The history of the first railroad in New York State is almost as colorful as the history of the Erie Canal. Both had their movers and shakers, both depended on support from the state legislature, and of course, both had their share of pitfalls. The earliest idea for constructing a railroad in New York is credited to a farmer by the name of George Featherstonaugh, a resident of Duanesburgh, New York.
Featherstonaugh was fascinated by steam powered locomotion, a mode of transportation used heavily in England. He was so enamored by thoughts of the steam powered railroads over seas that he decided to build one for himself in his home state. In the early 1820's when Featherstonaugh was drawing up his plans, he provided quite the entertainment for his neighbors who thought that he had lost his mind. New York State was, after all, not a good place to even think about building a railroad primarily because the Erie Canal had just opened in 1825 and was providing the state with a tremendous flow of money as passengers and freight traveled from Albany to Buffalo and locations in between.
Featherstonaugh knew that in order to build his railroad, he had to obtain a charter from the State Legislature. The only problem was the fact that the Erie Canal was the legislature's masterpiece and unless he portrayed the railroad as benefit to the canal, his idea would be lost. By obtaining the help of wealthy New York politician Steven Van Rensselaer, Featherstonaugh attempted to convince the Legislature that his railroad would be beneficial to the interests of the canal by helping speed movements between the cities of Albany and Schenectady.
As the Erie Canal traveled between these two cities, there was a rise in sea level that needed the services of twenty locks to lift boats along the canal. It took people well over a day to travel this relatively short distance of 40 miles. This aggravation was primarily the main reason why people abandoned the canal for a stage coach as they journeyed from Albany to Schenectady. Once the stage arrived in Schenectady, people caught the canal to finish their journey west.
Featherstonaugh and Van Rensselaer argued that this same journey would only be fifteen miles over land if traveled by railroad. However, as they figured, the two men encountered strong resistance to their idea. Many prominent citizens felt that any incursion of the Erie Canal would bring financial ruin to the city of Albany.
As one citizen put it, " Canals, sir, are God's own highway, operating on the soft bosom of the fluid that comes straight from heaven. The railroad stems direct from hell. It is the devil's own invention, compounded of fire, smoke, soot and dirt -- spreading its infernal poison throughout the fair countryside. It will set fire to houses along its slimy tracks. It will throw burning brands into the ripe fields of the honest farmer and destroy his crops. It will leave the land despoiled, ruined, a desert where only buzzards shall wing their loathsome way to feed upon the carrion accomplished by the iron monster of the locomotive engine. No, sir, let us hear no more of the railroad."
(A quote from "The Story of America's Railroads", by Stewart Holbrook)
Most newspapers in the Albany or Schenectady area carried advertisements such as this.
Not everyone was opposed to the concept of rail travel. The idea of a railroad that could in some way increase the profits of the Erie Canal peaked the curiosity of several members of the Legislature and the businessmen who would put up funds for the railroad's construction. The charter was granted in April of 1826 but before construction could begin, the railroad's officials had to agree on a few provisions.
In order to protect the canal, the legislature limited the railroad's cargo to passenger only, and an article was drawn up forcing the railroad to reimburse the canal any funds it might lose by the railroad's operation. It wasn't until 1830 that an agreement was met by both sides and construction could begin. By 1831, the first railroad in New York State became a reality. The Mohawk and Hudson was born. The first train left Albany on August 13 and was pulled by a small, wood burning locomotive named after ex-governor of New York State, Dewitt Clinton. It seems ironic that is was Clinton who was the driving force behind the Erie Canal. Now here, in his namesake, was the birth of an industry that would ultimately force the canal into oblivion.
New York State's first steam powered passenger locomotive, the Dewitt Clinton, pulled trains on the Mohawk and Hudson between Albany and Schenectady.
The Mohawk and Hudson was only the first of many railroads that be would be developed in New York State in the 1830's, and like the M & H, these other small railroads were constructed in such a way that they too would supplement the Erie Canal and provide the connection of Albany with all points west. Most importantly, the railroads were designed to alleviate the amount of time a person had to spend on a packet boat, which was the only method of passenger transportation on the canal.
Dr. Gerber explains the social impact of the railroads. "Travel was obviously very difficult in an age where you depended on stage coaches and water-born transportation particularly for trans-continental or transatlantic travel. So the railroad was unlike anything that people had imagined possible for centuries. Quickly, it began to occur to people that the efficiency of transportation, the speed of transportation, and the relative ease of building railroad tracks would mean that the railroad had a potential not simply to allow people to take casual excursions or go visit families 50 or 60 miles away, but the railroad had a vast potential for creating the basis of economic development all over the country."
The inaugural run of the Mohawk and Hudson in 1831 was a scene of unprecedented excitement as seen in this painting by E.L. Henry.
"Extending railroads into areas that were just being settled allowed those areas to develop a commerce that would integrate them into the national economy."
Soon, railroad fever took hold of Buffalo.