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The Life and Death of the New York, Ontario & Western Railway
by Bob Karig
The question has been raised, "What actions might have saved the O&W?"
This might sound like a facetious answer, but I believe the only action that might have saved the O&W was prohibiting the development of the internal combustion engine.
A lot has been said about how the O&W should never have been built. You'll see quotes that it was the line that "began nowhere, went nowhere and stopped nowhere in between," or that "it was built at right angles to the mountains." The facts, when viewed in the context of history, are a little different.
First, lets take ourselves back 150 years. How do you get from city to city? The answer is the same as it has been for thousands of years, you walk or ride your horse. And how do you get your products to market? You put them in a wagon and pull them behind your horse.
The pioneers of 200 years ago were looking for a way to open up the frontiers, to reduce the time it took to move freight from the western frontiers to tidewater where it could be loaded aboard schooners for shipment along the coast. The first attempt was through the use of artificial waterways, perhaps the most famous being the Erie Canal. When the Erie Canal was opened, it cut the time to travel from Philadelphia to Columbus, Ohio from 30 days to 20 days, and it cut the cost to ship 100 pounds of freight from $5.00 to $2.50.
The early part of the 19th century was marked by a frenzy of canal building to connect these economic zones, and it was only through the introduction of these transportation networks that it became economically viable for the western regions to be developed. As a result, a number of canals were built, including the Oswego, from Oswego to Syracuse; the Cayuga and Seneca, from Geneva to Montezuma, NY; the Black River, from Rome to Carthage, NY; the Delaware & Hudson, from Honesdale, PA to Rondout (Kingston), NY; and the Chenango, from Binghamton to Utica. If you examine a map, you'll see that many of these canals connected the same "nowheres" that the O&W passed through.
Of course, what you need to remember is that there were no superhighways at this time. If a road was paved, it was with logs, and the limit of the load was what could be hauled in a wagon by draft animals. If you think roads get bad now, think of what it was like hauling freight over rain drenched, muddy roads or over snow covered trails when there were no snow plows to clear the way. Being able to ship bulk freight at reduced cost over man-made waterways opened up the frontier, even if it was only during the temperate months when the canal wasn't frozen. A canal was a connection to the outside world, and everyone wanted one.
...and then something miraculous happened. The steam locomotive was invented in England. Suddenly it was possible to connect cities where water didn't flow, and now everyone wanted their cities to be connected by a railroad. The prevailing wisdom was that railroads brought prosperity. "Build it and they will come." It was that philosophy that built the transcontinental railroad, and the post civil war period was awash in ventures to connect the cities and towns of America with railroads. What would become the O&W, the New York and Oswego Midland, was part of that rush. Indeed, if the Panic of 1873 had never occurred, we might be writing about the Midland today instead of the O&W.
The builders of the "Midland" have been criticized for several reasons. First, it is said that the railroad was shoddily constructed. Well, if you go back and read the literature of the period, you’ll find that that was the prevailing wisdom of the day. With only a few exceptions, such as the Philadelphia & Reading, which was in and out of bankruptcy three times in the late 1800's, that's how railroads were constructed. The attitude was, "get it up and running and pay for improvements out of revenues."
The second criticism regards the route it took. In that regard, the first criticism is that it connected Lake Ontario to New York. If that was a mistake, then it's a mistake that was made by several other railroads, including the Lehigh Valley and the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western. In fact, at one point, the Lackawanna was known as the "Atlantic and Ontario Line" because of its connection from New York to Oswego, a route, by the way, that was even longer than the one ultimately taken by the O&W. If it was a mistake to connect to Oswego, then it was a mistake prized by the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company, because the D&H contracted with the Midland and then the O&W to haul its anthracite to Oswego for lake shipment.
The second criticism of its route structure is that it only connected those cities which bonded or took out bonds to help pay for the railroad. Well, without that money, the railroad would never have been built, and there'd be no story to tell. To say that those cities should not have had rail service is like saying that they should not be connected by highways today. Once again, we need to remember that railroads were the highways of their day. Two hundred years ago, twenty miles was a long journey, and it was only the railroad that made a trip of that distance routine. Who is so arrogant today as to say that those cities should not have had a rail connection then?
The third criticism is that it bypassed Syracuse. Well, Syracuse was already served by several railroads, including the mighty New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. Is it possible that the Midland or the O&W could have competed with the New York Central in traffic from Syracuse to New York City, especially with the New York Central having the "water level route" between those two cities? Remember that when the "West Shore" tried to do that, the New York Central ran them out of business. Thus, it makes a lot more economic sense to go to those cities that are not already served by a major railroad. In modern parlance, that’s called finding your market niche.
Now, if the O&W had never generated a profit, then all of these criticisms might have some merit. However, the O&W was profitable for many, many years, even while other railroads were in receivership. It was profitable enough that another railroad, the New York, New Haven & Hartford, believed it was worth owning, and in 1904, it bought the majority stock in the O&W. That indicates to me that other professionals of the time considered the O&W’s route structure as having significant value.
Now, what made the O&W profitable? The O&W had three major revenue streams--milk, passengers, and anthracite. If you trace the O&W's profitability, you'll see that profits begin declining just as petroleum and the internal combustion engine came of age. Gradually, it became more convenient to ship milk by truck to New York city over highways paid for with railroad taxes. It became more convenient to travel in the family car from city to city than to take the train. And anthracite just lost its luster (no pun intended) as a home heating fuel.
Thus, beginning in the 1920's, the O&W just lost its sources of revenue. Of course, the problems with the decline in revenue were compounded by other contributing factors, but the fact is that any railroad, or any business, that loses its revenue stream is going to fail regardless of how efficient it is. The bottom line is that, just as the railroad supplanted the canals built in the early 19th century, the highway supplanted many of the railroads built in the latter part of that century. In other words, if those rascals had never invented the internal combustion engine, you might still be riding on the "Old and Weary."
At least, that's my opinion, for what it's worth.