The success of the Buffalo and Niagara Falls was indeed proving to be a challenge to the Erie Canal. Within the short period of twenty five years, it as well as the other railroads that were traversing New York State, were clearly becoming a superior form of transportation. Although first conceived as a way to bring goods to the canal and increase it's revenue, the railroads were now affecting the Erie Canal's ability to make money at all. The "novelty" image of the railroad was beginning to wear off as it became more mainstream.
Rev. Edward Dunn explains why. "The canal was built by the legislature at a cost of seven million dollars. It was fabulously successful. It was so successful that within seven years, it had paid for all of its production costs. So the legislators, especially those living along the canal, didn't want to see their monopoly endangered. Throughout the course of time, as a number of small railroads were being set up forming a "string" across New York State, they had awful restrictions imposed upon them by the legislature."
The Erie Canal served countless mills that were built along its banks. However when railroad tracks could be easily built right up to the mill's front door and serve them all year, it became obvious that the Canal could not compete.
A frozen canal left every boat stranded, but it also completly shut down the navigation season for six months. Imagine the delight of the mechants who depended on the canal for shippment of their goods when they discovered that the railroad wasn't affected by snow and ice.
"The railroads had two things over the canal. One was speed, the other was year round service. You have to remember that the canal froze, or rather, it was drained in the winter time. So there were no canal operations in the winter months. Some of those early railroads that went across New York were not permitted to carry freight in the summer months and those that carried passengers had to pay a percentage of their fare directly to the canal."
Ed Patton continues. "The investors who wanted to start a railroad would approach the legislature and say that they wanted to start a railroad from point A to point B. If it wasn't a problem politically or economically, the legislature would be willing to grant the investors a charter only if they felt that the railroads revenue was not going to effect the earnings of the canal."
Treating the railroad as a novelty was the legislature's biggest mistake because had they envisioned its impact, they probably would not have granted so many charters. As more and more of the proposed railroads in New York State became operational, the majority of them ran directly parallel to the Erie Canal. None were running south into the foothills of the Catskill Mountains or into the Finger Lakes Region, they were all running within sight of the Erie Canal. They were connecting Albany to Syracuse -- Syracuse to Rochester -- Rochester to Buffalo. These cities were the major population centers, and this is where the railroad built to because this was where the people were.
This painting by E.L. Henry again shows the crowd of people admiring the Dewitt Clinton, the first locomotive on the Mohawk and Hudson railroad. This was the scene for the first ten years of many of the railroads existence; "Look at the Locomotive!"
Soon, the state legislature realized that they were hurting the profits of their own canal and thus imposed tariffs. It seemed that advancement for the railroads, on a large scale, would take quite a long time. They were so delicate when first developed that the transportation of heavy commodities just could not be done. As far as passengers were concerned, hardly a trip ever went by without some harrowing experience. Consider that the railroads were faster, not necessarily more comfortable.
The railroad didn't always receive good press for their efforts. This article appeared in Harper's Weekly and it contained the thoughts of many people who were still terrified by the iron horse. "Nobody's murders! The railroads are insatiable. Boilers are bursting all over the country -- railroad bridges are breaking and rails snapping -- human life is sadly and foolishly squandered -- but nobody is to blame. "Boilers burst themselves. Rails break themselves. And it may be questioned whether the consequent slaughter of men, women and children is not really suicide."
The horrors or early train travel are captured in this lithograph. The artist depicts the moment of impact when all the cars are crumbled in a head-on collision.
According to Dr. David Gerber, "The railroad was a powerful agent of economic growth and development on its own. This technology also had the capacity to very easily be improved upon. Once the basic innovations were created and mastered in the motive power, tracks and cars, it was quite clear that the railroad had the potential to transform industry and transportation in regard to economic growth. At that time, the railroad had gone from being a novelty, to being one of the fundamental structures of the economy."