Submitted by Dr. Paul Loatman, Jr.
Mechanicville City Historian
July 4, 2007
I have a soft place in my heart for slow-moving freight trains. I learned to appreciate them while waiting for one to clear the pre-overpass Saratoga Avenue crossing in August, 1962. Newly-arrived in town, I followed the native tradition of stepping out of my car to stretch my legs and make small talk during the extended period it took the train to pass into the local rail yard. Fellow travelers discouraged me from seeking a detour, informing me that it required a ten-mile roundabout trip just to get to the other side of the tracks. Better to wait for the train to pass; it was both practical and virtuous to display patience. Of course, I later discovered that on particularly bad days, you could experience the pleasure of seeing the caboose of one freight barely clear the crossing while simultaneously catching the front end of a train of six locomotives pulling a couple of hundred freight cars moving in the opposite direction. “Double-headers” provoked audible groans from onlookers occasionally, and seeking ten-mile detours under these circumstances was considered permissible. You might not get to the other side of the crossing any faster, but at least you could vent your frustration. Unbeknownst to those born after the opening of the overpass in the mid-1970s, such travails occurred numerous times each day, all part of the price of living in a railroad town.
Today, a visitor scanning the horizon beyond the XO Tower would be hard-pressed to find any evidence of the beehive of activity that characterized those environs for decades. Nor can the present-day onlooker find any evidence of the 24-hour diner that catered to railroaders and anyone else with a penchant for cheeseburgers and French fries. No, the train doesn’t stop here anymore, and Tancredi’s Diner, manned by the inimitable “Shanghai” and a supporting cast of characters worthy of its own sitcom, has bitten the dust, literally, suffering a fate similar to that inflicted on Carthage following its last visit by the Roman Army. In fact, other than the aforementioned XO Tower and the nearby railroad-station-cum-auto-garage, there is barely an artifact left testifying to Mechanicville’s century and a half romance with railroads and the men and women who ran them.
It all began in 1835 when the first little engine of the Saratoga and Rensselaer Railway chugged its way here at the then-blazing speed of 10 m.p.h. Keep in mind that Andrew Jackson, our seventh President, lived in the White House at the time; the Alamo had not yet become a tourist attraction; and one-third of the “Lower Forty-Eight” states belonged to Mexico. This was the first of what would become daily excursions through Mechanicville transporting wealthy Southerners and European travelers to the spas at Ballston and Saratoga searching for “the water cure” for various aches and pains.
Occasionally, some of these travelers jotted down their impressions of the little settlement nestled between the Hudson River and the Champlain Canal. The neatness and attentiveness of the young female textile “operatives” who left their looms long enough to capture a view of the noisy steam engine spewing cinders and smoke as it chugged out of town caught the attention of one early journal-keeper. Although it would not be legally incorporated for another twenty-five years, the “village’s” population of around 1,000 souls remained remarkably stable in the next four decades following the railway’s maiden trip. Beyond providing services for local farmers, denizens of the hamlet were employed by the American Linen Thread Company, or planed wood to make doors in local sash and blind factories sold to builders in urban centers throughout the Northeast. Local products were sent to market by canal boat rather than by train, extensive rail connections not yet having been established. However. the last quarter of the nineteenth century brought dramatic changes in this regard.
The groundwork for Mechanicville’s emergence as a major rail center was laid when the Delaware and Hudson acquired the Saratoga and Whitehall line in 1870, only two years after it had bought out the original S&R Railway. By itself, this move may not have created immediate economic rewards, but it did establish connections to larger markets on a north-south axis for Mechanicville businesses and travelers. More significantly, the Hoosac Tunnel was opened in 1876, leading to the establishment of east-west rail service here by the Boston, Hoosac Tunnel and Western Railway. The BHT&W bridged the Hudson and extended connections to Rotterdam, providing Mechanicville with access to all four points on the compass. After three decades of bumbling, bribery, and blasting, completing “the Great Bore,” as the Tunnel was called, provided Massachusetts businesses with an outlet across the Mohawk Valley to the Great Lakes, enabling them to compete with New York City interests for the trade of the American heartland. Less than a decade later, the Fitchburgh line acquired the BHT&W, and in turn, it was absorbed by the Boston and Maine, New England’s dominant freight carrier, in 1900. Consolidation being the order of the day, it was unsurprising when the B&M merged with the New Haven eight years later. However, this move engineered by the Mellon-Morgan bankers, prostrated the line in an ocean of debt, postponing plans to expand its operations here. Fortunately, this unholy marriage of convenience was quickly annulled, and once and for all, Mechanicville became the major western gateway of one of the nation’s leading regional rail networks.
