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History of the R.W.&O.

by Harold Russell


While traveling around the state we discovered a neat little freight house in Westdale, New York. Westdale is located on the old Rome Watertown and Ogdensburgh Railroad, about five miles north of Camden. Could this ‘discovery’ and the similarity of their names been accidental? Nonetheless, plans were made of the freight house and they have been published.

This freight house drawing project led us to do some research on the Rome Watertown and Ogdensburgh Railroad. It is quite a story. Few of us realized that the RW&O passed through Charlotte, and had a depot on State Street in Rochester. Most of us know it as the NYC’s Hojack Line.

For our research, we purchased the 1922 book, The Story of the Rome Watertown and Ogdensburgh Railroad by Edward Hungerford. The story that follows has been abstracted from that book.

The Beginnings

In the 1840’s the area around Watertown and the St. Lawrence River suffered from a retarded economy because of the poor north-south transportation available for their products to markets such as New York City.

The Erie Canal (1824) was a boon to the central portion of the state. From Utica, it provided excellent three-day east-west transportation to Albany or Buffalo. Later, the Black River Canal was built. However it only served a few communities and like all canals in the state, it was only open seven or eight months a year. Military roads were the only other form of transportation.

In 1836 railroad fever was rampant in New York State. It took four years to build a railroad in the Mohawk Valley from Albany to Syracuse. Fifteen months later that railroad reached Rochester via Auburn. A line was also built from Syracuse to the port of Oswego. Ships carried cargo from Oswego westward to Lewiston but the winter climate only permitted this from May to October.

The Rome Watertown Railroad

Watertown was a major manufacturing center and as early as 1832, there was interest for an all weather transportation connection to the south.

The solution was a railroad. After a bitter fight, Rome was chosen over Utica for the southern terminus of the new line. But it took sixteen more years before construction was actually begun in 1848. By the fall of 1850 rails were laid north from Rome to Camden. On September 5, 1851, they reached Watertown.

The line was later extended through Chaumont to Cape Vincent where extensive piers and a passenger depot were built. There was regular boat service to Kingston across the river. Regular train operation began in May 1852 and the line prospered from the onset. There were four passenger trains a day; two each way and one freight train.

The Northern Railroad

At the same time, a railroad was built between Ogdensburg1and Rouses Point. It was called the Northern Railroad was the pioneer in the North Country. It ran in a straight line between its two terminals, Rouses Point and Ogdensburg through Malone. Both Canton and Potsdam were by-passed. The reason was that the directors were primarily interested in steamer traffic on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River and not any locally derived freight. As a result, the area east of Watertown was left without railroad service.

The Potsdam Railroad.

The citizens of Potsdam were offended by the slight of the Northern Railroad. In response they built the five andone-half mile long Potsdam Railroad, which joined the Northern at Potsdam Junction later, called Norwood.

The success of Potsdam and her little railroad drew the attention of other communities in the area and interest in the area and interest in a railroad from Watertown and Potsdam arose.

The Potsdam and Watertown Railroad

In 1852 construction started on the Potsdam and Watertown Railroad. Work began eastward from Watertown while at the same time westward from Potsdam. When completed in 1857 the North Country had its rail connection to the south through Watertown. – partially. The rails were not connected in Watertown. A stage ran between the two depots.

The early train left Watertown at 6 AM, made connections at Potsdam Junction for the Northern Railroad at Rouses Point and onward to Montreal. Effectively, Watertown was no longer isolated from the communities to the north and east.

The Rome, Watertown and Ogdensburgh Railroad

In 1859 the Potsdam and Watertown Railroad was in severe financial difficulty. In 1860 the Watertown and Rome gained control. The Rome, Watertown and Ogdensburgh Railroad was born. By 1861 the roads were fully merged and a branch from DeKalb Junction to Ogdensburg was built.

The main shops of the RW&O were located in Rome, NY with a smaller shop was located in Watertown. The Watertown depot was located adjacent to the famous Woodruff Hotel. Typical passenger operation of the day in 1863 was Rome to Watertown, three hours; a twenty-minute station stop; and three more hours to Ogdensburg. There were connecting trains to Cape Vincent and from Potsdam Junction to Potsdam. A new branch from Richland, NY through Pulaski to Oswego was built. Sleepers served the Watertowners with easy travel to New York City.

In 1870, 38 wood burning locomotives weighing 20 to 25 tons each served the railroad. These were the products of primarily the Rome Locomotive Works, as well as the Rhode Island, Taunton and Schenectady Works.

