalgia. One can almost hear the afternoon mixed train in the distance working up the stiff grade from Oneida that will soon halt beside the wooden platform complete with kerosene lamp posts. The "Old Woman" indeed still has her charm!
Photo, May 6, 2000 by Jon Rothenmeyer
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