Saturday, September 13, 2008

Early Locomotive on the Ithaca & Owego Railroad

By Richard Palmer
Plagued with financial difficulties, many of the early railroads in upstate New York were compelled to use horses for motive power until they could afford the "luxury" of a steam locomotive. It wasn't until 180 that the Ithaca & Owego, the second railroad chartered in New York State, secured a small locomotive which was built by Walter McQueen at his machine shop in Albany.
The engine was built to the specifications of its actual owner, Richard Varick DeWitt, who was treasurer of the Ithaca & Owego at the time, who was "somewhat of a mechanic." Although officially known as the "Pioneer," it was dubbed "Old Puff" by those who operated it.
"Old Puff" closely resembled models built by major locomotive manufacturers such as Norris, Baldwin and Rogers. It was transported by canal boat to Ithaca and hauled up the incline planes to the summit of South Hill. From there the railroad ran on fairly level ground the rest of the distance to Owego.
One day, Superintendent Daniel L. Bishop told the crew to leave the horses in the barn. "We will hitch up the engine and have some fun by trying her today." Railroading at this tine was still in its infancy and was rather informal as far as operations were concerned. Alvin Merrill, who worked on the line as a boy, recalled: "We were greatly please at the much-talked-of change from horsepower to steampower, and were very curious about it."
Accounts conflict as to the size of this locomotive. One states the weight of the locomotive with water and wood was 10 tons. Another says it was nine tons. One account states the driving wheels were 54 inches in diameter and the cylinders had a 14-inch bore and an 18-inch stroke. The other states the cylinders had a nine inch bore and 16-inch stroke.
The cylinders were attached to the frame instead of on the boiler. The connecting rod was outside (without a crank axle) and the pumps were operated through eccentrics on the driving wheel axle, independent of the pistons.
The driving wheels had cast-iron hubs and wrought-iron spokes and tires with a diameter of 48 inches. The diameter of the boiler was 30 inches; height of the stack, from the rail, 12 feet; the overall length of the engine was 17 feet.. The frames were of wood, 6 by 4 inches, to which were bolted cast iron pedestals for the driving wheels. It had a hook motion of the Norris type. The steam pipes came out at the sides of the smoke-box, and were bolted to the valve chest covers.
Recalling the trial run, which was sometime during the spring of 1840, Alvin Merrill said there was no "bonnet" or spark arrester on the smokestack, " and when we started the fire flew up, we thought, to the sky. It was exciting to us. Merrill continues:
But what a sight for the country people! Their horses quit their quiet grazing as we passed through the fields and forests, bellowed and pawed the earth and took to their heels as fast as they could until they and we parted sight of one another. They must have thought that our locomotive an animal-decvouing monster that emitted smoke and flame and fire from his nostrils. We traveled very fast then - five miles an hour.
When we arrived at Lucky's, where we had been in the habit of stopping the trains to water our horses at a bubbling spring, we stopped our fiery steed and filled his tender with that boiling spring water. We then moved on for two miles and slowly, four our steam had gone down to nearly zero. Before we stopped again, while going that two miles, an old gentleman jumped off the train and exclaimed: "Go to hell with your locomotive, and I'll go on, for I'm in a hurry!" We thought him a lunatic for not having patience with our first trip with steam power.
We fired up and got to Wilseyville, where we were stalled completely. Superintendent Bishop sent me for a barrel of tar and I got it from Dolly, Hurd & Whitcomb, local merchants. It was poured on our wood (we did not use any coal for many years afterward) and soon had steam enough to take it up to Gridleyville, our horse-changing station.
We hitched on a big steed and it hauled our engine and tender back to Ithaca, where we arrived at midnight, and where the locomotive was laid up for repairs and improvements.
Mr. Merrill's son, Jason, said that when the locomotive was shipped to ithaca, it was accompanied by an "expert engineer." According to Jason, "his attempt to put it into commission failed. Its construction was thought to be too light, and it was sent back to Schenectady, and its weight and power were increased so much that new complications arose. The additional weight proved to be too much for the strap rails, and the idea of operating the road by steam was abandoned for a short time."
According to existing accounts, the locomotive lost steam because of leaky joints where the steam pipes were bolted to the valve chest covers. Also, the safety valve was checked by a weight instead of a spring. Alvin Merrill continued:
When the three months has passed she was in fine shape and trip. A gala day was announced, a free ride was offered to all the world from Ithaca to Owego and return. It was called a grand celebration; and such it was. Our train of 16 flat cars stopped at every crossing for passengers. We made the round-trip under Conductor Hatch with only one accident; John Haviland was crowded off or fell off the train and was killed.
There were no fences along the railroad. The cattle and horses became accustomed to the fire, smoke, steam and noise of our monster, and became too familiar with us. They grazed on the track between the rails, and the train hands were obliged every little distance to jump off, run ahead and drive them off the track, which delayed us every time until it became monotonous and annoying.