By 1871 regular service consisted of two trains daily in each direction between Rome and Ogdensburg. Additionally, there were multiple Rome to Watertown trains; three trains daily each to Cape Vincent and Oswego; and two in the DeKalb and Potsdam branches. At this time the RW&O was considered the best operated railroad in New York State. The railroad was considered a very high-grade investment and a source of pride to the communities it served. Its stock regularly paid a 10% dividend during a time when railroad investments were considered very speculative.

Watertown had now become a significant manufacturing center noted for air brakes, paper, carriages, steam engines, and sewing machines. These businesses generated significant traffic for the RW&O. The iron mines at Keene and Rossie were sending several cars of ore southward daily.

The Syracuse Northern

With tracks to Oswego, the RW&O felt that it should have connections to Syracuse. It did this by leasing the Syracuse Northern. Now it had two connections with the New York and Hudson River RR., Rome and Syracuse. Not only did the Syracuse Northern run to Oswego but also its tracks extended to Sandy Creek. In 1875 the RW&O bought it at a foreclosure sale and the SN ceased to exist. A few years later, the tracks between Pulaski and Sandy Creek were pulled up.

At this point, the RW&O would have been better off if it left well enough alone. But they had visions of bridging the gap between Oswego and Suspension Bridge and Buffalo were there were an abundance of connecting lines to Chicago and the west. Their goal was to carry freight from the west to the Atlantic Coast and be independent of the NY&HR.

The Lake Ontario Shore Railroad

At the time the RW&O acquired the SN, there was a little railroad called the Lake Ontario Shore. For years it just ran eighteen miles west of Oswego. In 1870, it eventually struggled to reach Ontario, NY, 51 miles west. By 1875 the line went as far as Kendall. It would have been good if it had stopped there. Instead the directors chose to expand to Suspension Bridge. They overlooked the fact that the strip of land they chose to serve was 150 miles long with an average of 15 miles wide between the NY&HR Railroad and the lakeshore. That strip had no large communities and little industry. Of course the farmers in that strip were overjoyed that they no longer had to take wagonloads of produce all the way the NY&HR.

The directors of the LOS felt that they would make many important connections with the north-south running lines they crossed. At Sterling they crossed with the Southern Central later the Lehigh Valley; at Sodus, the Northern Central, later the Pennsylvania; and at Charlotte, the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh. They even considered building their own bridge over the Niagara River.

In 1875 this little railroad consisted of two second-hand locomotives, two passenger cars and 50 freight cars. In 1876, the wealthy RW&O took over the LOS and completed the track to Lewiston. By 1878 the rails were completed to Suspension Bridge.

It was necessary to build a tunnel under the courthouse and to bridge the Oswego River in order to connect the LOS with the RW&O in Oswego. This work was completed in 1876 just in time for the financial panic of 1877.

No significant traffic came from the LOS. The once wealthy RW&O could not meet its financial obligations of the acquisition and defaulted on its bonds. The interest paid by the RW&O bonds was gradually reduced till in 1877 they became zero and into default. Receivership loomed.

Enter the Delaware and Western Railroad under Sloan

Samuel Sloan of the DL&W was a director of the RW&O. This railroad always had an interest in the RW&O and the LOS since the DL&W had three major junctions with it at Syracuse, Rome and Oswego. Secretly Sloan wanted to acquire a competing line with the NY&HR.

By 1877 Sloan had bought enough RW&O stock at low prices to have him elected as its president. Sloan reorganized the road by taking the Syracuse Northern, LOS and the Richland -Oswego branches into a new division with headquarters in Oswego.

Next, Sloan had the soft coal grates removed from the RW&O locomotives. They were replaced with hard coal grates. Anthracite was the major product of the Lackawanna. For the next five years the RW&O bumbled along on the edge of receivership. Service went from bad to worse. The roadbed was in deplorable shape and the frequency of train wrecks increased. Morale was at an all time low.

During these days Sloan was concerning himself with the extension of the DL&W from Binghamton to Buffalo. The DL&W had to use traffic rights over the Erie not only to reach Buffalo but to also reach its branches to Utica, Rome and Ithaca.

To build his line to Buffalo, Sloan needed rails and the money to buy them. To solve the problem, he took the rail from the RW&O. As a result the RW&O became paralyzed. In desperation, the RW&O appealed to its major competitor the Utica and Black River that at the time was rapidly replacing its own iron rail with steel with steel. In pity the U&BR sent it their discarded rail.

In pity the U&BR sent it their discarded rail. In 1883 there were only sixty miles of steel rail in the 400 miles of RW&O main line track. The RW&O only had 52 locomotives and no longer operated sleeping or parlor cars. It had 54 passenger cars most of which were in extreme disrepair.

