With flowers and fanfare, the Albany & Susquehanna Railroad ushered in a new era for Knowersville

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

The original depot in Knowersville still stands behind the new depot, repurposed as the Altamont Free Library.

One mid-September morning in 1863, most Knowersville residents headed up the original Schoharie Road to stand beside the shiny newly laid tracks of the Albany & Susquehanna Railroad, eagerly watching for the first passenger train to come rolling through.

Their busy, prosperous little hamlet almost a mile down the road, depended on the traffic of the Schoharie Plank Road, horse-drawn traffic that would quickly be replaced by that advance in travel technology, the railroad.

First incorporated on April 19, 1851 as a rail line to connect Albany and Binghamton and link up with the Erie Railroad, Albany & Susquehanna got off to a slow start due to lack of funds complicated by expensive construction costs. Eventually the New York State Legislature came through with a government loan to complete the project.

Beginning in Albany, the proposed route cut through the towns of Bethlehem, New Scotland, and Guilderland through a sparsely populated farming area of town where what became modern-day Meadowdale and Altamont were on the route. Topographical obstacles caused delays, adding expense to the project.

It was necessary to build a grade of 70 feet per mile for two-and-a-half miles from Albany through the valley of the Normanskill where ravines created by tributaries had to be bridged. The route then crossed a plain until it entered the Bozenkill valley just past Knowersville. Beyond this, the tracks climbed another grade of 70 feet per mile for four miles with two very high embankments to be erected along the way.

Once construction was underway, the leading Albany newspapers began printing frequent updates on the railroad’s progress. In May 1862, the Albany Evening Journal reported that a telegraph company was placing poles along the roadbed of the railroad.

By June, the section of track within Albany city limits was to be laid to connect with rails already laid to Duanesburg. However,  the Dec. 18, 1862 Albany Argus noted that, by Jan. 1, 1863, it was expected that the rail-laying would be completed from Albany to the Knowersville crossing of the Schoharie and Albany Plank Road (where the tracks cross Route 146 today).

Obviously, construction took longer to reach Duanesburg than predicted earlier in the year. The Albany Argus noted that the railroad company’s rolling stock consisted of three locomotives, about 10 freight cars, several “dirt” cars, and three or four passenger cars.

Excitement was growing as frequent news of the railroad’s progress appeared during the summer of 1863. By July, it was reported all the track work within Albany city limits was complete with a depot on Broadway at Church and Lydius Streets, a location approximately where the later D & H building stood.

In mid-August, there was a dry-run excursion train carrying stockholders and their friends who were given complimentary tickets. Leaving at 9 a.m., they set off for the “once secluded and quiet village of Schoharie.”

The Albany Evening Journal predicted the trip would be a “pleasant jaunt over a section of country that has been comparatively but little traveled.” By 5 p.m., they were back in Albany. The previous day, the first freight train had rolled through on its way to deliver goods to B.F. Wood in Esperance.


Formal opening

Finally, the big day of the formal opening of the Albany & Susquehanna arrived: Sept. 15, 1863. There must have been such a clamor for tickets to take part in the official excursion that on Sept. 12 the Albany Evening Journal was requested to announce that, because of the limited number of passenger cars, it was impossible to accommodate all who wanted to take part.

Two-hundred people including Governor Horatio Seymour, Albany’s Mayor Eli Perry and the Albany City Council members joined the Albany and Susquehanna Directors on board the special trains.

“Elegantly festooned with wreaths and bouquets of flowers by the tasteful hand of the lady of the President of the Road and the daughter of Mr. Spencer, one of the Engineers of the Road,” the wood-burning locomotives must have been a sight to behold as it chugged through Knowersville.

All along the way, enthusiastic onlookers gathered. The Evening Journal made special mention of the welcome from the citizens of Knowersville and Esperance who greeted the bedecked trains with cheers and salvos of artillery.

The people of Quaker Street, outside of Duanesburg, constructed two arches of evergreens decorated with flowers. When several hundred school students along the way greeted the train with cheers, Governor Seymour had the train halted two or three times to speak to the children.

Many decades later, Guilderland Town Historian Arthur Gregg, in writing about the Albany & Susquehanna Railroad, quoted “Webb” Whipple, an elderly man who grew up in old Knowersville.  He regaled Gregg with tales of his encounters in the 1860s, including his description of the Albany & Susquehanna.

Whipple recounted, “Me and another fellow played hooky the day the first train went through from Albany to Central Bridge. We made up our minds to do it though we knew just what we’d get when we got home. And we did get it, too.

“Besides the engine, that train was made up of flat cars with seats bolted down crossways. When it got here it was crowded with fine dressed men and women from New York and Albany. That didn‘t bother us none though. We climbed right on board.