Having shaken off the financial shackles contrived by the Morgan-Mellon interests, the B&M now began investing millions of dollars expanding facilities here. When completed in 1913, the third largest freight transfer yard in the United States was located in Mechanicville. During peak years between World War I and the Crash of 1929, more than 1,100 men and women were employed in the local offices, shops, and yards of the combined D&H and B&M operations. More than sixty miles of track in the local yard ribboned along a two-mile swath of land adjacent to the Tenedehowa Creek permitted the switching of thousands of cars through the yard daily, as incoming freight was reclassified and dispatched far and wide in newly-configured trains.
Until 1913, much less extensive transfer operations had been conducted in “Siberia,” a small rail yard situated north of Saratoga Avenue adjacent to the paper mill that stood on the site of today’s Price Chopper Plaza. Derisively named by the clerks who were compelled to work in jerry-built offices with paper-thin walls guaranteeing them “air-conditioning” in winter and mosquito invasions from nearby swamps in summer, the refugees from “Siberia” discovered both improved and expanded work opportunities in the new facilities. Arc lights illuminated the yards, increasing safety for workers employed in what was then the most dangerous industry in America. Local editor Farrington Mead was not kidding when he suggested that the County Coroner relocate to Mechanicville, given the number of railroad fatalities here. Lest they miss his point, the journalist provided readers with graphic descriptions of mangled bodies and beheadings suffered by local railroaders, as well as exact estimates as to how far body parts had been thrown when someone failed to avoid a loose box car or switching engine.
Escaping from “Siberia” required a Herculean effort in both money and manpower, while playing a few tricks on Mother Nature. In all, 200+ acres located south of the Tenendehowa Creek were divided into thirty two-mile long classification tracks laid side by side. Switch-engines pulled cars off of incoming trains, brought them to another track where they were “reclassified” by being pushed over a “hump” and coasted (at speeds up to twenty-six miles per hour) to their destination as part of newly organized freights. All of this, of course, depended upon the ability of brakemen who rode atop the boxcars to manually stop them at just the right speed. However, “hump jockeys” who were unsuccessful might lose legs, arms, or their lives if the car stopped too suddenly and threw them underneath.
The Wilson and English construction company employed 200 convict laborers from Louisiana and four hundred Italian immigrants who completed the yard almost a year ahead of schedule. The undertaking required draining and filling swamps, leveling hills, and relocating the Tenendehowa Creek a bit northward, thus altering the border between the Towns of Stillwater and Halfmoon. The Hudson Valley Trolley bridge, its remnants still visible today just east of Coons Crossing, was expanded and pushed a tad to the north without any interruption of service. An automatic scale that weighed freight cars while still in motion and compressed-air switches that redirected cars from the “hump” to new destinations were just a few of the innovations that caught the attention of railroaders throughout the United States. Two 800-feet long transfer docks allowed hundreds of workers to exchange freight between the B&M and the D&H lines. Offices, repair shops, stock pens for cattle and sheep, and an ice-house to stock refrigerator cars were just some of the facilities built on site. “Cripple tracks” holding 240 cars at a time while awaiting repairs, and a full-scale roundhouse along with associated storage and work facilities kept Mechanicville’s dominant work force hopping during its heyday from its opening until the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Despite a significant economic downturn in 1913, the local operations were built none too soon, given the tremendous boost in freight traffic accompanying the outbreak of war in Europe the following year. Indeed, despite its vast capacity, war-time traffic became so heavy that freight embargoes had to be imposed to enable workers to keep up with the tremendous volume of trains passing through the yards. The strategic role they played in the national war-time economy was emphasized in 1917 when classes at Williams College in Massachusetts were suspended to permit students to come to work here to help break the bottleneck and facilitate delivery of vital materials to the Allied armies in Europe.
Improvements continued to be made in the operations well into the 1920s. George Hannauer, co-inventor of the car-retarder switch, introduced his innovation here soon after becoming the President of the B&M in 1925. An automatic brake laid upon a switching track, it controlled the speed at which cars were pushed over “the hump” when being reclassified, thereby reducing damage to both freight and brakemen. Yet, the change proved to be a double-edged sword: the number of “hump jockeys” needed was reduced by half, while the time required to clear freights through Mechanicville to Boston was cut from twenty-five to less than ten hours. Unforeseen at the time, the manpower decline begun with the introduction of the car-retarder switch signaled the beginning of a long-term downward trend. Unfortunately, the local work force had little control over any of this. The editors of the industry Bible, Railway Age, pointed out in 1921 that 2% of the B&M’s problems were operational, while 98% were due to financial mismanagement. The company’s stock reflected this grim reality, declining from about $200 a share in 1900 to less than $40 by 1919, and continuing its slide throughout the 1930s. The impact locally was nothing less than dramatic. While the industry had continued to employ over 1,100 into the 1920s, (more than 80% of them working for the New England road), that number was cut almost in half by 1930. Matters only continued to go downhill from there.
