Early Railroads of Saratoga and Ballston, New York
From: Reminiscences of Saratoga and Ballston
By William L. Stone
Wortington Co.,
747 Broadway, New York 1890.

Early Railroading.

Ring out the bells throughout the town,
Command our citizens that they may make bonfires,
And feast and banquet in the open streets,
To celebrate the joy which God has given us.

THE season of 1833 formed an era in the pros perity of Saratoga Springs as a watering place. In that year the railroad was extended to Saratoga, and was, I believe, the second passenger railroad that was completed in the United States. The first engines with a train of “carriages “ (as they were then called), passed up the road from Schenectady to Saratoga on the 4th of July, 1833—Warren B. B. Westcott, who was at Ballston at the time, distinctly remembering the novel spectacle. As mentioned in the preceding chapter, the railroad from Schenectady to Saratoga, begun in the summer of 1831, had been carried the succeeding year only as far as Ballston.* The trains, however, had not run regularly even up to that point, and the usual route was still from Albany to Saratoga by fine post-coaches at a dollar a fare. With the completion, however, of the railroad to Saratoga the crisis was passed. “The number of strangers now in this village,” says Mr. Gideon M, Davison in his paper of July 7, 1833, “cannot be less than 1,000— at least twice as many as are ordin arily here at this season of the year.” Since then each successibe season, with a few exceptions—such as the cholera year of 1849 and the one succeeding the burning of Congress Hall—has been one of increasing prosperity.

Indeed, it was mainly due to the efforts of Mr. Davison that the railroad was built, As an athrocate of public improvement, he early took an interest in railroads, and immediately after the line between Albany and Schenectady was opened, he began to agitate the subject of a road from Saratoga to Schenectady, to connect with it. His acquaintance, moreover, with the leading residents at Saratoga, and the politicians who bad influence at Albany, aided greatly in securing the charter of the Saratoga and Schenectady Railroad, of which he was appointed Commissioner of Construction.

There are a number of incidents connected with the early days of the railroad at Saratoga which are of an exceedingly interesting character, The speed at first was but fifteen miles an hour, and this was considered extraordinary time. Indeed, fears were expressed at the prospect even of a greater rate being attained. “Were the velocity of these to be doubled,” says Colonel Stone, writing from Saratoga at this time, “there would be continued apprehensions of danger, in addition to disagreeable sensations of dizziness. But such is not the case now; and the passengers are whirled along in commodious and elegant cars, without jolting or any other annoyance, and without the remotest fears for the safety of life or of limb.”

The ground for the new road was first broken in the village in the month of September, 1831, which circumstance was celebrated by a grand procession. Thee news had spread like wildfire through the country, and on the day of its occurrence, hundreds of the farmers for miles around drove in to witness the august event. Among these was W. B. B. Westcott, who, a little boy at that time, came with his father into the village. The procession formed in Broadway, in front of the old Columbian Hotel, and then moved up Church Street through an opening in a thick pine wood in rear of the Presbyterian Church (now the Commercial Hotel), to about the site of the present depot. Here it halted, and, after several speeches had been made by Churchill C. CambrelIng (M. C. from New York City) and other prominent citizens, six Irish laborers in the procession bearing shovels threw up a few spadefuls of earth, and the ceremony of breaking ground was pronounced complete. After the ground had been thus broken, a dinner was partaken of, when the procession was reformed and returned to the Columbian. During the march back, however, it halted to witness a grand exhibition given by Nathaniel Waterbury of pulling stumps with his new machine, which was then a great novelty, While the procession was marching, Augustus Trim, then a dipping boy at Congress Spring, assisted in firing a cannon from the present Temple Grove, near the large pine-tree south of the present Circular Railroad—” Primus” Budd having the fuse and Dick Sprutt holding the vent. Fourteen guns in all were fired. during the celebration, from signals given from the top of the old Pavilion Hotel,

At first, the road was laid on blocks of stone, but these were soon found, by their not “giving,” to rack the cars too much, and wooden “sleepers” were subtuted. The rails used were long strips of iron, nailed to horizontal timbers. Often, however, the wheels would rip them up where they were joined—driving them through the flooring of the cars, to the great danger of the passengers’ lives. These dismembered rails were called “snake-heads,”