Conductor Hatch's genius arose to the necessities of the occasion. He secured an old banded flintlock musket, and a bag of dried peas. One of us train hands always sat on the front of the locomotive and shot peas at the cattle and drove them from our pathway.
Railroad historian Herbert T. Walker wrote that the engine on the whole was poorly designed and cheaply constructed. The tank was a cask mounted in a small tender. A second tender carried wood.
He had it on good authority that the railroad experienced problems with the engine. Oldtimers told him it had poor traction and was "slow" to steam. He said these defects "rendered the engine almost useless in bad weather; in fact, it only ran in summer, horse cars taking its place in winter time, or when it was laid up for repairs." About all it could pull were eight four-wheel cars with a maximum load of 30 tons. Alvin Merrill, as well as official reports confirm the fact that the locomotive was not operated during the winter. Operations usually resumed in April.
The daily routine for "Old Puff" was to leave from the summit of South Hill at Ithaca at 7 a.m. and arrive at Owego at 11 a.m. Returning, it left Owego at 5 p.m. and arrived back at South Hill at 9 p.m. "This speed," Walker noted, "gave passengers ample time to view the beautiful scenery of Tompkins and Tioga counties."
"Old Puff" and its little train of cars was far from being a "flyer." Once a horse trader sat in the last car holding the reins of his horse, which trotted along on the track behind. Others recalled that the engine gained such an evil reputation that good walkers declined to take passage in the cars because they couldn't wait. On one occasion a load of passengers bound for a political meeting at Owego arrived there with the train - but on foot and pushing the cars!
As time passed, the public began to clamor for improved rail service, and the engine was sent back to the shop once more to be overhauled. John Aldrich, who was claimed to be a "mechanical genius," was called in. He lived near Mott's Corners, now known as Brooktondale. After looking over the machine he said he believed he could improve its efficiency by adding even more weight to it. But this only raised havoc with the primitive wooden track structure. The strap rails would roll up and puncture the bottoms of the cars in "snakehead" fashion.
Track hands would then follow the train and respike the strap rails on the stringers. Alvin Merrill was one of those section men. he said "My main duty was to follow the locomotive a spike down snakeheads, and put in new ribbons wherever needed. Snakeheads were the ends of three-quarter-inch-thick iron strap rails, turned up by the weight of the locomotive. The ribbons were made of oak, fastened with a wooden plug, three feet apart, one to a tie."
Owego historian Roy O. Kingman gives some additional details about "Old Puff." He wrote:
"Its smokestack was similar in shape to a piece of stovepipe. Its frame was of wood. Its boiler was painted drab. The boiler was supplied with water by a hand pump through a hose. The water was kept in a large hogshead (barrel) on a flat car.
"The engine was a failure. The steam chamber was too large for the boiler, and steam could not be made fast enough. The chamber was subsequently altered. The locomotive was afterward reconstructed and the wooden frame was replaced with an iron one.
" The locomotive was a slow affair. It ran only about as a fast as a horse could trot. On its first trip from Ithaca it ran all right until it reached a point a little north of Candor, when it could run no further, as the engineer could not obtain sufficient steam. It had to be hauled back to Ithaca by horses. Frequently the steam would run down, causing the train to stop running entirely. Then, while the fireman was getting up more steam the passengers would sit on the bank at the side of the track and pass away the time playing cards or pick berries along the way. This is said to have been the origin of the term 'huckleberry train.' Later a more competent engineer was found and no further difficulty was experienced."
It is related that in 1844 a mass meeting of the Whig Party was held in Ithaca. That day a load of Owego Whigs rode up to Ithaca to attend the convention. At Candor the track was so slippery with oil that the locomotive could not proceed until the rails had been covered with sand. The story circulated that the Democrats had greased the track, but an investigation revealed that the cause of the incident was a leaky barrel of oil being transported on the train.
On this same day, Philip Mosher of Owego decided to leave Ithaca on the railroad track with his horse pulling an improvised passenger coach. It had previously been the custom to allow practically anyone to operate their contrivances over the tracks. Growing impatient, he said if the steam train did not leave in 10 minutes, he would start out, which he did.
Kingman wrote:
" He had hardly got out of sight when the train started. Some idea of the speed of the train can be gathered from the fact that after Mr. Mosher had reached the Half Way house and had stopped to water his horse, the locomotive came in sight just as he drove on. While the iron horse took water Mr. Mosher obtained another good start. When he drove into the park in this village (Owego) the train was behind him, about where Temple Street is now. he made the trip in a few minutes more than three hours."