Despite these problems, the road managed to avoid receivership. It reduced the interest on its bonds and assessed its shareholders $10 per share to keep operating. The value of its stock fell. At this time, Charles Parsons of Maine, a director of the RW&O had been carefully buying RW&O stock. In 1883 the directors of the railroad met. Parsons entered the room uninvited, sat at the table and calmly announced that he had purchased control of the railroad and then proceeded to elect himself president. A New England friend of Parsons, Henry Britton became General Manager. Sloan was out and Parsons was in. No one cried.

Parsons and Britton began the complete reorganization of the railroad. Watertown had hoped that the railroad would return its main shop facilities and headquarters there. However, the Sloan policy consolidating shop faculties in Oswego remained. The shops that were in Watertown and Rome were further reduced to facilities for emergency repairs. Corporate headquarters was moved to New York City.

In 1885, service had increased. There were five main line trains daily in each direction between Rome and Watertown. Sleeping cars operated between Watertown and New York City. Sleeping cars even operated out of Cape Vincent to catch the tourist trade. There was sleeping car service from Niagara Falls through Watertown to New Hampshire and Portland, Maine. The RW&O stock price rose to $25 per share. In 1886 it rose to $40; 1887, $75; and in March 1891, $123.

The Utica and Black River RR

Utica was envious of its smaller neighbor, Rome, being the gateway to the North Country. In 1852 the Black River Railroad Company was organized with its route running up the Black River valley from Utica to Clayton. The railroad was called the Black River and Utica. Within two years the line was completed to Boonville, 35 miles from Utica. The work included a high trestle near Trenton Falls.

By 1857 the Black River and Utica was operating one passenger train a day to Boonville and return. In those days Trenton Falls was a resort and the popularity of Trenton Falls was a great benefit to the railroad because there was little business south of Boonville.

The railroad encountered financial trouble in 1860 and was reorganized into the Utica and Black River. But when the railroad was completed further north, it became prosperous and did not share the reversals of fortune experienced by the RW&O.

The Utica and Black River reached Lowville in 1868, in 1872 Carthage, 1873 Clayton, 1874 Morristown and Ogdensburg. The U&BR had large shops and yards at Utica and enjoyed interchange with the NY&HR and the NYO&W. They even shared the same depot. Both Clayton and Ogdensburg had large dockside terminals.

At the same time that the U&BR was being built, the Carthage, Watertown and Sackets Harbor railroad was completed as a local enterprise. This branch line was eventually purchased by the U&BR.

The U&BR steadily improved its service to the chagrin of the RW&O. It interchanged with it at Watertown, Philadelphia and Ogdensburg. It had the advantage over the RW&O because Utica was closer the New York City. Clayton had become the main tourist attraction of the Thousand Island Region while Cape Vincent’s time had passed. By 1882 the U&BR was well organized and prosperous.

Charles Parsons, the president of the RW&O, envied the U&BR. It was a thorn in his side. The Vanderbilts had a strong interest in the Utica road. This NY&HR interest demonstrated itself by increased traffic agreements and cooperative working arrangements. The RW&O tried to offset these by making similar arrangements with the New York Ontario and Western that it touched at Rome, Central Square and Oswego. But there was no comparison between the NYO&W and the NY&HR. The U&BW was a constant menace to the RW&O. So, Parsons absorbed it on April 15, 1886.

With the merger of the two roads personnel and facilities were combined. The railroad’s shops were moved favoring Oswego over Utica. The depots at Ogdensburgh and Watertown were consolidated. Philadelphia became a major interchange point and Clayton developed into a major port. Cape Vincent died on the vine.

Now the R W & O had a real monopoly in the North Country. The only worry that parsons had was that the Vanderbilts might someday build a competing line northward to the St. Lawrence.

The Railroad Under Parsons Improves

By 1890, the RW&O was again considered a first class railroad. In 1880 it was a 400-mile line in poor condition. By 1890, it had almost 700 miles of first class trackage, locomotives, and passenger cars in the hundreds; and freight cars in the thousands. Amazingly few photographs of the RW&O’s equipment are available. History says that the rolling stock was painted a bright yellow and that the road’s herald was a four-leaf clover. The locomotives were kept in immaculate condition with all brass shining.

The railroad was now a monopoly in many communities and a major competitor for state east-west traffic. Where there was no competing railroad, Parsons charged exorbitant rates but he slashed rates where competition was present. His high freight rates caused many businesses to close since at the time there was no other practical means of transportation.

The New Line to Rochester

Parsons made continued improvements to the road. Typical is the line’s extension into the heart of Rochester.

