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March 29, 1997 marked the fortieth anniversary of the demise of the New York, Ontario and Western Railway. This month, we will step back in time for a look at this unique railroad, and use as an illustration of its immense charm, this period antique photo card of Morrisville, NY.
The O&W was founded in those heady days of railroad speculation that swept the country after the Civil War. 'Railroad fever' gripped the nation, and New York State was no exception. In the largely rural area of eastern New York in which the railroad, (originally called the New York and Oswego Midland), was built, it was seen as the guarantor of a prosperous future. The chief promoter, Dewitt C. Littlejohn in a classic understatement of the geographic difficulties which would confront the Midland, vowed to build a "railroad at right angles to the mountains". That he did, using all of the salesmanship and political maneuvering gimmicks that he could muster. The railroad eventually became the New York, Ontario and Western after being reorganized in one of the all too frequent bankruptcies that accompanied the unbridled capitalism of the late 19th century. Littlejohn faded into history, but his railroad remained and eventually prospered.
Anthracite coal was the life blood that fueled the late 19th century industrial economy, and the O&W was heavily dependent on this fuel, not only for it's own use, but as it's primary source of freight revenue. The O&W eventually extended from Weehawken, NJ opposite New York City, to Oswego, NY on the shores of Lake Ontario. In between it managed to bypass almost every major city and potential freight source.
It's train time in 1910, and the O&W is in it's heyday. Notice the omnibus and team, no doubt provided by some local hotel.
The O&W had a major line into the coal fields of northeast Pennsylvania, the Scranton Division. At the turn of the century this line was heavily rebuilt. Double tracking and sturdier bridges were constructed. Larger steam power was also acquired, but for the most part, the O&W clung to its antiquated but charming "Mother Hubbards", odd center cab locomotives that featured extra wide fireboxes for burning of the anthracite fuel. In the 1930's Great Depression, the railroad struggled to keep afloat. It managed to keep running, and it even sported a new streamlined passenger train, the "Mountaineer".
In between it's two out of the way terminals, The O&W traversed some of the most lovely terrain in the east, passing through the lower Catskill mountains. Several bucolic branch lines meandered to small towns and villages throughout the Catskills. In the era before World War I, these mountains were home to many exclusive resorts. The O&W's quaint passenger trains provided convenient service to those well to do city folk who could afford to summer in the fresh mountain air. Nearby, rich agricultural areas provided the railroad with a healthy milk business. Creameries and country stations, mixed trains and summer passenger extras kept the little road's rails shinny and its stockholders happy for many years.
But times changed, and the O&W, now called the "Old and Weary" by its detractors, or the "Old Woman" by its devoted fans, could not change. Coal vanished almost overnight as the primary freight source after the mines in the Scranton area began to fail. After World War I, automobiles and improved highways cut into the O&W's passenger revenues, and trucks carried off the lucrative milk traffic. The railroad hung on, and became an early diesel disciple. O&W's colorful diesel scheme added a splash of modernism to the road. It also made a valiant attempt to convert itself to becoming a bridge-traffic line, but it was too little, too late. By the end of the 1940's, the handwriting was on the wall. An entire way of life and the railroad that was sustained by it was vanishing in the post war era.
The author William F. Helmer, in his classic book, "O&W, The Long Life and Slow Death of the New York, Ontario, and Western Railway" sums up what it is easy to imagine when studying the Morrisville depot photo. Helmer closes out his story of the O&W with these words: "Ravaged by the scrap dealers, the weed-covered old right-of-way is an ugly scar on the land. May it ever remind us of the days of glory when smoke plumes rose over rattling coaches, when iron men piloted panting steamers over the mountains, when the railroad depot was the business center of town, when the lined face of an engineer could bring joy into the life of a small child, when the far-off whistle made dreamers of us all."
New York, Ontario and Western Railway, 1869 - 1957. Rest in Peace.
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