Weehawken to Oswego

The New York, Ontario and Western Railroad

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Map submitted by Mike Fromholt.

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The north portal of the Bloomingburgh tunnel. This was closed in an attempt to keep people out of this tunnel that stretches from High View to Mamakating, NY, under Route 17. Photo by Ron Vassallo.

The New York & Oswego Midland Railroad, predecessor of the New York, Ontario & Western Railway, was the grandiose vision of Dewitt C. Littlejohn, a dynamic politician bearing an uncanny resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. His concept of a direct rail route northwest across New York State, serving virgin territory not reached by any existing line, seemed logical.

Thus in 1868 the "Midland" began building, meandering this way and that to reach the towns which had put up money for its construction. Its twisting route was built "at right angles to the mountains" requiring steep grades, high bridges and enormous fills. Construction costs far exceeded estimates, and within a month of completion the Midland was bankrupt. But it survived, and was reorganized in 1880 as the New York, Ontario & Western Railway, or the "O&W".

Shortly after the O&W was incorporated, its owners became involved in the promotion and construction of the New York, West Shore & Buffalo Railroad, a route that eventually would parallel Cornelius Vanderbuilt's New York Central & Hudson River all the way to Buffalo via Albany, NY. Naturally, the NYC&HR viewed the West Shore as a nuisance or blackmail scheme.

Complicated financial arrangements existed between the O&W and the West Shore which were detrimental to the corporate health of the former. However, this was mitigated by the West Shore's construction of a branch from its main line at Cornwall, NY, to Middletown in 1883 and by opening terminal facilities in Weehawken, on the Hudson River across from New York City, in 1884. These projects provided the O&W with a more reliable and more direct route to the metropolitan area than had been available with the NJM connection. The O&W-West Shore combination was dissolved when the latter entered bankruptcy in 1884 and was subsequently leased by the NYC. The Middletown Branch became part of the O&W, and NYC permitted O&W to continue using the West Shore between Cornwall and Weehawken.

The O&W underwent an administrative reorganization after its involvement with the West Shore came to an end. Thomas P. Fowler, a talented lawyer formerly with the NYC's legal department, became the new president. He is reputed to have said that he wondered why the O&W had been built and why, after entering bankruptcy, it hadn't been allowed to stay there. Regardless of his comment, he must have seen some potential in the line, and with the American economy in a period of expansion, he set out to make a respectable property of the NYO&W.

During Fowler's term, the railroad significantly aided in, or undertook the development of, several industries. It firmly established itself as a tourist carrier to the resort hotels and camps in the mountains of Orange, Sullivan, and Delaware counties (often referred to as the "Lower Catskills"). The road expanded its operations in the haulage of milk and dairy products and, most importantly, it became a carrier of anthracite coal by tapping the northern Wyoming Valley coal field in northeastern Pennsylvania through the railroad's most ambitious expansion program: the construction in 1889-90 of the 55-mile Scranton Division.

Although the coal business wavered in the 1920s, it remained strong into the early years of the Great Depression and it permitted the O&W to continue paying dividends. Nonetheless, petroleum fuels, natural gas and electricity were making ever greater inroads into coal markets. Coal was losing ground, but it definitely was not out. O&W handled only about four percent of the anthracite shipped out of Pennsylvania, but in the early 1930s, this one commodity still accounted for over 50 percent of the railroad's income. But this was an unhealthy situation, one of too great a reliance on one industry.

The decline of coal was not O&W's only dilemma. Economic activity as a whole in the U.S. was changing dramatically. Manufacturing activities were moving to the South, Southwest and West, and the resultant population shifts were changing the consumer markets and the rural economy upon which the early O&W and its predecessors had relied. What the OM's developers had promised the railroad would do had occurred, but it was Western railroads opening Western lands to agricultural development that better filled the promise. The decline in the importance of the small towns and cities, the expansion of the suburban industrial parks, and the population shifts to metropolitan areas or to other parts of the country were severely felt by "rural roads" such as the O&W.

On February 25, 1937, the O&W advised the holders of its Refunding Mortgage Bonds, due in 1992, that it could not pay the interest due on March 1. Two of the three railroad-owned collieries had earlier defaulted on their loans from the railroad. This, coupled with an overall decease in anthracite tonnage, reduced freight rates, increased taxes and other increased expenses caused the railroad to default on its financial obligations. As a result, O&W entered a voluntary bankruptcy from which it would not emerge. On March 29, 1957, the O&W became the first Class I railroad in the United States to fully abandon.

The extent of the abandonment was from Cornwall to Middletown to Summitville, with branches there to Kingston and to Port Jervis and Monitcello. From Summitville the line traveled west to Cadosia, where the branch to Scranton, PA, split off to the southwest. From Cadosia, the line went through Walton, with a branch to Delhi, then to Sidney and New Berlin Junction. At New Berlin Junction, the New Berlin Branch went to Edmeston and followed the valley of the Unadilla River. The Utica branch left the mainline north of Norwich NY at Randallsville and continued west to Utica and Rome. The main line continued to Oneida, then along the north side of Oneida Lake to Fulton. The O&W shared the line from Fulton into Oswego with the NYC. There is virtually no part of the O&W itself left in existence.

