The History of the O&W Rail-Trail
A brief history of the New York, Ontario, and Western Railroad
The “Old & Weary”, the Old Woman….appropriate names for this beleaguered railroad which somehow managed to survive for nearly a century. The O&W began as the New York & Oswego Midland Railroad. Building began in 1868 as a “grandiose vision” of Dewitt C. Littlejohn, a dynamic politician bearing an uncanny resemblance to Abe Lincoln. The goal was to connect New York City (at Weehawken) with northwest sections of upstate NY, still untouched by any rail..
The “Old & Weary”, the Old Woman….appropriate names for this beleaguered railroad which somehow managed to survive for nearly a century.
The O&W began as the New York & Oswego Midland Railroad. Building began in 1868 as a “grandiose vision” of Dewitt C. Littlejohn, a dynamic politician bearing an uncanny resemblance to Abe Lincoln. The goal was to connect New York City (at Weehawken) with northwest sections of upstate NY, still untouched by any rail. Oswego also happened to be the home of Littlejohn. The ‘Midland’ meandered this way and that to reach those 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.
The ‘Ontario’ years, under new president Thomas P. Fowler saw much expansion bringing prosperous years. The O&W became established as a tourist carrier to the resort hotels and camps of the ‘lower Catskills’. It was an important hauler of milk and dairy products through upstate NY. And, it became a carrier of anthracite coal with the addition of the 55 mile Scranton Division in 1889-90.
The Scranton Division was actually the Ontario, Carbondale & Scranton (OCS) — formed in 1888 by the consolidation of three smaller lines (the Hancock and Pa, the Forest City & Stateline, and the Scranton & Forest City). All three of these short lines were owned by the directors and officers of the O&W who received stock in the OCS. Also in 1888, the NY&O Land Company (funded by the O&W) was incorporated to acquire property in the Lackawanna Valley anthracite coal fields. So, mining and shipping were linked.
In order to handle the coal traffic, a large coal marshaling yard was located at Mayfield. In 1892-93 the railway constructed a roundhouse, turntable, powerhouse, and other facilities to handle the servicing and repair of engines and rolling stock. Cadosia (twin city of Hancock) became the vital junction point on the NY, O&W. Coal shipped from the Scranton area reached the mainline here for continuation to upstate or downstate NY.
By the turn of the century, it was obvious that the O&W could not adequately handle the tremendous volume of coal traffic and it began double tracking its mainline. Double-tracking of the Scranton division was done in bits and pieces, and not completed until 1912. During this time the Mayfield yards were enlarged.
Coal business permitted the O&W to remain strong into the years of the Great Depression. The O&W handled only about 4% of the anthracite shipped out of PA, but in the 1930’s, this one commodity still accounted for over 50% of the railroad’s income. This reliance on the coal industry was to be its downfall as gas and oil heat became more competitive. The milk and passenger business dropped off with the opening of more roads and highways. Finally, in 1937, the O&W was forced into bankruptcy.
The railroad tried many more innovations to attract more business. The O&W hired German-born Otto Kuhler, who streamlined the style of aging locomotives and cars. The line even created a little moon-faced man from the letters O&W named Owen W. However all efforts failed, and the “Old & Weary” succumbed on March 29, 1957.
Source: O&W Railway Historical Society through their extensive website at www.nyow.org.
Northwest Branch of O&W crossing the D&H near Simpson
Northwest Branch of O&W bridge over the Lackawanna River