New York, Ontario and Western Railway
|Dates of operation||1879–1957|
|Track gauge||4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge|
|Length||569 miles (916 kilometres)|
|Headquarters||Middletown, New York|
|New York, Ontario & Western|
The New York, Ontario and Western Railway (reporting mark OW) was a regional Class I railroad with origins in 1868, lasting until March 29, 1957 when it was ordered liquidated by a bankruptcy judge. The O&W holds the distinction of being the first notable U.S. railroad to be abandoned in its entirety.
In 1866, DeWitt C. Littlejohn incorporated the New York & Oswego Midland Railroad (NY&OM) to build a railroad from Oswego, New York, on the shore of Lake Ontario, to New York — or more specifically to the New Jersey state line and then to a point on the Hudson River opposite New York City. The railroad's first problem was finance. Cities and towns that refused to issue bonds to finance the line found themselves bypassed by the new railroad, with the result that the line went through few established places of any size and made unnecessary contortions, both horizontal and vertical. The state of New Jersey refused to allow such bonding, so the NY&OM struck a deal with the Middletown, Unionville & Water Gap and the New Jersey Midland Railroad (forerunners of the Middletown & Unionville Railroad and the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railway). One of the incorporators of the railroad boasted that the line would run at right angles to the mountains, and after construction began the railroad discovered just what that meant in terms of bridges and tunnels.
The line was opened from Oswego to Norwich in 1869, and in 1872 the NY&OM leased railroads that formed branches to Utica and Rome, New York. In 1871, it opened a line known as the Auburn Branch — it straggled northwest, southwest, and northwest through Cortland and Freeville to end in Scipio, about ten minutes short of Auburn. The first train operated all the way from Oswego to Jersey City, New Jersey in July 1873; within weeks, the railroad was bankrupt.
For a short period in early 1875, the NY&OM ceased operation entirely except for the portion from Sidney to Utica and Rome, which was operated by the Delaware & Hudson Railway (D&H), in much the same way as designated operators took over portions of the Rock Island Line a century later. While the line was idle, a handful of local residents, fearing they would not be paid, simply tore up the track and reclaimed their land. Operations resumed, and the railroad was reorganized in 1879 as the New York, Ontario and Western Railway (O&W). Implicit in the new name was hope of a ferry connection across Lake Ontario and a continuation to the West. Missing from the map was the Auburn Branch, dismantled except from Freeville through Cortland to DeRuyter, New York, which became part of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Soon added to the map was a line from Middletown east to Cornwall, on the Hudson River. O&W made arrangements with the West Shore Railroad (WS) for trackage rights south of Cornwall to WS's terminal in Weehawken, New Jersey. The WS soon came under control of the New York Central Railroad (NYC). O&W found NYC amenable to continued use of the Weehawken-Cornwall portion of the West Shore, but it put O&W firmly in the position of a feeder line, not part of a trunk route. The through route that O&W did participate in was hardly competitive with NYC: Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg Railroad from Oswego to Buffalo, New York, and the Wabash Railroad from Buffalo to Chicago.
More important to O&W's future was the opening in 1890 of a 54 mi (87 km) branch from Cadosia, New York to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to tap the anthracite regions. The railroad converted a number of its locomotives to anthracite-burners, in the process changing them from conventional configuration to Camelbacks. In 1904, the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad (NH) purchased control of the O&W for its coal business (that same year, NH purchased the Central New England Railroad, whose bridge across the Hudson at Poughkeepsie afforded access to several railroads at Maybrook and Campbell Hall, New York). In 1912, NYC and NH discussed trading their interests in the Rutland Railway and O&W, respectively; NH wound up with part of the NYC's Rutland stock but retained its O&W control.
The 1900s-1920s saw a travel boom in the O&W as the Catskill Mountains became a popular resort area (known as the "Borscht Belt"). The Great Depression killed much of that business; coal from the Scranton Branch provided a greater and greater portion of the railroad's revenue, peaking in 1932. It was downhill from there. The coal mines of Scranton failed in 1937; O&W filed for reorganization in May of that year.
O&W trustee Frederic Lyford recognized that any future the O&W had lay in general merchandise traffic, not coal, and began a metamorphosis of the railroad into a bridge route between the west end of the NH at Maybrook, New York and connections at Scranton. By this time, passenger traffic to the Catskills was growing again. O&W could not afford a streamliner but asked designer Otto Kuhler to do what he could for $8,500 ($139,443 today) for the 1938 summer season. The result was The Mountaineer: streamstyling for the O&W’s 4-8-2 locomotives, slipcovers for coach seats, and maple armchairs replacing wicker in the two parlor cars, all painted maroon and black with orange striping and chromium trim — with matching uniforms for the crew as well.