Oswego, NY: Within Oswego, the O&W tracks ran from Bridge Street northward, while the tracks south of Bridge Street were owned by the Rome, Watertown and Ogdensburg Railroad. This portion south of Bridge Street features a tunnel originally opened in 1876, and it became part of the New York Central Railroad in 1913.

Use of the tunnel for railroad purposes was discontinued in 1976. The tunnel had deteriorated by the 1990s, but has since been restored and incorporated, along with other local portions of the right-of-way, into the O&W Railroad Promenade and Bikeway, which was constructed in 2000-2001. The project was funded through the Federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), the New York State Department of Transportation, Oswego County, and the City of Oswego.

The only remaining evidence of the line in Oswego is a railroad bridge over the Oswego River, the old New York Central Railroad Station at the corner of West 1st Street and West Utica Street, and the restored tunnel just south of Bridge Street. The bridge was covered in cement (presumably after the tracks and ties were removed), and now serves as the southern end of the O&W Railroad Promenade and Bikeway. The old New York Central Railroad Station is located just across the street from the southern end of the bridge, and is now Paul's Big M Food Depot. North of the bridge, the trail and bikeway continues through the restored tunnel and then along a very short stretch of the right of way up to East Schuyler Street. Immediately beyond either end of the trail, no other signs of the railroad can be found within Oswego as of 2008.

Thanks to Ron Vassallo and Kevin M. Smith for contributing information about this route.

As part of work on NY17 running over top of the tunnel, they had to inspect the tunnel to see if it was still structurally sound. To do this, they had to drain the tunnel, which has water flowing out the end pictured. So the portal was opened up again, and a drain installed. It's still practically impossible to get an ATV into the tunnel, which is a good thing. The stories the railroaders tell of that tunnel is that it was constantly shedding its ceiling.

It's unfortunately that they tried to close off the tunnel. The portal looked to have been in good condition, and it was pretty, too. Now what's there is the raw roof of the tunnel -- NOT safer to have exposed to the weather.

Russell Nelson
Potsdam, NY
4/12/2009

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The only remaining "active" part of the NYO&W left is a 12 mile section from Fulton,NY to Oswego,NY that was taken over by the New York Central System after the O&W closed.

Today this part is operated by CSX and can be seen from NY Route 481. The dockside warehouse owned by the O&W in Oswego still stands and is owned by the Oswego Yacht Club.

Gene Graffouliere
West Monroe, NY
12/20/2009

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As a young boy and teenager my friends and I walked and rode motorcycles through the Summitville tunnel dozens of times. We would always have to maneuver around and over huge piles of rock that had fallen from the ceiling. We were always thankful that we had not been there to witness the collapse.

There were many parts that had two feet of water which would often stall out our bikes and deprive us of our only light source. The worst place for this to happen was when you could not see light coming form either opening.

This is when you learn what complete darkness truly is and come to appreciate the old saying "There is always light at the end of the tunnel"

Tom Kay
Middletown, NY
7/24/2010

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When you are entering Hancock, NY at exit 87 (Best seen at this time-Winter when there is no snow) when going over the bridge you will see an old Piling from the large bridge that crossed Cadosia Creek if you look to the right. Also A couple of Miles before you enter the town of Roscoe, NY You will cross what I think is Beaver Kill not 100% of the name though, twice in a row if you are heading west it will be the second time you cross the kill you will see old bridge Pilings and right after you cross you are ON TOP OF the O&W ROW. Also if you go to the town of Hancock when you pass the very last house heading east(I am not 100% sure of the street name so I hope to be able to look them up soon for you) take the road all the way down to were the Rte-17 bridge crosses over you. There will be a little side road at a T-intersection so take that to Rte-9 Go alittle ways and you will start to notice like an abandoned road with trees growing in the middle of it. Guess what your following! (WARNING: if you keep going AFTER the road diverges from the ROW be prepared for a almost 90 Degree drop) Also just so you know even though the '87 "Upgrade" got rid of it, I would like you to know that when you are traveling down 17 and you get to your First and only traffic light with "Wally-Mart" to your right when heading east after the traffic light if you keep going, where they are doing construction there was an old bridge piling there too. Also just so you know incase this does happen. if you do go, In the middle of NUMBERED exits 87 & 88 you will see a sign that points to your left and says "Hale Eddy Road" if you go down there(Near where my house is) If you stop at the RR Crossing can you take some pictures. I have heard talk of the abandonment of the Southern Tier even though it probably WONT happen you never know. Also if you go into Deposit, NY if you go into town(When you get off you will see stores like Family Dollar and Wendy's That is NOT the village) when you go there drive down to the first curve(Right before the Power Lines parallel the road) make a Left on that street then cross the river and at the intersection with the abandoned looking Deli with the Pepsi sign on it make a left then just follow "Front Street" all the way through and passed the Pizzeria and right there in that little plot of land is a foundation that foundation is the history of the Deposit Train Station. And if you follow Front to the railroad crossing you will see a pile of scrap, some abandoned Helper sidings for the climb to Gulf Summit and some old track that leads into the lumber yard.

Gerald (Jerry) Jewels
Hancock, NY
12/20/2010

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Anyone know if there are plans for the old O&W station in Middletown? Still seems to be in recoverable shape.

Walter Imhof
Manorville, NY
11/23/2013

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