Delaware County NY Genealogy and History Site

Centennial History of Delaware County, New York : 1797-1897
edited by David Murray, LL.D.

Transcribed by Tamara Sanford


DELAWARE county is a completely inland county; no ocean or navigable river touches it on any side. More than this, it has a rough and mountainous surface, over which it is impossible to build far reaching roads, or railroads of commercial value. Access to the county was in three principal directions. 1st, through the Shandaken mountains from Kingston into Middletown and the valley of the East branch; 2d, by the head-waters of the West branch through Schoharie and Greene county from Catskill; 3d, up the valley of the Delaware as it winds through the mountains, and then up either branch into the various valleys of the county. As fast as the county became settled of course roads were opened and settlements connected. At first these roads were little more than trails such as the Indians followed in going from place to place on their hunting excursions. But the new settlers brought wagons and horses with them, and these required wider roads, the trees to be cut down and the roots and rocks to be grubbed out, and bridges to be built over intervening streams. It is just to say that the roads in this county were never good. Along the principal streams the roads were cut through the soft alluvial soil, and were dusty in summer, muddy in spring and autumn, and only good in winter when they were covered with snow. The roads up the smaller valleys and over the hills were invariably rough and stony, every shower washing away the earth and leaving the stones more and more exposed.

The care of the roads was in the hands of a so-called path master, who was elected to this office by the inhabitants of the road district. Each citizen was assessed for a certain sum proportionate to the size of his farm. He was permitted, however, to work out his assessment upon the roads, either in hand labor or with a team and driver. As this was almost invariably his choice, the work was not always the best adapted to the wants of the highway. The path master was generally ignorant of the best method in which to treat his district, and in consequence the repairs were very often mere waste labor which left the roads in a worse condition than they were in before. If the assessment had always been collected in money and that spent judiciously, the condition of the roads would have been much better, and the worry and annoyance would have been much less.

In later years turnpike companies have sometimes been formed to keep special roads in repair, for which they were authorized to charge toll. As a temporary expedient this no doubt was an advantage, and the roads thus cared for have proved a great benefit to communities. But it is a great burden to the farmers, and they are in general bitterly opposed to having the roads which they almost daily travel interrupted by toll-gates. It is the duty of the county and of the State to provide good roads for its citizens. There is no duty more important or pressing at the present day than this, and it is especially incumbent in a county like Delaware which is not easily accessible to the great markets.

When the Erie Canal was constructed and opened in 1825 a new era was begun for the prosperity of western and central New York. Even the counties along the Hudson and the seaport of New York city were vastly enriched. To connect such a seaport with the interior of a great State, and by means of inland lakes with the very heart of the continent, was one of the greatest feats of economic statesmanship which the world had seen.

But it seemed a grievance to the counties distant from the line of the canal, and it still seems a grievance, that they who enjoyed no benefit from it, have been and are still obliged to contribute to the millions which it has cost to construct, to enlarge and to repair. Delaware county, removed as she necessarily was from the line of the canal never received any direct benefit. She only profited from it in a general way by the building up of the great metropolis and the increase thereby of the demand for those products which she had for sale.

In common with the southern tier of counties across the State, Delaware county insisted with great urgency upon the construction of a railroad which should connect New York city with Lake Erie. Plans for building the N. Y. and Erie railroad were seriously discussed as early as 1825. Petitions for aid in the enterprise by the State were presented to the Legislature, and in compliance with these the Comptroller was authorized to loan to the company the sum of one million of dollars; one quarter of the sum when one hundred miles of the road had been completed, a second quarter when two hundred miles were completed, a third when three hundred, and the last when four hundred miles were finished. With this encouragement the stock of the road was rapidly subscribed for. Ground was broken for the beginning of the construction at Deposit in this county November 7, 1835. But the financial stringency throughout the country in 1836 and 1837 put an end for a time to the prosecution of the enterprise. But in 1838 the State again came to its aid by the grant of an additional loan of three million of dollars.

The physical difficulties of building a railroad through such rough and mountainous regions as the Delaware and Susquehanna valleys were not at first fully realized. Twice the location of the track was changed, in order to avoid obstacles which had not been fully appreciated.

Unwisely the road was planned to have a broad gauge of seven feet instead of the ordinary gauge of four feet eight inches. This was in imitation of the great engineer Brunel who constructed the Great Western railway of England with a broad track, under the impression that all the competing and connecting lines would finally conform to the broad gauge. But when the importance of running cars from all roads over the Erie, and in turn of being able to send the loaded cars of the Erie over the roads with which it connected, it became an urgent necessity to change to the narrower and standard gauge. The change was not made, however, until much later, and then only at a very considerable expense.

The Erie railroad only runs through a small part of Delaware county, following the Delaware river, entering from Sullivan county and leaving at Deposit. But even this inconsiderable contact was of infinite benefit to the county. Besides the aid it rendered to the towns immediately adjoining, many parts far to the east were much helped in having a better and easier communication opened up for them with the New York markets. Much of the travel which had before this sought an outlet eastward by long and mountainous routes to the Hudson river now adopted this natural and easy route down the Delaware valley to Hancock. Many farm products which under former circumstances were not worth sending to market now became valuable and merchantable. This was the first step towards bringing Delaware county out into the world.