Less significant economically but more stable, the D&H provided steady employment for an average of 200 workers throughout the first half of the twentieth century, a figure that rarely fluctuated. The line was spared from the financial vicissitudes of its larger local partner because 50% of its revenue derived from the sale of coal from its mines in Carbondale, Pennsylvania that was used to heat homes and fire industrial furnaces throughout upstate New York and New England. It avoided bankruptcy litigation until 1943 when a federal receiver permitted it to refinance its debt over the next twenty-five years. By then, however, things had changed for the worse for the entire industry.
Thus far, we have focused on the economic impact of railroads on the growth of the local community. But, beneath the statistics lies the unrecorded story of thousands of people whose daily lives were deeply affected by the progress of the rails through our town. Given space limitations here, we can only recount a few details that might capture some of this underlying story. When immigrant trackworkers first appeared here in 1882, editor Farrington Mead patronizingly described them as “noble Romans” who celebrated joyously while reading letters received from home aloud at the local post office. But, a more ominous note was struck later that same year when he recorded “rioting” by the newcomers who were outraged by the thievery of a padrone, or labor boss, who had stolen their pay. Unfortunately, they would not be the last contract laborers whose labor agent walked off with their hard-earned cash. In the following decade, Mead struck a humorous note again while attempting to alleviate fears that immigrants were polluting Mechanicville’s water system by swimming in Plumb Brook. The editor assured his readers that it was untrue that “foreign substances, including Italians” could fit into the pipes connecting the village with the reservoir. As it turned out, the illegal bathers were natives and not immigrants. An alarmist tone, however, characterized his 1911 note in The Saturday Mercury’s report that “riots, arson, and murder” had become endemic in the Italian neighborhood near the “Siberia” yards. The newspaperman went on to warn readers that unless the forces of law and order gained the upper hand, chaos would ensue.
Journals with a wider circulation than The Saturday Mercury also recorded the ongoing adventures of local immigrant railroad workers. During a 1910 D&H trackmen’s strike, The New York Times reported that forty Italians on board a B&M train sent to clear a derailment near Ushers were “persuaded” by an armed group of fellow-countrymen to leave the job of clearing the wreckage to them. Although a number of shots were fired and west-bound trains had to be diverted around Mechanicville through Troy for a time, the arrival of a posse of local sheriff’s deputies quelled the insurrection. The assumption, of course, was that the armed group had deliberately caused the derailment in order to create jobs for themselves. Who cleared the track is not recorded in any of the newspapers of the time.
Thirteen years later, The Times noted that Albany railroad police had taken an affidavit from a Mechanicville strikebreaker who reported being kidnapped, beaten, and robbed by local union rail men, after which he was dumped off in the middle of the surrounding countryside. This incident came at the end of a long and bitter strike by D&H shop men protesting a pay-cut imposed on them by management in 1922. When they agreed to return to work, the company refused to reinstate the men and implemented a work schedule that ignored seniority rights, a long-established prerogative in the industry. Jim Shaughnessy, author of The D&H, commented forty five years later that “the bitterness generated by the conflict … lasted up and down the D&H for many years.”
Local editor Mead reported on the aberrations of management as well as those of workers, and appeared to have had little good to say about the D&H, a company he more than once referred to as “ the SKUNK.” Mead began his long-term battles with the line in 1886 when the D&H threatened to build a forty-foot high fence along its tracks if the village government enforced its four mile-per-hour speed limit on trains passing through town. The ordinance had been inspired, apparently, by the inability of local volunteer firemen to clear their hoses from its tracks while fighting a blaze, resulting in the lines being severed by a D&H freight. That same year, Mead began reporting that the line had ignored State Railroad Commission orders to relocate its terminal facilities in a place where patrons were not required to cross private property to reach them. He was repeating this criticism twenty-five years later, adding that the railroad also ignored Public Service Commission rulings to stop using public streets as storage bins for its coal. And, he denounced the dismissive attitude of the line’s General Manager who, in the face of local complaints regarding the filthy condition of the D&H’s restrooms, cavalierly remarked: “anyone is a dam [sic] fool to use a railroad toilet facility.” The editor pointed out that regulators excoriated the railroad for its long-term mismanagement of the Hudson Valley Trolley line dating to its acquisition by the D&H in 1906. The Public Service Commission found the railroad’s claim that the previous owners were to blame for the sorry state of the trolley line particularly self-serving and inaccurate. The Albany-based line, it charged, had effectively run the Hudson Valley Railway into the ground through its own ineptitude. No friend of labor unions, Mead in 1915 also criticized the D&H’s strategy of intimidating workers by resorting to frequent random firings of employees.
