All Aboard!

The history of railroads in the U.S. comprises many subjects: technology, engineering developments; geography, shaping the land, based on both practical and commercial reasons; economics, the growth of business and industry; and demographics, the movement of people. It also involves sociology, since greater mobility shaped social life. With the opening of a railroad line, people could more readily visit Sharon Springs and other area communities for family visits, recreation, and health.

Railroad history is complex, given the number of companies that were formed and lines that were laid. We’ve gathered many of the important dates pertaining to the Sharon Springs region of upstate New York – a starting point for more in-depth studies!

The story begins with the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company, still in existence as the Delaware and Hudson Railway. In 1823, the original D&H opened to haul anthracite coal from Carbondale, Pennsylvania, to New York City. The potential of rail was also seen to move coal, and, in 1829, the company’s Stourbridge Lion became the first locomotive to run on rails in the United States.

In later decades, the D&H assumed ownership of existing lines and invested in new lines in upstate New York. Among them was the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad, which, in 1851, began operating between Albany and Schoharie Junction. By 1864, its run extended to Cobleskill, and, by 1869, to Binghamton. The D&H leased it in 1870 and assumed ownership in 1945.

In 1865, the Schoharie Valley Railroad between Schoharie Junction – where it branched off the main Albany and Susquehanna line near Central Bridge – and Schoharie, a run of 4.2 miles, was founded. In 1867, a separate company founded the Middleburgh and Schoharie Railroad on a 5.7 mile run between those two villages, the first run taking place in 1868. The two lines, known as the “Pride of the Valley,” operated in tandem, facilitating travel and shipping in the region. The shipping of hops, used in beer-making, from upstate hop farms, helped in the economy of these and other regional lines. The writer Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) reportedly worked as a brakeman on the Middleburgh and Schoharie line in December of 1879; he was 44 at the time and a prolific writer so we can assume this was for research. He uses the term “brakeman” in various works.

In 1869, the Cooperstown and Charlotte Valley Railroad opened, running 16 miles between Cooperstown to Colliersville, where it formed a junction with the Albany and Susquehanna line. An extension to Richfield Springs was added that same year; a second extension was added to Davenport in 1888. The CAVC merged with the West Davenport Railroad in 1891, then became part of the Delaware and Hudson Company in 1903.

The lines we’ve discussed so far, part of the D&H system, connected to other lines in Albany, run by a different company – the New York Central Railroad – the history of which also begins in the early days of railroading. In 1831, the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad was founded, connecting the Mohawk River at Schenectady to the Hudson River at Albany; it became known as the Albany and Schenectady Railroad in 1847. The Utica and Schenectady Railroad extended the line westward from Schenectady north of the Mohawk River to Utica in 1836. In 1853, the Albany and Schenectady Railroad and nine other companies in New York State merged to form the New York Central Railroad.

In 1864, a charter was granted for the incorporation of the Cherry Valley and Mohawk River Railroad Company. The original plan was to build a line from Cherry Valley north to the town of Palatine on a route allowing for service to a number of communities east and north of Cherry Valley, including Sharon Springs. In Palatine the new line would connect to the New York Central system. That plan failed, but, in 1868, the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad Company offered to operate a different route in conjunction with its own service to the south, connecting Cherry Valley and Cobleskill. In 1869, the Cherry Valley and Mohawk River Railroad Company changed its name to the Cherry Valley, Sharon and Albany Railroad and began work on the new line. A driving force and principal investor in this venture was William W. Campbell (a great-great-uncle of History Boy Chris).

The new line, consisting of light rail, was laid between a new terminal at Cherry Valley and a junction located a mile-and-a-half west of a terminal in Cobleskill, known as the Cherry Valley Junction. At the junction point, the line connected to the heavier rail of the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad. A tower was built at the Cherry Valley Junction to manage mainline and branch trains. Passenger and freight depots were constructed in Sharon Springs, Seward, and Hyndsville for stops there. Leesville, between Sharon Springs and Cherry Valley, also came to have depot, a small one for passenger stops. At the time of the Cherry Valley, Sharon and Albany Railroad’s first run on June 15, 1870, ownership of the company was transferred to the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company. In addition to freight runs – including milk shipped between farms, creameries, and customers – passenger trains of what became known as the Cherry Valley Branch made three round trips a day.

The parent Delaware and Hudson Canal Company, with its ever expanding rail system, was renamed the Delaware and Hudson Company in 1899, incorporated as the Delaware and Hudson Railroad Corporation in 1928, and reorganized as the Delaware and Hudson Railway in 1968.

With the advent of automobiles and trucks, the need for railroad service to rural communities lessened. After 1934, the Cooperstown and Charlotte Valley Railroad offered only freight service. It was sold to the Delaware Otsego Corporation in 1970; its last freight run was in 1987. The Leatherstocking Railway Historical Society purchased the line from the Delaware Otsego Corporation in 1996 and now offers recreational rides between Milford and Cooperstown, including a Blues Train with live bands.

In 1936, the Middleburgh and Schoharie Railroad made its last run, and, in 1942, the Schoharie Valley Railroad between Schoharie and Schoharie Junction also stopped service. In 1971, the Schoharie Colonial Heritage Association opened the Schoharie Valley Railroad Museum in Schoharie, which has on display the last remaining passenger car of the Middleburgh and Schoharie Railroad.