“Most everybody on the train had brought picnic lunches and we got ourselves invited. We weren’t at all bashful and stepped right up when we was asked. It was a great trip and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything, lickin’ or no lickin’.”

There is no way to verify Whipple’s account, but Gregg took him seriously, quoting Whipple in several of his articles.

In 1863, the end of the railroad line had reached only as far as Central Bridge. When the excursion arrived there, the travelers enjoyed a catered lunch spread out in a nearby grove followed by lengthy speeches ,which took up many inches of column space in the next day’s Evening Journal.

Shortly after four o’clock, the trains left to return to Albany, “nothing having occurred during the day to mar the pleasantness of the excursion.”


Regular traffic

Within a week, it was reported that an average of 100 passengers were on trains arriving or leaving Albany, giving the company $100 per trip. In addition to this was income from freight traffic.

The Evening Journal forecast that, once there were two trains a day between Albany and Central Bridge, “We shall see plenty of the crinoline portion of that once sequestered region coming down here regularly to do their shopping and sightseeing.”

A notice placed in the June 23, 1864 Schoharie Unionist newspaper by M.F. Prentice, president of the Albany & Susquehanna, announced the following schedule for the two trains running between Albany and Schoharie:

The first train for passengers and express freight would leave Albany at 7:15 a.m. and arrive in Schoharie at 8:50 a.m. It would return to Albany leaving Schoharie at 9:30 a.m., arriving back to the city at 11:30 am.

The second train for passengers and freight would depart Albany at 2 p.m. and arrive in Schoharie at 4 p.m. while returning from Schoharie at 5:15 p.m. and arrive back in Albany at 7:30 p.m.

The locomotives were wood-burning and according to “Webb” Whipple’s recollection, as time went on the prices on cords of wood were driven up as high as $16 in the area.


Center shifts

When the trains began arriving at Knowersville in the autumn of 1863, there wasn’t much to be seen.

The Severson family’s Wayside Inn (now the site of Stewart’s in Altamont) had been put out of business when the Schoharie Plank Road opened in 1849, relocating traffic a half-mile away following a route less taxing to horses than straight up the escarpment as it had been near Severson Tavern.

While some along the way had objected to the railroad coming through their property, the Seversons were happy to give a right-of-way across their farm.

Within four years of the railroad’s opening, George Severson had built Severson House, a hotel across the tracks from the small depot that the Albany & Susquehanna had erected for the Knowersville stop.

The Severson farm and others nearby were divided into valuable building lots. A building boom began in the vicinity of the tracks with many homes and businesses going up in the next few years.

The original Knowerville, east of present day Gun Club Road, became a quiet neighborhood known as the “old village” in later years. The Knowersville post office was soon moved to the new center of population. Once the railroad began operations, the Plank Road Company quickly went out of business.

The Susquehanna & Albany was finally completed to Binghamton in l869. The late historian Arthur Gregg wrote of seeing a small yellow card on which was a timetable for the route from Albany to Binghamton, showing five trains running daily in each direction.

A train leaving Albany at 7 a.m. reached Knowersville at 8:12 a.m. This train reached Binghamton at 7 p.m. after having stopped at every tiny station along the line. In Guilderland, there was another stop called “Guilderland,” eventually renamed Guilderland Station when a post office opened there, later renamed  Meadowdale.


“Railroad Wars”

In spite of being a minor railroad, the Albany & Susquehanna became part of America’s railroad history.

It had been decided back in the 1850s, when the railroad was in the planning stages, to lay the tracks with a 6-foot gauge (that is, with 6 feet between the rails) probably with the intention of linking up with the Erie Railroad also laid with a 6-foot gauge unlike most other larger northern railroads which had a 4 foot, 8.5 inch gauge.

The Erie connected Jersey City with Buffalo and in 1869 was under the control of majority stockholders Jay Gould and Jim Fiske, two financiers with shady reputations, who were manipulators of railroad stock.

Realizing the Albany & Susquehanna would link the Erie and the coal fields of Pennsylvania with the rapidly industrializing Northeast, they began to scheme to capture majority interest in the stock through stock manipulation, court cases, and even violence between Erie crews and Albany & Susquehanna workers.

While the original stockholders centered in Albany struggled to keep control, there were endless court cases eventually deciding for the original local stockholders. Finally, in 1870, the conflict over control had come to an end with the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company leasing the Albany & Susquehanna, eventually changing its name to the Delaware & Hudson Railroad.

Locally, the obscure Susquehanna & Albany Railroad played a huge role in Altamont’s history when the village developed around the small depot erected by the railroad company in 1864 on what had been empty farmland.

The easy accessibility to the outside world helped to make it an especially prosperous village.

Nationally, the conflict between the original shareholders and the two robber barons has acquired the name “Railroad Wars” and has put the otherwise obscure Albany & Susquehanna into any history of 19th-Century railroading in the United States.