The first depot was where the Marvin House now stands, and the ticket agent was the late Daniel D. Benedict. The cars, which are described as spacious and elegant (what would then hane been thought of the Pullman and Wagner Palace Cars?), had each, like the railway carriages in Europe, three compartments, curtained and cushioned and intended to contain eight passengers. Outside was a platform running the length of the car, for the convenience of the conductor, who, while the cars were in motion, would, with one arm thrown around a window-casing for support, with the other collect the fares. This, however, was not so hazardous a proceeding as might be supposed, since the cars, which the first year were drawn by horses, travelled only at the rate of nine miles an hour, The first conductors were “Bill” Smith, “Cheese” Burtis, Horace Kelly, and George Elsworth; and the two wheel-horses were named “Turk” and “ Dick”; Captain Dexter was one of the drivers, and George Long was at this period the “Express,” said express consisting of himself and a little leather bag, with which he went daily between Albany and Saratoga,* Benjamin Eldridge (father of Thomas) was the first cartman, and his advertisement in the newspapers of that time, announcing himself and one horse as at the service of the public, is quite quaint and curious in its character,

The cars with horses were a great novelty, but when steam was substituted for horse-power the astonishment knew no bounds. Every day, on the arrival and departure of the train, one hundred to a hundred and fifty people would go up to the depot to see the new wonder of the: age; and once, when the cars broke away from their couplings and ran down into Broadway, great was the scattering and consternation. The two locomotives, which were brought from Eng land, were called the “Fire Fly” and the “David Crockett.” These names were very appropriate (much more so than those given at the present day), the last one, especially, as it recalled the favorite motto of the old backwoodsman—” Be sure you’re right, then go ahead!” Once, however, the “David Crockett” failed to live up to the motto of its illustrious namesake; and, as the instance illustrates the power of the locomotives of those days, it is worthy of mention. On one occasion in the month of July, as the “Crockett” was speeding along between Saratoga and Ballston, a bull planted himself squarely in its front, On came the engine; but, marvellous to relate, the “Crockett” and three cars were thrown off the track, and the bull, which had been overthrown by the collision, got up, shook himself, and although somewhat demoralized, walked deliberately off!

These two locomotive—each of which had a large hogshead, painted green, on behind to hold the water, and connected with the boiler by unprotected leathern hose—stood in the old engine-house until it was pulled down to make way for the new depot. They were then taken to Green Island, where, as I am informed, the “Fire Fly” yet remains, a circumstance that is greatly to the credit of those having the matter in charge, among whom, I believe, is Mr. John M. Davison. On the first trip down, the “Fire Fly” broke down at Beekman’s Woods, and “Hat” Martin, who was on board, at first did not know but that this was the nature of the “critter,” which was only carrying out the programme, and performing its expected tricks! Custom, however, soon reconciles us to unfamiliar objects; and the strangeness of the appearances was quickly lost sight of in the rapidly growing prospects of Saratoga.

The ground for the Saratoga and Whitehall Railroad was first broken in April, 1836. The initiation of this road was also due to Mr. Davison, who, being indefatigable in the collection of statistics of travel and business, could prepare and lay them before the public in a concise shape. The charter, therefore, through his instrumentality, being secured, the capital was subscribed for and the construction of the road begun, but the crash of 1837 came on before it had made much progress, and its managers were forced to, suspend operations. Mr. Davison, however, never lost faith in it, and kept steadily at work until he had secured its construction to the end of the route. The first year- the road was carried through the Upper Village at a cost of sixty thousand dollars, when it was stopped for want of funds. It remained in statu quo until ten years after, when it was completed to Whitehall, Mr. Robert Patterson (the present proprietor of the Putnam Bath-House) superintended its construction; and when in December, 1846, the first train went up the road to Lake Champlain with a load of iron, he took with him seventy laboring men, each armed with an axe with which to cut away any forest trees that might have fallen on the track. Previous to the completion of the road, fine Concord coaches ran to Whitehall— starting from Montgomery Hall, under the proprietorship of General Joshua T. Blanchard.


Return to [ NY History ] [ History at Rays Place ] [ Rays Place ]


NY Counties - Albany - Allegany - Broome - Cayuga - Chatauqua - Chenango - Clinton - Columbia - Cortland - Dutchess - Erie - Essex - Franklin - Fulton - Genesee - Herkimer - Jefferson - Lewis - Livingston - Madison - Montgomery - Niagara - Oneida - Onondaga - Ontario - Orange - Orleans - Oswego - Putnam - Queens - Rensselaer - Richmond - Rockland - St. Lawrence - Saratoga - Schenectady - Steuben - Suffolk - Tioga - Tompkins - Tryone - Ulster - Washington - Wayne - Yates


All pages copyright 2003-2012. All items on this site are copyrighted by their author(s). These pages may be linked to but not used on another web site. Anyone may copy and use the information provided here freely for personal use only. Privacy Policy