CSX today, West Shore then: Railroads aided local commerce and widened horizons

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Fullers with a smaller population than Guilderland Center had a much larger depot due to the business acumen of Aaron Fuller. The little community called itself Fullers Station from the time the station was built until 1897 when the name was shortened to Fullers.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

Guilderland Center’s modest railroad station was small for the size of the community. Edmond Witherwax, whose father was the station agent at the time this postcard view was made, posed for the photographer. Hurst’s Feed Mill is in the background across the street.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

A West Shore train approaches the Cobblestone Crossing, now called Stone Road. Probably because of the low volume of traffic there in the 1920s, the Public Service Commission decided against building an overpass there. Today it is still a grade-level crossing with gates and warning lights. The 1920s’ overpasses over the tracks at Old State Road and Frenchs Mills Road are now unsafe and closed to traffic.

Numerous lengthy freight trains rumble through daily, unnoticed by drivers using Guilderland Center’s Route 146 overpass, although a few may spot the trains crossing above Route 20 on the trestles at Fullers. Only a railroad buff would realize that for over 170 years trains have been passing over the same route through Guilderland.

The 1860s railroad boom brought significant adjustments to the lives of Guilderland residents when the Albany & Susquehanna Railroad was laid down through Guilderland Station (later called Meadowdale) and Knowersville (renamed Altamont) in 1863. Two years later, the Saratoga & Hudson Railroad was built through Fullers and Guilderland Center.

The Albany & Susquehanna became the Delaware & Hudson Railroad, a very busy and profitable line. In contrast, bankruptcy quickly put an end to the Saratoga & Hudson.

Robber Baron chicanery brought about the construction of a line called the New York, West Shore & Buffalo Railroad, a parallel route to rival William H. Vanderbilt’s profitable New York Central. Originating in Weehawken, New Jersey, it then ran along the west shore of the Hudson and west to Buffalo, having the potential to deliver a severe economic blow to Vanderbilt.

The old Saratoga & Hudson roadbed through Guilderland Center and Fullers became part of this new rail line.

The first train traveled through in 1883, and the line went into official operation on Jan. 1, 1884. Soon after operation began, fares were slashed in a rate war with the New York Central, duly noted by the Fullers correspondent of The Altamont Enterprise.

Fares were back to normal by August, but the fledgling railroad had gone into receivership. When the owner of the Pennsylvania Railroad was rumored to be interested in acquiring the bankrupt line, giving him the potential to undercut the New York Central, the threat forced Vanderbilt to acquire it. After becoming a division of the New York Central, the line was then simply known as the West Shore Railroad.

When new depots were constructed, Aaron Fuller was supposed to have convinced management to erect an elaborate station at Fullers, reputedly costing $6,000. There was certainly a noticeable difference between that depot and Guilderland Center’s, whose residents considered it “inadequate for the business that is done there.”

In 1887, the old track of the Saratoga & Hudson from South Schenectady to Fullers was improved to connect the New York Central main line with the West Shore to draw off freight. The tracks crossed what is now Carman Road and the Western Turnpike to connect with the West Shore, giving Fullers two separate railroad crossings. 

A single track crossed the Western Turnpike just east of Fullers Station Road while the double-track West Shore crossed at grade level where the trestles are today. Fullers Station got a freight house a year later. The building was once used as a depot in Voorheesville; it was taken apart, hauled over to Fullers Station, and re-erected by station hands the same day.

New switches and additional sidings were installed at both Fullers and Guilderland Center. At first, a wooden trestle crossed the Normanskill at Frenchs Hollow, but that was rebuilt as a sturdier metal trestle to handle the increased rail traffic. The New York Central invested a great deal of money in operating this division, which also included Hudson River ferries necessary to transport passengers from Weehawken, New Jersey to New York City.

Economy boosted

Once regular rail service was established, the economy of the two hamlets and nearby farms was boosted. Working on the railroad provided new job opportunities for engineers, conductors, brakemen, firemen, station masters, and telegraphers.

Local columns in The Altamont Enterprise often mentioned the names of men who worked for the West Shore. Occasionally, men were hired on a temporary basis, such as the local men who earned $1.50 a day shoveling huge snow drifts left by the Blizzard of ’88 off the West Shore tracks.

The nameless, poorly compensated railroad workers were gangs of Italians from nearby cities who were hired to do the backbreaking pick-and-shovel jobs of maintaining tracks and roadbeds.

The West Shore benefited farmers by providing a way for them to market their oats, hay, and rye straw. Middlemen at the depots paid them for wagon loads of hay and straw, pressed it into bales, and arranged to have it loaded into freight cars and shipped to market to supply the thousands of horses in nearby cities.

October 1888 saw Aaron Fuller loading 33 cars at his Fullers Station hay barn while Clute and Tygert received 40 tons to be shipped. W.T. DeFriest advertised that he would pay $16 per ton of rye straw delivered at Guilderland Center or Fullers Station. In later years, tons of apples were shipped out.

New businesses and commercial development occurred near each depot. In both places, hay barns were erected near sidings. At Guilderland Center, a new hotel, feed mill, and coal house were erected near the depot.

