Brief History Of The Ontario & Western

Three years before the Golden Spike was driven at Promontory Point, a group of businessmen from such diverse locations as Norwich, Utica, Oswego, Walton and Middletown banded together to form a railroad known as the New York and Oswego Midland Railroad. Later to be known as the New York, Ontario & Western Railway, it went into operation in 1871. Its first passenger train was a small affair consisting of three coaches and a mail/baggage car. The locomotive, a 4-4-0, sported a tall smokestack and a prominent cowcatcher.

Numerous reorganizations occurred until 1879 when the road got a new name – implying the hope of a ferry connection across Lake Ontario and a continuation to the West. Since that day, the New York, Ontario & Western Railway (better known to its admirers as the O&W) sent a continuous stream of engines, passenger cars, freight cars and cabooses over its 541 miles of track from Weehawken, NJ to the port of Oswego on Lake Ontario. In the early 1950’s, the railroad faced foreclosure and eventually bankruptcy through the action of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. 1957 saw the end of the O&W. It had always been a feeder line instead of a trunk line and couldn’t compete with the like of New York Central.

In 1881, when the NY & Oswego Midland became the O&W, things looked brighter. The bluestone industry was in full flower throughout the area served by the railroad and there was no truck competition. To tap important coal regions in the Scranton area, a 54-mile branch was built from Cadosia in 1889. This opened up the O&W as a mover of anthracite coal to New England and to the New Jersey ports. The mines failed in the late 1930’s, forcing a 1937 reorganization.

Branch lines were built to Kingston and Port Jervis. At Scranton it connected with the DL&W and the Central of NJ. At Maybrook, the O&W connected with the New Haven and there was an important connection at Oneida with the New York Central. There were branches to Delhi, Port Jervis and Monticello. A branch to New Berlin was sold to the Unadilla Valley in 1941.

As the mainline wound its way through out of the way places towards Lake Ontario, it spun off a branch from near Hamilton to Utica. As this branch went through Clinton, another branch went to Rome. The Utica, Clinton & Binghamton Railroad was owned by the Delaware & Hudson, leased to the O&W, and finally sold to the O&W in 1942 for $250,000. The Rome & Clinton Railroad was sold by the D&H to the O&W in 1944. The D&H owned these disconnected lines as a result of an 1873 loan to the NY & Oswego Midland that was defaulted. The D&H had made the loan in hopes that it would bolster coal traffic over the D&H.

One of the incorporators of the railroad joked that the O&W would run at right angles to the mountains. The road dug several tunnels and many bridges and trestles to keep the grade from too steep a pitch. It is said that, for its size, the O&W had more causeways, bridges and tunnels than any other Eastern road. By the turn of the century, the railroad served over a hundred stations.

As industry gradually moved out of central and southern New York to more westerly places, the railroad came into a new means of maintaining itself. It began to serve as a fast, dependable freight service to and from New England. This route to New England, via the New Haven Railroad, eliminated delays moving through the clogged New York Harbor gateways. By the 1950’s, this was the railroad’s chief source of revenue. The road brought in fresh vegetables and other produce, and in exchange took New England manufactures for distribution to westerly points.

With its growth, the O&W saw a succession of powerful locomotives. In steam days, there was everything from bell-stacked 4-4-2’s to the huge mountain 4-8-4’s used for hauling long lines of freight over steep grades. 4-6-0 Camelbacks, 2-8-0’s and 4-8-2’s saw much service in the 1930’s and 1940’s. A “sort of streamlined” 4-8-2 hauled the “mountaineer”, a 1937 attempt to capture back passenger traffic to the Catskills. “Sort of streamlined” meant the railroad didn’t, as usual, have enough money to do a superb job. Designer Otto Kuhler did what he could for $10,000. 1945 was a turning point as nine new diesels were purchased. Each one of these engines developed 2,700 horsepower and weighed, fully loaded, 458,000 pounds. These mechanical workhorses were soon proved to be far superior to the old coal-burning locomotives. Dieselization began in 1941 and 1942 with five GE 44-ton switchers. Electro-Motive FT’s followed, with one pair financed by Standard Oil in exchange for detailed operating performance data. The company, which had been in receivership since 1937, decided to completely modernize. In 1948 they cast aside all the coal-burners and bought 28 more diesel-electric locomotives The O&W came into New York as a tenant of the West Shore subsidiary of the New York Central. O&W tracks from Middletown ended in Cornwall-on-Hudson. From there, O&W trains used the West Shore south for over fifty miles to Weehawken, NJ. There the railroad had an engine terminal, yard trackage and coal piers. It shared the passenger terminal with the West Shore and riders used the New York Central ferry boats to reach Manhattan.

Nothing unusual ever happened on this quiet line. Most notable were two wrecks in Hamilton, New York. In 1926, a fireman was killed as a locomotive flipped over. In 1955, four crewmen were injured when a two-unit diesel engine leaped more than 90 feet off the end of a trestle.

Near the end the railroad was mainly a freight line. It did provide passenger service during the summer to the Catskill vacationlands. The 1944 timetable showed two trains each way into Weehawken. Local passengers couldn’t ride between West Shore stations, but those going beyond Cornwall to O&W stations could flag at Little Ferry or West Point. Some 150,000 passengers were transported an average distance of 100 miles, and on some days as many 11,000 passengers were moved. There were numerous children’s camps in this region and the O&W annually provided special trains to them.

In 1953, Cadosia freight yard was busy because it was the connecting yard between the main line and the Scranton Branch. A telegraph key was still in use. The yard held 350 cars and held many gravel and sand cars for the new highway between Deposit and Hancock. About 70 men were dependent on the railroad – two yard crews and two section gangs.

World War I saw numerous troop trains roll through Cadosia, but World War II was all freight, but three trains a day did run to defense contractor Scintilla in Sidney. The tunnel at Cadosia was a long, curved one, and a signal tower was used to ensure two trains didn’t meet in it.

Middletown was the nerve center of the railroad. All major repairs were made at the locomotive and car shops there. Light running repairs were made at Scranton and Norwich. Also at Middletown were machine shops, blacksmith shop, woodworking shop, paint shops and other supporting facilities. The line had two coal piers in Weehawken and 35 acres of lake front at Oswego.

This line with 37 locomotives, 541 miles of track, freight yards, brakemen, etc was doomed to disappear from the New York scene. The line on which hundreds of families were dependent and which numerous businessmen moved their merchandise became extinct.

During its history, the road was owned by the New Haven for several years beginning in 1904. The New Haven almost re-purchased it in 1952 but had to back out because of its own money problems. The New Haven interest in the O&W was because of the 145-mile Scranton to Campbell Hall bridge carrier role. Campbell Hall was the beginning of the New Haven’s Maybrook Line to New England.

Passenger service dried up as well as a lot of freight. A booster organization was formed but not greatly successful as little freight originated on the line. Towns on the O&W protested abandonment because of unpaid back taxes. New York State proposed a $1 million aid bill but it didn’t fly. The federal government recommended liquidation – and that is what happened on March 29, 1957. Most everything but the diesels was scrapped. This included a dozen old passenger cars, a hundred and a half freight cars, and over 70 assorted pieces of equipment. Nothing now remains except traces of the roadbed and an active following of fans.

Find more great stories on the O&W


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