Railroading left its mark on the local community in many ways. As the smallest city in New York State occupying less than one square mile, the two local lines frequently dangled promises of expanding operations here if “certain arrangements” could be made to insure that the village would never expand its boundaries to annex railroad property. A tacit agreement along these lines was inferred in news reports as early as the 1880s, and when some reformers attempted to correct the imbalance favoring the railroads in 1917, they induced State Senator George Whitney of Mechanicville to propose a boundary expansion bill. However, on the eve of success, Whitney suddenly got cold feet and withdrew the measure he himself had introduced. It was a foregone conclusion, Mead suggested, that he was doing the bidding of the railroads and other corporate interests.
Mechanicville, despite its small size, proved to be ambitious in creating water and sewer systems, not only for the convenience of local residents, but also as a way to cater to the needs of the railroads whose steam engines possessed an unquenchable thirst for water. It was one thing to guarantee the lines a cut-rate supply of water, even in one instance lowering rates retroactively, a clear violation of state law; but it was an altogether different matter when a local plumber was hailed before the Village Board in 1904 to explain why he had removed water meters from railroad property. Try as he might, J.R. Smith just could not remember who had put him up to it. Unimpressed by the plumber’s lapse of memory, the Board ordered the displaced meters restored.
Given their numbers, railroaders could exert strong political influence when voting as a bloc. Although managers of the two lines denied that they ever told employees how to vote, it appears that D&H and the B&M railway men shared common political goals occasionally. Thus, in March of 1892, “the North Adams gang,” recently arrived here from western Massachusetts, nominated and elected one of their own, John Garland, to local office. However, the Village Board voided his election a month later, pointing out that he was not an American citizen. Since his name does not turn up on local census returns until 1915, it is unlikely that Garland even lived in Mechanicville at the time of his election.
The industry helped to shape the community in other ways as well. It attracted large numbers of men, native and immigrant alike, who had acquired such a thirst for alcohol that the local excise commission reported in 1917 that Mechanicville housed 47 saloons and bars. Some of these were nothing more than one-room “bucket shops” attached to the rear of houses. Of particular concern to reformers was the large number of these emporiums situated adjacent to the rail yards. The most famous establishment was “The Red Onion” where it was said the food was hot and none of its female patrons would ever be tempted to take Shakespeare’s advice “to get thee to a nunnery.” Presaging America’s “noble experiment” with prohibition, the new excise law limited communities to one saloon for every 500 residents. Cutting Mechanicville’s number of alcohol outlets by almost 70%, the excise commission went out of its way to exclude bars from the rail yard environs. Aghast at this attempt to dry up the town, the “liquor interests” toyed with the idea of forcing a vote on all-out prohibition, confident that it would cause a backlash. But in the end, there was little that railroad men and others could do-legally. For a time, reformers actually believed that they had cleaned up Mechanicville’s image for being a rough-and-tumble railroad town. Come prohibition days and the rise of bootlegging in the following decade, they would have to reconsider that judgement.
As to the larger picture, significant changes in the national economy had pushed railroads to the brink economically by the 1950s, and both the D&H and the B&M wound up in receivership in the following decade. Americans had fallen in love with automobiles; poor financial decisions made decades earlier came back to haunt the lines; and competition from trucks placed the railroads in the same position that the stagecoach had found itself when railroading first emerged. Myopic government policies did not help matters. Rather than pay taxes on unused trackage they had abandoned decades ago, lines tore up idle rails to reduce their tax assessments. Thus, future attempts to revive passenger service will cost tens of millions of dollars to replace them. Whether Americans will continue to pay increased prices for gasoline and support costly and deadly “oil wars” forever remains to be seen. Yet, as attractive as the idea of restored passenger train service appears to be, our romance with automobiles is not yet over. Thus, it is unlikely that the old “Union Depot” on North Second Avenue will ever host passengers as it once did. However, it is hoped that the old station can be preserved in the future and serve as a museum where artifacts of Mechanicville’s rich history can be displayed, especially those relating to the community’s long relationship to railroading.
As to my own soft spot for slow moving freight trains alluded to earlier, my first encounter with them in August of 1962 gave me the chance to strike up a conversation with a fair young maiden. And, just as with railroading where one thing is connected to another to make up a train, in due course, that first conversation led to another and to another, ultimately resulting in four children and twelve grandchildren, at latest count. Needless to say, unlike our fellow Mechanicvillians, my wife and I saw little to cheer about when the Saratoga Avenue overpass was finally opened in 1976. We shudder to think of the “what-might-have-beens” had the roadway been built as originally proposed in the 1940s. When we make it to our fiftieth, we plan on observing our anniversary at the Saratoga Avenue crossing, saluting every slow moving freight that passes down the tracks. This may not sound too romantic to others, but as the saying goes, for us, “that’s history.”
[The above was written for inclusion in The Independence Day Journal that is distributed by the Family Day Committee at its annual celebration each July.]