While this locomotive was in use it was not allowed to run any further in the village of Owego than the south end of the village park. Previously, horse cars operated through the streets and down to the north bank of the Susquehanna River. It was feared that the commercial wooden buildings along Front Street would catch fire from the sparks of the locomotive.
A small rectangular enginehouse stood on what was later the southwest corner of Central Avenue and Temple Street. It was weather-beaten and unpainted and was just large enough to shelter the locomotive and a car or two. A small armstrong turntable stood just south of the enginehouse. The line into the village through the streets was abandoned when the New York & Erie Railroad was completed to Owego in 1849.
A comical experience relating to this railroad is related in the "Tompkins Volunteer," a local Ithaca newspaper, on May 3, 1842:
"We were amused the other day while coming from Owego on the railroad by a simple expression made by a fellow passenger. A spark of fire had accidentally fallen under the cushion of one of the seats, and was well underway before it was discovered. A lady was in the apartment alone and seeing the smoke gave the alarm of fire. After considerable ado the whole train was stopped, by the hallowing of our friend, who was much agitated, by seeing the lady somewhat alarmed, and who was making preparations to leap from the car while yet underway, exclaiming to her, in a bustling way, 'Oh, don't be alarmed, madam, a little cold water will put it out.' Three cheers for the Temperance reformation."
John Aldrich, the mechanic spoken of earlier, acted as engineer on "Old Puff" until he became apprehensive about the safety of the wooden bridges. He said he felt they were too light to safely sustain the weight of the engine and cars. The management, however, failed to heed his warnings. Finally, Aldrich quit and a man by the name of Eddy took over.
On the evening of May 21, 1847, "Old Puff" was heading north with a train. Mr. Eddy had gone back into the train and Daniel C. Hatch, the conductor, was spelling him on the engine. About six miles north of Owego, at 6 p.m., the locomotive crashed through a bridge over Catatonk Creek at a place called Woodbridge's, instantly killing both Hatch and his fireman, Al Dickinson of Danby. Hatch fell under the locomotive and was crushed.
Samuel Parker of Ithaca recalled that the engine lay in the creek for three weeks before it was pulled out and placed back on the rails. Alvin Merrill said "We brought her to Ithaca and returned to horsepower again." For some time afterwards before the bridge was rebuilt, horse-drawn cars would exchange passengers at that point.
Frustrated with steam locomotion, the railroad company relegated "Old Puff" to storage. In its annual report for 1847, the railroad, now called the Cayuga & Susquehanna, reported the locomotive was " not in use" and employed 40 horses, five passenger cars and 55 freight cars.
"Old Puff" never again saw service on this railroad. Kingman said for a time it stood on a switch just west of North Avenue in Owego. During this time some dramatic changes occurred and the line was reconstructed. By 1850, the incline planes had been replaced by a switchback on the north end. The old strap rails were discarded. Alvin Merrill said he helped lay the new "T" rail with his team of horses. "I bossed a lot of men while tamping the new roadbed; our tamping bars being made of oak planks nearly a foot wide."
Basically, the Cayuga & Susquehanna had become a segment of the burgeoning Delaware, Lackawanna & Western which was in the process of being built from Scranton Great Bend, Pa. under the guise of the Leggett's Gap Railroad. At the latter place it connected with the New York & Erie Railroad. The Leggett's Gap Railroad had a trackage rights agreement with the Erie to transport anthracite coal to Ithaca.
A locomotive to power construction trains was needed so it was decided to resurrect "Old Puff," or "Pioneer" and somehow get it to Scranton. The story is it was loaded on a raft in Owego and floated down the Susquehanna River to Pittston, Pa.
This is plausible, since slack water navigation had existed on this river for generations. In 1849, some 2,243 rafts were counted floating down the river by Wilkes Barre.
"Old Puff" was then unloaded at Pittston and transported over the Pennsylvania Coal Company's gravity railroad to Scranton and transferred to the D.L.& W. at Plane No. 6. The engine was taken to the shops where the axles of the engine were pieced out. The frames were widened, and a saddle cast installed to conform to the D.L.& W.'s six-foot gauge.
In the order book of Rogers, Ketchum & Grosevenor there is an entry under date of April 15, 1851 stating that George W. Scranton, general agent for the Leggett's Gap Railroad, had ordered a new smoke pipe, scale and lever for the safety valve and "one good steam whistle" for this locomotive.
The engine was fitted out and went into service on the work train in April, 1851 and had the distinction of being the first locomotive to operate between Scranton and Great Bend. But it continued to be a problem to operate even after being rebuilt several times. It is said its cylinders were mounted too far apart and the boiler was too small to generate sufficient steam.
The D.L.& W.'s "List of Locomotive Engines" for 1854 shows the "Pioneer" in the "fourth class" category and "useless." The 1855 list states that it had been on the road for four years and seven months and was "useless as a locomotive; now used as a stationary engine for pumping water from the new well at Scranton.'

