Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Railroad Beginnings in Schenectady

The Dewitt Clinton. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

This blog entry was written by Frank Taormina, one of the Society's trustees and a frequent researcher here in the library.

How great a role does transportation play in our lives? Think back for a moment to the times when our forebears had to walk to get from place to place – imagine how their individual lives and communities changed when they added horses or camels to the way they could move about – and then wheels and wagons – and various kinds of water borne craft – canoes – bateaux – and canals – and then railroads – and automobiles and airplanes – each change in transportation affected the lives of individuals and reorganized the way entire communities provided their livelihoods. Imagine the network of transportation we are a part of when we stand in one the aisles of the Price Chopper shopping for the articles that meet our desires and needs.

George Featherstonhaugh (1780-1866)

One of the great changes which occurred now a little less than two hundred years ago was the invention of the steam locomotive and, directly on its heels, the creation of the network of railroads. An event of singular importance in this change occurred here in Schenectady, prompted by a person who was, at the beginning of the 19th century, a member of this community. George W. Featherstonhaugh, an Englishman, living in Duanesburgh, the husband of Sara Duane, whom he had met while rescuing her and her mother, the widow of James Duane, Maria Livingston Duane, as they careened down a street in Philadelphia in a stage coach whose team of horses had “run away.” George married Sara on November 6, 1808 at Saint George’s Church in Schenectady. They went on to live in a home on a lake in Duanesburg, a lake which today bears George’s name, Featherstonhaugh Lake. George W. Featherstonhaugh was a person who possessed many gifts and used them well for the benefit of the community of which he was a part. One of his gifts was the vision to see and grasp the importance of steam locomotives and to begin, in 1812, campaigning for the construction of railroads. Apparently, there were many people who did not agree with his view of the possibilities of steam locomotion and it took a while for him through written and oral communication to gain acceptance of the idea.

Finally, on March 27, 1826, the New York State legislature granted a charter for the Mohawk-Hudson railroad, a railway proposed connecting Albany to Schenectady. The Directors of this railway were George W. Featherstonhaugh and the Patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer. A stipulation included in the charter was that construction of the railroad would have to begin within six years after the date the charter was granted. On July 29, 1830, Van Rensselaer ceremoniously broke ground to begin the erection of the Mohawk-Hudson railroad. In the meantime, George W. Featherstonhaugh, about whose talents there was never any doubt, but whose luck did not match his talents, lost two of his children, his home in Duanesburg, which burned down, and his wife, who died while they were living in New York City. The Mohawk-Hudson Railroad, the product of Featherstonhaugh’s imagination was completed under the direction of John Jarvis, another extraordinarily talented person, by July 25, 1831.

After a series of test runs, a locomotive called the Dewitt Clinton established a regular railroad service between Albany and Schenectady before the end of September, 1831. Despite the fact that the legislature had granted the charter which made the railroad possible, there was, on the part of many members of the legislature, resistance to the railroad because it became quickly apparent that it was bound to be a very effective competitor with the state-owned Erie Canal.

Schenectady's first railroad station, constructed in 1831. The station was located opposite the intersection of Crane Street and Third Avenue. This photograph of the building in disrepair was likely taken soon before the building was torn down in 1921. Photograph from the Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

Nevertheless, the speed of railroad travel, so much greater that other forms of transportation at the time, led in the decade of 1830 to 1840 to a rapid expansion of railroads. Saratoga-Schenectady, Utica-Schenectady, and Troy-Schenectady were quickly added to the Mohawk-Hudson. By 1843 Schenectady was the “hub” of railroad travel in New York State! The impact of railroad travel was evident in the fact that on July 7, 1853, the New York Central Railroad was formed – in 22 years New York City had been linked by rail to the Great Lakes and railroads were being built everywhere in the United States! In the spring of 1926 a celebration was held commemorating the 100th anniversary of railroad travel and several people from Schenectady, including descendants of George W. Featherstonhaugh and the Mayor of Schenectady, were honored by being seated at the head table.

Site of the city's first railroad station today.
Photograph courtesy of Frank Taormina.

Take a ride (or a walk!) up Crane Street – up the hill once known as “Engine Hill.” As you travel upward, on your left, opposite the junction of Crane Street and Third Avenue, you will see a building marked “Fastenal Company.” On the building there is a plaque marking the place where the first railroad station in Schenectady once stood – and where – in 1831 – the state’s most prominent citizens gathered to celebrate the completion of the Mohawk-Hudson Railroad and to begin the railroad system which ultimately linked the eastern and western and northern and southern extremities of the entire continent.

Historic marker commemorating the Crane Street railroad station.
Photograph courtesy of Frank Taormina.

The dramatic impact of the change in which Schenectady played such a significant role is hardly as evident to us today in 2012 as it must have been when these changes began taking place nearly two hundred years ago, but, perhaps, for those of us who revel in history, the recollection of these events can still provide memories which are a source of interest and pleasure.

1 comment:

  1. This first railroad station was not exactly a station, it was the stationary engine house where a stationary steam engine lower and raised the rail cars down the hill/embankment using a barrel/capstan type device with a long heavy rope/line. Passengers may have come into this building while the cars were being raised or lowered? Similar set up at the Albany end of the M&H.
    The actual M&H depot was located at the end of the line near where "Wendy's" is now on Eire Blvd/Erie Canal back in the day.