The Cherry Valley, Sharon and Albany Railroad – the Cherry Valley Branch – made its last passenger run on January 28, 1933. It made its last freight on August 15, 1956. The latter date was two years after the opening of the New York State Thruway, increasing access to upstate communities. The last run of the Cherry Valley Branch also occurred soon after the opening of the Route 20 Bypass, a rerouting of what was once the Cherry Valley Turnpike (see our earlier blog). Interestingly, a rare all-welded bridge had recently been completed to carry trains over the bypass. It reportedly was used only twice by the railroad – by the last freight train to Cherry Valley and then again on its final run to Cobleskill, during which, some reports have it, the train stopped to allow workers to pull up and load rails. The well-constructed but “million-dollar boondoggle” bridge still stands over Route 20. A newspaper no longer in existence, The Cherry Valley News (“News of the People in the Towns of Cherry Valley, Roseboom, Middlefield, Springfield, Sharon Springs, and Vicinity” at 10 cents a copy), reported that …

“The last scheduled train over this branch left Cherry Valley at 5:12 p.m. Friday, without ceremony, fan-fare, and certainly without well wishes from anyone here … This is quite different from the scene of almost a century ago, when the first train came in. We are told there was a great turn-out of Cherry Valley folk and a picnic was held in the Campbell grove to celebrate the event.”

The former depot in Cherry Valley is now home to the Cherry Valley Fire Department. The Sharon Springs depot still stands at Chestnut Street and Rowlands Way; the depot in Leesville also stands on the north side of Route 20 between Cherry Valley and Sharon Springs; so does the depot in Seward, at the junction of  Route 165 and Slate Hill Road; these three are all privately owned. The Hyndsville depot no longer exists. Nor does the tower at the Cherry Valley Junction, although a historic marker along Route 10 shows the junction’s general location. The former Cherry Valley Branch’s railbed is mostly privately owned, much of it agricultural field or brush or wooded areas. All the tracks have been removed as well as most ties, but an occasional spike or small piece of a tie can be found. Nevertheless, except in those areas where farmers have plowed over it, the abandoned route can be readily traced, and much of it is visible from nearby roads, at least from late fall to early spring when there are no leaves on the trees (as the Bloggers confirmed on a recent drive). Some stretches are ideal for use by four-wheelers and snowmobilers.

In 1964, D&H passenger service was discontinued in Cobleskill. In 1991, D&H became a subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which now uses some of the original Albany and Susquehanna lines for freight.

As for the other big player in the railroad history of upstate New York – New  York Central – many of the lines established in the 19th century are still in existence and are used by the federally owned and subsidized National Railroad Passenger Corporation, better known as Amtrak; other early New York Central lines are still operated by private freight companies.

Okay, that’s a start for understanding the history of railways in the greater Sharon Springs area. Those of us who have an interest in the subject, including the two of us – Blogger Chris had a Lionel model train set as a child and Blogger Carl had an American Flyer set! – would love to hear train whistles again in Sharon Springs and Cherry Valley, but of course it’s not to be except in our imaginations. At least, to call up a bygone era, we can ride the Leatherstocking Railway between Milford and Cooperstown, or visit the Schoharie Valley Railroad Museum on Depot Lane in Schoharie.

 

The History Boys are

Chris Campbell has made his permanent home in Cherry Valley, NY. The Campbell family dates back to 1739 in this town, situated about eight miles from Sharon Springs. Some family members were captured by Tories and Iroquois allies in the Cherry Valley Massacre of 1778 during the American Revolution and taken to Canada, released two years later in Albany as part of a prisoner exchange. Chris is a rare book and map collector and has had a lifelong interest in history, especially relating to upstate New York and colonial land patents. He was the founder and first chairman of the Cherry Valley Planning Board and has worked as a surveyor and realtor as well as a researcher for the Otsego County map department. His hobbies include Ham radio.

 

Carl Waldman, also living in Cherry Valley, is a former archivist for the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown. He is he author of a number of reference books published by Facts On File, including Atlas of the North American Indian and Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, both originally published in the 1980s and both in their third editions. He is the co-author of Encyclopedia of Exploration (2005) and Encyclopedia of European Peoples (2006). Carl has also done screenwriting about Native Americans, including an episode of Miami Vice entitled “Indian Wars” and the Legend of Two-Path, a drama about the Native American side of Raleigh’s Lost Colony, shown at Festival Park on Roanoke Island in North Carolina. His hobbies include music and he works with young people in the Performance and Production Workshops at the Cherry Valley Old School.

Carl has recently published an ebook through Alva Press, Streetscape: A Jake Soho Mystery

 

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  • By: Michael

    Very nice article! It is always fascinating to learn about your local history. I recently was looking up the abandoned tracks in my neck of the woods near Colorado Springs and found the history very interesting. I always wondered how some of the small towns in my area started and I can see how trains played a major role in their growth. Now with the tracks abandoned many of the small towns that counted on the train for their survival are dying. For some fun I followed the now abandoned Rock Island railroad tracks using Google Earth to see the path it took and followed it from Limon, CO all the way to Colorado Springs and then back tracked it deep into Kansas. it is interesting to see the societal shifts with the introduction and exit of the railway. At the time I am sure nobody could ever imagine that someday the trains would stop running in these towns. Many businesses have died that set up shop along side the tracks and counted on the trains to keep running.

  • By: Jane

    I enjoyed the article. Now this has nothing to do with railroads but I am using this to get in touch with you who love history. I recently became interested in a little bit of Fultonville history. Have you ever come across Starin Place and the history of John Starin. I find him fascinating and his estate. I do not know why he has not become the historical figure that others have become. I never even learned about him in school when learning local history. Would you consider an article concerning this local historical figure?

  • By: Dorothy Hayes

    We did some train travel while visiting England and Scotland. It is such a nice way to travel.

  • By: Vitta Fernandez

    How very interesting! It seems the older I get the more I like history. There must be some sort of correlation there.

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