(Newspapers cited)
New York State Assembly Document 314, April 14, 1840; Letter of Daniel L. Bishop.
Gerstner, F.A. Ritter von: Die Innerten Communicationen des Vereingten Staaten von Nord Amerika (Vienna) 1842 Vol. 1 p. 197.
Walker, Herbert T., History of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad and its Locomotives. Railroad Gazette, May 30, 1902 pp.388-9.
Merrill, Alvin, The Third Passenger Railway in America, ca. 1910 unpublished manuscript.
Merrill, Jason P., History of the Development of the Early Railroad System of Tompkins County, Ithaca Journal Centennial Edition, Aug. 28, 1915.
Kingman, Roy O., Early Owego (1907)
Parker, Samuel J., A picture of Ithaca as I Saw It in Childhood. , unpublished manuscript, Cornell University Special Collections.
Hollister, H., History of the Lackawanna Valley, 1857. The Pennsylvania Coal Co. gravity railroad extended from Pittston to Hawley, where it connected with the Delaware & Hudson Canal.


Russ Nelson said...

Thanks for posting this!

A few typos:
"It wasn't until 180 that" -- 18*0?

"greatly please at the" -- pleased?

"animal-decvouing monster" - devouring?

"four our steam" -- for?

shipped to ithaca, it -- Ithaca?

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