The New Berlin branch was sold in 1941 to the Unadilla Valley Railway, and dieselization of the O&W began in 1941 and 1942 with five General Electric 44-ton switchers. Several sets of Electro-Motive Diesel EMD FTs soon followed for freight service. One pair of FTs was financed by Standard Oil in exchange for detailed performance data over three years of operation. Aside from dieselizing the railroad, the O&W operated as a virtual 19th-century time warp (the "O" and "W" in the company's acronym "O&W" lent itself to locals referring to it as the "Old & Weary", "Old & Wobbly" or "Old Woman").
The O&W enjoyed a brief postwar surge of business, but the railroad's division of revenue was not enough to keep the rest of the company in business. (The originating railroad gets most of the revenue from a freight move; to make money as a bridge carrier, they need a great deal of business and a long haul — longer than 145 miles (233 kilometres) from Scranton to Campbell Hall.) Passenger service had all but ended when the last train from Walton, New York to Weehawken operated in the summer of 1948. After that, service was slimmed to a single summer-only Weehawken-Roscoe round trip which ended on September 10, 1953.
A booster organization of shippers was formed but little of the O&W's freight originated on line. The NH offered to purchase the company in 1952, but soon withdrew its offer, citing its own financial problems. Abandonment was loudly protested by towns along the line, which considered unpaid back taxes as an investment in the railroad. The New York state legislature passed a $1 million aid bill, citing the railroad as essential for civil defense, but the state civil defense commission rejected it. The U.S. federal government recommended liquidation, which took effect on March 29, 1957. All O&W assets were auctioned off — the diesel locomotives found new owners, but everything else was scrapped.
Only tiny portions of the O&W remain. The West Main Street-Four Story Junction in Middletown, New York, and the Fulton Bypass in Fulton, New York survive. Much of the former roadbed was converted to corresponding O&W rail trails in New York and Pennsylvania; a section of New York State Route 17 (future Interstate 86) in the Catskill Mountains was constructed over the line as well.
By virtue of its appealing online scenery and anachronistic operations, the O&W retains cult status among railroad and history buffs more than 56 years after its abandonment, with periodic bus tours of remaining railroad artifacts. New York State Route 17 parallels the O&W from south of Liberty to Hancock in Sullivan and Delaware Counties.
Rail historian and Trains magazine editor George Drury commented that the O&W "had always been sickly and should not have been built". Despite its lifelong stuggle, New York, Ontario and Western in the Diesel Age author Robert Mohowski stating the beleaguered O&W admirably served its local communities, and managed to turn a profit during the early years of the Great Depression when other larger railroads had slipped into receivership.
The "Flying Diesel Corps"
On September 27, 1955, a 50-car train in Hamilton, New York approached a switch set for a siding which led to a coal trestle. Although the engineer applied the brakes, the train continued up the siding at more than 30 miles per hour (48 km/h) and through the trestle. It was learned that the 213-ton EMD FT diesel locomotive at the head of the train "flew" a distance of 150 feet (46 m) beyond the coal trestle from an elevation of 15 feet (4.6 m); total time of "flight" was later estimated to be between six and seven seconds. Two of the crew were seriously injured, but no crewmen were killed in the wreck.
An investigation by police as to why the switch had been thrown resulted in no arrests. There remain rumors that a student at nearby Colgate University was implicated as part of a Fraternity hazing prank. A dinner was later given in honor of the crew who each received a plaque proclaiming them to be members of the O&W's new "Flying Diesel Corps." Each plaque was topped with a cast presentation model of their F-unit locomotive; the castings were provided by EMD.
One of the freight cars involved in the accident was loaded with chocolate bars from the Nestlé plant in nearby Fulton, New York. It was said that when the younger residents of Hamilton learned of the spilled candy, they raced to collect what they could, and that as a result candy sales in the town were dismal for some time.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to New York, Ontario and Western Railway.|
- Drury, George H. (1994). The Historical Guide to North American Railroads: Histories, Figures, and Features of more than 160 Railroads Abandoned or Merged since 1930. Waukesha, Wisconsin: Kalmbach Publishing. pp. 91, 229–231. ISBN 0-89024-072-8.
- "Light On Railroad Methods; Asking An Investigation Of The Old New-York And Oswego Midland". The New York Times. May 13, 1882.
- Mohowski, Robert E. (1996). New York, Ontario and Western in the Diesel Age. Motorbooks International.
- O&W history at www.nyow.org
- Ontario and Western Railway Historical Society
- Oswego Railroad Museum, Oswego, NY
- De Diver Railroad Photographs (Flickr)
- Flickr O&W group
- O&W Rail Trail - New York
- O&W Rail Trail - Pennsylvania