The next step was the opening of the Albany and Susquehanna, railroad. This line was organized in 1851, receiving State and local aid towards its construction. It was finished to Oneonta in 1865, to Unadilla and Sidney Plains in 1866, and to Binghamton in 1869. In 1870 it was leased to the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company for one hundred and fifty years, and has since been operated as a part of its system. Although the Albany and Susquehanna railroad at no point enters Delaware county, yet as it runs for a long distance down the valley of the Susquehanna there are many places where it affords valuable facilities to portions of the county. From the station Emmons there was run for many years o daily stage by way of Elk Creek to Delhi. From Oneonta there was easy communication into the towns of Franklin and Meredith and from Unadilla and Sidney Plains into the western towns of the county.

The third attempt to invade the solitude of Delaware county was made by the New York and Oswego Midland railroad, now called the New York, Ontario & Western. This road was projected in 1865 and articles of incorporation filed in 1866. It was designed to reach from New York city to Oswego, by running through a section of the State not before traversed by railroad and thus to open up some hopeful regions which heretofore had been shut in by mountains. Much special legislation was needed to carry out this design. It plainly could not rely for success upon the subscription of stockholders who would risk their money in the enterprise. Henry R. Low, Senator from Sullivan county, and Speaker Dewitt C. Littlejohn from Oswego, were in the State legislature when the plans for building this road were under discussion; and by the powerful influence of these two men the needed legislation was procured. The most important of the laws passed was one enabling any town of a county through which the road was to pass to issue bonds for its construction, the sum to be raised not to exceed thirty percent of the taxable property.

Much discussion occurred in regard to the location of the line. Some of the most earnest friends of the road insisted upon the main line being located through the village of Delhi. It was not an easy thing, however, to lay a line through the mountains of Delaware. Engineering questions are involved in it, and patriotic impulses must remain in the background. It was finally settled to make the main line cross the Delaware valley at Walton, and build a branch line to Delhi.

Mr. Littlejohn, who had been made president of the company, traversed the route from end to end, appealing to the several communities for their aid. As he was a man of endless resources and of most earnest and plausible address, he met with uniform success in inducing the towns to bond themselves. In the foreclosure proceedings instituted in 1879 the cost of the road is stated at $26,333,000; of which sum the amount received from bonding the towns was nearly $7,000,000, the towns in Delaware county furnishing $660,800. For the town bonds thus issued stock was returned by the company. This stock was wiped out by the foreclosure proceedings above referred to; and thus the towns were put in the position, of making an absolute gift to this road. Who will say, however, that the benefits derived from it have not more than balanced the large outlay? Besides the amounts received from the towns, the company relied for building the road upon the stock subscribed for and on the amounts realized from mortgages. It is only necessary to add, however, that the road has never proved a financial success. In 1873 it defaulted on its interest and went into the hands of receivers. In 1880 it was sold to a new company who have reorganized it on a basis which enables it to pay its way. It is now called the New York, Ontario and Western railroad.

The fourth railroad which has penetrated the inhospitable regions of Delaware county is the Ulster and Delaware. This grew out of the disputes over the location of the Midland railroad. A strong party with Mr. Thomas Cornell at its head was very desirous of making the eastern terminus of this road at Kingston on the Hudson river, and of extending it westward through Ulster, Delaware and other counties. And when it was determined to build the Midland through Sullivan county and so northwest through Delaware, Mr. Cornell and his party set about building a road of their own. It was projected in 1865 and begun soon after. It was laid through a most intractable region, among the Shandaken mountains, over Pine Hill and then up to the head of the West branch of the Delaware. In 1870 the road was opened to Shandaken and at once developed a substantial business in carrying summer visitors into the Catskill mountains. In 1871 the road was over Pine Hill, the severest engineering obstacle it had to encounter. In 1872 Roxbury village was reached, and in the same year the village of Stamford. This was the highest point attained (1,888 feet). Here the Ulster and Delaware railroad halted for several years, although the original plans contemplated its extension through Kortright and Davenport. In 1884, it was carried down the valley of the Delaware to the village of Hobart, and finally in 1891 it was still further extended to Bloomville where it now rests. This terminus is only eight miles from the village of Delhi.

Like the Midland railroad this also was aided by the towns. through which it passed. Thus Middletown was bonded for $100,000, Roxbury for $120,000, Stamford for $100,000 and Harpersfield for $100,000. To all these towns and to many not included in the list the road has been of immense advantage. The whole dairy industry of the eastern part of the county has been put upon a new and improved basis. The supplies of lumber, feed and flour which are required by the farmers and others are brought to them at a much less cost and at a more convenient distance.

Index to Centennial History of Delaware County

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a service of the Delaware County Historical Association located at 46549 State Highway 10, Delhi, NY 13753

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