For years, the Lake Ontario Shore Railroad’s old depot in Charlotte served the city. Parsons wanted a depot in the center of Rochester.

Coincidentally a little railroad ran down the east side of the Genesee River. Parsons acquired this line and extended it to a passenger and freight terminal on State Street not far from Main Street. To do this it was necessary to build a high trestle across the Genesee. The new depot opened in 1887 and is described as a fine, old, stately, brick residence.

About the same time the RW&O built three other extensions. The first was the Syracuse to Oswego connection. The railroad built seventeen miles of new track from Fulton to Woodward where the line connected to the Syracuse, Phoenix and New York that the RW&O had previously leased. From Fulton to Oswego, the RW&O used trackage rights on the NYO&W to reach Oswego. The second extension was a thirteen-mile branch from Norwood to Massena where the Grand Trunk Railroad had run a new branch down from Montreal.

In 1890, Parsons made an alliance with the Lehigh Valley to build the Buffalo, Thousand Island and Portland Railroad. This line with the impressive name ran from Buffalo, north to Suspension Bridge. To complete the line, it was necessary to cross the NYC&HR in several places. Amazingly, the Vanderbilts gave Parsons permission to do this. The RW&O now had it long wanted entrance into Buffalo.

The Vanderbilts

All these shenanigans by Parsons were designed to tweak the noses of the Vanderbilts. The final straw was when Parsons announced that he would be building a new line eastward from Utica to Rotterdam Junction to connect to with the Finchburg Railroad thus creating a new east-west route across the state. The Vanderbilts were just recovering from the West Shore episode whereby it had cost them a fortune to kill that competition. Enough was enough.

And then, on a fateful day in March 1891 at 1 PM, a telegram was sent to all Division Superintendents –

“The entire road and property of this company has been leased to the NYC&HR … Each superintendent please acknowledge and advise all agents on your division by wire.”

The Vanderbilts had paid Parsons a visit in his Wall Street office where after some haggling; they negotiated a high price for the RW&O. Parsons took his money and retired.

The New RW&O

Three months later, the railroad’s headquarters offices were move back to Watertown and the property unified into a single division. Gradually, its officers either retired, took similar jobs with other roads or were placed in similar positions on the parent NYC.

For the next six years the RW&O continued to operate much as before – as a separate railroad. In 1908, road was divided into two divisions called the St. Lawrence and the Ontario. Watertown Junction was their dividing point. Locally, the Ontario Division is called the Hojack Line. How the name originated is the subject of much speculation.

The separate corporate existence of the railroad remained until 1914, when the Vanderbilts made a complete corporate entity of their holdings under the name of the New York Central Railroad.

Once the Vanderbilts had acquired the RW&O, they began to upgrade its facilities with new shops and depots, roadbed and bridges, and double tracking where necessary. Contrary to the past, there seemed to be no lack of money.

Decline and Fall

The old RW&O continued to operate extensive freight and passenger trains through the 1920’s. The depression in the 1930’s put a damper on all business. Passenger service was gradually reduced and then eliminated. There was resurgence during World War II but after that freight service was sporadic.

Eventually rails were removed west of Rochester but the NYC (Conrail) still maintained a coal hauling operation whereby it transferred coal for the Rochester Gas and Electric’s Beebe Plant. Cars left the NYC mainline and traveled down to the west side of the Genesee River in Charlotte. The cars then ran east, across the swing bridge to a small yard in Irondequoit. From the yard, on the original RW&O route, the coal trains ran up the east side of the river across the trestle north of Bausch Street to a small yard at the Beebe Plant. This operation ceased with the closing of the power plant in the early 1990’s. The swing bridge last operated in 1991 and remains in its open position.

In the immediate Rochester area, most of the RW&O trackage has been removed from Webster west. There are some overgrown depots and if one looks carefully, related railroad buildings such as crossing guard shanties or maintenance buildings can be found on adjacent farms. East of here, the Ontario Midland RR runs on the old RW&O from Webster to Wolcott. The massive terminal at Richland is now a grassy field. The rails south of Richland to Rome are gone. Some freight houses and depots remain. My railroad maps show that most of the trackage in the North Country remains. The branches to Cape Vincent, Sackets Harbor and Clayton have long disappeared. The branches from DeKalb Junction to Ogdensburg and Philadelphia to Ogdensburg have been torn up. There is no trackage between Pulaski, through Oswego to Red Creek. The section of the old Utica and Black River between Lyons Falls and Lowville and the section between Carthage and Watertown have been abandoned.

Reprinted with permission of the author.