When the Erie Canal was built across upstate New York between Albany and Buffalo, DeWitt Clinton, governor of New York, promised the people of the Southern Tier of the state some kind of avenue of commerce by way of appeasement. William Redfield proposed a direct route from the mouth of the Hudson to the Great Lakes, but it was Eleazar Lord who was instrumental in the chartering of the New York & Erie Railroad by the New York state legislature in April 1832. Among the conditions of the charter were that the railroad lie wholly within New York and that it not connect with any railroads in New Jersey or Pennsylvania without permission of the legislature. A track gauge of 6 feet ensured that even if it did connect, its cars and locomotives wouldn't stray onto foreign rails. The terminals were fixed: The town of Dunkirk offered land for a terminal on Lake Erie, and Lord lived at Piermont, on the Hudson River just north of the New Jersey state line. The New York & Harlem was willing to extend a line north to a point opposite Piermont, which would have given the New York & Erie an entrance to Manhattan, but the new road refused the offer.
The surveyed route included two detours into Pennsylvania, one because the Delaware & Hudson Canal had already occupied the New York side of the Delaware River above Port Jervis, and the other to follow the Susquehanna River to maintain an easy grade.
Ground was broken on November 7, 1835, near Deposit, N. Y. Shortly afterwards fire destroyed much of New York and wiped out the fortunes of many of the road's supporters; then a business panic struck the nation.
Construction got under way in 1838, and the first train ran in 1841. Much of the railroad was built on low trestlework rather than directly on the ground; the resulting construction and maintenance costs drove the railroad into bankruptcy soon after it opened. Construction continued, however. The line that had been built east a few miles from Dunkirk was taken up to provide rails for the extension from Goshen, N. Y., to Middletown. Standard-gauging the line was proposed while it would still be relatively inexpensive to do so, but the road chose to stay with its broad gauge. The New York & Erie reached Port Jervis, N. Y., on the Delaware River 74 miles from Piermont, on December 31, 1847; just a year later it was into Binghamton. The whole road from Piermont to Dunkirk was opened in May 1851 with an inspection trip for dignitaries from U. S. President Millard Fillmore and Secretary of State Daniel Webster on down and the customary eating, drinking, and speechifying.
The road grew a few branches: at the east end to Newburgh, N. Y., on the Hudson, and at the west end to Rochester and to Buffalo. The latter soon replaced Dunkirk as the principal western terminal of the road.
In 1833 the Paterson & Hudson River Rail Road was chartered to build between Paterson, N. J., and Jersey City, and the Paterson & Ramapo Railroad north to the New York state line at Suffern. The two lines provided a shortcut between New York City and the New York & Erie at Suffern, even though they did not connect directly - passengers walked the mile between the two. The New York & Erie fought the situation until 1852, when it leased the two railroads, built a connecting track, and made that the main route, supplanting the original line to Piermont. The New York & Erie came upon hard times in the 1850s. Cornelius Vanderbilt, the "Commodore," and Daniel Drew both lent the road money, and in 1859 it entered receivership and was reorganized as the Erie Railway. Drew and two associates, James Fisk and Jay Gould, engaged in some machinations, with the result that in the summer of 1868 Drew, Fisk, and Vanderbilt were out and Gould was in as president of the Erie.
In 1874 the Erie leased the Atlantic & Great Western, which had been opened 10 years earlier between Salamanca, N. Y., on the Erie, and Dayton, Ohio. The A&GW entered Cincinnati over the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton, which laid a third rail to accommodate A&GW's broad gauge equipment. At Cincinnati the A&GW connected with the broad gauge Ohio & Mississippi to St. Louis. (The two connecting roads later became part of Baltimore & Ohio.) The lease to the Erie did not last long. A&GW entered receivership and was reorganized as the New York, Pennsylvania & Ohio. To obtain access to Cleveland and Youngstown, the NYP&O leased the Cleveland & Mahoning Valley in 1880. The Erie leased the Nypano (as it was known) in 1883, acquired all its capital stock in 1896, and acquired its properties in 1941.
Hugh Jewett became president of the Erie in 1874. His first task was to lead the road through reorganization; it became the New York, Lake Erie & Western Railroad. On June 22, 1880, the entire system was converted to standard gauge. That same year the Chicago & Atlantic was completed between Hammond, Indiana, and Marion, Ohio, where it connected with the Atlantic & Great Western. Access to Chicago was over the rails of the Chicago & Western Indiana, a terminal road. Jewett also double-tracked the Erie from Jersey City to Buffalo. The road was bankrupt again by 1893 and reorganized in 1895 as the Erie Railroad.
In 1899 Frederick Underwood began a 25-year term as president of the Erie. He had been associated with James J. Hill, and he was a friend of E. H. Harriman. Both Hill and Harriman had considered the Erie as a possible eastern extension of their respective systems. Neither man did much toward acquiring it, although Harriman became a member of Erie's board of directors and arranged financing for it. In 1905 the Erie briefly acquired the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton and the affiliated Pere Marquette from J. P. Morgan, Erie's banker. Investigation revealed that CH&D's financial condition was not as advertised, so Underwood asked Morgan to take the two roads back -which he did. Two days later the CH&D and the PM entered receivership. Underwood is remembered for rebuilding the Erie. His projects included double-tracking the remainder of the main line and building several freight bypasses with lower grades, making the line east of Meadville, Pa., largely a water-level route. In 1907 Erie electrified passenger operations on its branch between Rochester and Mt. Morris, N. Y. Electric operation lasted until 1934.
In the 1920s the Van Sweringen brothers began buying Erie stock, seeing the road as a logical eastern extension of their Nickel Plate Road. By the time they were done, they owned more than 55 percent of Erie's stock along with their interests in Chesapeake & Ohio, Pere Marquette, and Hocking Valley.
The Erie family included several short lines. The Erie began to buy New York, Susquehanna & Western stock in 1898 and leased the line that same year. The Susquehanna entered bankruptcy in 1937 and resumed life on its own in 1940. Bath & Hammondsport was controlled by the Erie from 1903 to 1936, when it was sold to local businessmen. Much of Erie's commuter business out of Jersey City was over subsidiary lines that Erie operated as part of its own system: New York & Greenwood Lake, Northern Railroad of New Jersey, and New Jersey & New York.
The Erie held its own against the Great Depression until January 18, 1938, when it entered bankruptcy. Its reorganization, accomplished in December 1941, included purchase of the leased Cleveland & Mahoning Valley, swapping high rent for lower interest payments, and purchase of subsidiaries and leased lines. To the surprise of many, Erie began paying dividends. Prosperity continued until the mid-1950s, but then began to decline. Erie's 1951 income was less than half that for 1956; in 1958 and 1959 the road posted deficits.
The business recession of the 1950s prompted Erie to explore the idea of cooperation with Delaware, Lackawanna & Western. The first results were the elimination of duplicate freight facilities at Binghamton and Elmira, and in 1956 and 1957 Erie moved its passenger trains from its old Jersey City terminal to Lackawanna's newer one at Hoboken. The discussions of cooperation turned into merger talks, at first including the Delaware & Hudson. An agreement was worked out with the Lackawanna, and the two roads merged as the Erie-Lackawanna on October 17, 1960.
©1985 by Kalmbach Publishing Co