For decades, the West Shore ran ads in The Altamont Enterprise, requesting information from local hotels, boarding houses, and farm families anxious to host summer boarders from the city, offering free listings in special booklets or brochures called “Summer Homes,” which could be perused by patrons seeking vacation accommodations to fit their budgets.

These summer visitors contributed much extra income to Guilderland’s farmers and hotel keepers from the 1880s to the 1920s with the railroad hoping summer visitors would board a West Shore train to get to these vacation destinations.

Wide horizons

If the coming of the West Shore had a major economic impact on Fullers and Guilderland Center, it also broadened the horizons of their inhabitants, or at least those with the cash to take advantage of the opportunities offered. Excitement and adventure beckoned when almost immediately the railroad began advertising one-day excursions.

The first excursion in September 1885 was to Saratoga over the old line into South Schenectady, arriving in Saratoga at noon, returning in the early evening. A year later, there was an excursion south down the Hudson to Iona Island near Bear Mountain in the Hudson Highlands, which was so popular that 75 tickets were sold in Guilderland Center alone and the train hauled 11 coaches for the day’s outing.

As time went on, longer and more expensive excursions were available to destinations such as Washington, D.C. or New York City. Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition attracted numerous visitors from Fullers and Guilderland Center traveling there with an agent provided by the railroad to point out interesting sights along the way.

Because Ravena had a high school, it became possible for students from Guilderland Center and Fullers and other communities along the West Shore to commute daily to high school. In those days students had to pay for their own commute. Early in the 20th Century, the cost of the round-trip commute to Ravena from Fullers was $7.50 a month.


Having the West Shore in their midst brought problems as well as advantages to the area. Almost immediately, it was found to be fatally dangerous.

As soon as trains began running over the new rail line, Fullers’ farmer Jacob Pangburn opined to a neighbor that one of these days someone is going to get killed by a train. Shortly after that, the unfortunate farmer was trying to get his cow off the track as a train approached. He was instantly killed when seven cars passed over him.

As the years went by, this was the first of many graphic, gory reports of deaths on both the West Shore and D & H tracks. Often at crossings someone may have been inattentive or their horse was spooked at the sight and sound of a train leading to fatal results.

Guilderland Center was a particularly dangerous crossing because of limited visibility. Sometimes pedestrians walking the tracks as a shortcut or if intoxicated were fatally hit. Many a sad tale appeared in local Enterprise columns over the years of deaths along the tracks, sometimes sadly including railroad employees. One Guilderland Center trackman was killed by a train in reverse.

A sporadic nuisance often caused by trains during the dry season were the brush fires caused by sparks given off by the locomotives. When farmer Volkert Jacobsen’s woods near Fullers burned, he lost valuable timber and nearly lost his outbuildings. Really tragic was the burning of Lorenzo Cornick’s uninsured home near Fullers “consumed by flames probably caused by sparks of a West Shore engine.”

All of these generalizations would have also been true of the communities of Meadowdale and Altamont along the D & H line, except that the D & H was a very busy and successful rail line so that, by the end of the 19th Century, 10 local trains ran back and forth between Albany and Altamont daily.

By contrast, the West Shore was not nearly so successful and provided inadequate service. Its route bypassed Albany and it was only years later that the line leased tracks from the D & H, allowing it to get in and out of that city.

In 1893, about 500 residents of several local towns along the West Shore signed a petition protesting cutbacks in the number of trains, chiefly because of curtailed mail delivery. By 1906, residents of Guilderland Center, spearheading an effort to improve service, set up a committee headed by W.B. Mynderse to appeal to the Public Service Commission to do something about the single daily local train each way that was not scheduled to make any kind of connection to reach Albany or Schenectady.

Apparently the committee was successful because schedule changes were announced by connecting a few passenger cars to regularly-scheduled freight trains, enabling passengers to make connections.

Autos replace trains

The headline of a 1916 Altamont Enterprise article, “Auto Travel Hurts Railroads,” sounded the death knell of local passenger service. The proliferation of automobiles, autobuses, and improved roads led to a major decline in passenger traffic, while trucks affected freight hauling. By the mid-1920s, local passenger service in this area was ended on the West Shore.

With increased automobile traffic, grade-level collisions with oncoming trains became a serious problem with much loss of life. One of Guilderland’s worst accidents occurred in 1919 when an out-of-town driver pulled directly in front of two coupled locomotives at the Guilderland Center grade-level crossing, resulting in demolition of the car and deaths of the driver and passenger.

Soon New York State began to force railroads to build overpasses or underpasses to end these fatalities. In 1927, the West Shore built the overpass in Guilderland Center and the underpass on the Western Turnpike at Fullers where two trestles carried trains overhead. The two depots were removed at the same time. The gravel used to raise the level of the tracks in Fullers came from Guilderland Center, loaded on rail cars and hauled to Fullers.

The New York Central fell on hard times after World War II, eventually merging with the Pennsylvania Railroad to become the PennCentral, causing the West Shore to lose its identity. Later, the old West Shore route through Guilderland Center and Fullers became part of Conrail and is now CSX.

Ironically, years ago, the D & H had far more passenger service and was a much busier freight line than the West Shore. Today, only a very few freight cars pass through Altamont weekly while endless freights pass over the old West Shore tracks through Guilderland Center and Fullers.