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The Story Of The Rome, Watertown, And Ogdensburg RailRoad Part 11

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Once again I have digressed. Yet offer no apologies. Parsons did not let the wrecks of the White Mountain discourage him in the operation of the train. On the contrary, he ordered Mr. Britton to proceed with haste to the complete installation of the air-brake--then still a considerable novelty--upon every corner of the road. He steadily bettered the bridges and the track, tore out the old, stub-switches and substituted for them the newest, split-switches, with signal lights. The White Mountain remained; all through his day, and many a day thereafter--even though in the years after Mr. Britton and he were gone from the road, it was to be operated between Buffalo and Syracuse over the main line of the New York Central. And, inasmuch as he was steadily increasing his affiliations with the Ontario & Western, he installed in connection with it and the Wabash, a through train from Chicago to Weehawken (opposite New York); going over the rails of the R. W. & O. from Suspension Bridge to Oswego. This train, running the year round, and also put at a pretty swift schedule, had little reputation for adhering to it. Upon one occasion a commercial traveler bound to Charlotte approaching the old station at "the Bridge" to find out how late "the O. & W." was reported, was astounded when the agent replied "on time." Such a thing had not been known before that winter, or for many winters. And the fact that for a week past it had stormed almost continuously, only compounded the drummer's perplexity.

"How is it--on time?" he stammered.

"This is yesterday's train," was the prompt response. "She's just twenty-four hours late."

Eventually and in the close campaign for railroad economy that came across the land a few years ago, this train, too, was sacrificed. For a time the experiment was tried of sending its through sleeping-car over the main line of the Central from Suspension Bridge to Syracuse on a through train; passing it on from the latter town to the Ontario & Western by way of the old Chenango Valley branch of the West Shore. The experiment lingered for a time and then expired. It is not likely that it will ever be renewed.

By 1888 Parsons had begun to develop a very real railroad, indeed. The Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburgh once again was a power in the land. It had ninety-one locomotives, ninety-one passenger-cars, forty-eight baggage, mail and express cars, and 2302 freight-cars, of one type or another.



Parsons, as its President, was assisted by two Vice-Presidents, Clarence S. Day, and his son, Charles Parsons, Jr. Mr. Lawyer still remained Secretary and Treasurer of the road, even though his offices had been moved two years before from Watertown to New York City. At Watertown, the veteran local agent, R. R. Smiley, remained in charge of affairs, with the title of Assistant Secretary of the company. And Mr. Britton was, of course, still its General Manager, at Oswego.

He was really a tremendous man, Hiram M. Britton, in appearance, a big upstanding citizen, red of beard and clear of eye. I have not, as yet, given anything like the proper amount of consideration to his dominating personality. He made a position for himself in North Country railroading that would fairly entitle him to a whole chapter in a book such as this.

Mr. Britton was born in Concord, Mass., November 22, 1831. At that time that little town was almost at the height of its high fame as a literary center. As a boy he claimed Ralph Waldo Emerson as a friend. The influence that Emerson had upon Britton remained with him all the years of his life.

At seventeen, owing to financial reverses that his father had sustained, young Britton was compelled to leave school and go to work. He found a job on the old Fitchburg as fireman; from that he quickly rose to be engineer and then Master Mechanic. He made his way down into New Jersey and became Superintendent of the New Jersey and North Eastern Railway; after that General Manager of the New Jersey Midland, the portion of the old Oswego Midland to-day embraced by a considerable part of the New York, Susquehanna & Western.... From that last post, in the summer of 1883 to the management of the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburgh. That position he retained until 1890, when increasing ill-health forced him to relinquish it and travel throughout Europe in a vain effort to regain his strength.

The presidencies, both of the Rome road and of one of the Pennsylvania System lines were offered him. He was compelled to refuse both. His strength gradually failed, and in 1893 he died.

[Illustration: HIRAM M. BRITTON The First General Manager of the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburgh and a Railroad Genius.]

The old R. W. & O. was compelled in its day and generation to assume some pretty hard, human handicaps. But Britton was a mighty asset to it. He loved his work. It was a real and an eternal delight to him to achieve the things that he had set out to do. He was always approachable, obliging and ready to meet all reasonable requests that came within his power; he had the faculty of making friends of those who came in contact with him, and of retaining their friendship. A man's man was Hiram M. Britton, a railroad captain of great alertness, and possessed not only of vast enthusiasm, but also of a wondrous ability for hard work. The hard problems of his job never feazed him. Even the winter snows--forever its _bete noire_--did not discourage him, not for long, at any rate. He came, as came so many men from outside the borders of the North Country, with something like a contempt for its midwinter storms. Before Britton had been long on the job, however, the line from Potsdam to Watertown was completely blocked for four long days, and he learned that it was all in a day's work when the ticking wires reported two engines and a plow derailed at Pulaski, two more off at Kasoag, and not a train in or out of Watertown for more than thirty hours. At all of which he would relight his pipe and send a few telegrams of real encouragement up and down the line. That is, he sent the telegrams when the wires remained up above the tops of the snow-drifts and the men were using them to hang their coats upon as they shoveled the heavy snow. Ofttimes the wires went down, and once in a while they were deliberately cut--by some harassed and nerve-racked, snow-fighting boss.

That was before the days of the famous Dewey episode at Manila, but the emergency at the moment must have seemed quite as great. At any rate the Gordian knot, translated into a thin thread of copper wire, was cut--not once, but frequently. I myself, in later years, have seen a Superintendent go into our lower yard at Watertown late at night when congestion piled upon congestion, when the zero wind whistled up through the flats from down Sackett's Harbor way, and the evening train up the line nestled somewhere near Massey Street crossing in a hopelessly inert and frozen fashion, and clean up the mess there. Once one of these inbound trains from down the line coming down the long grade into the yard crashed into a snowbound freight there, and split the caboose asunder, as clean a job as if it had been done with a sharp ax. There were six men asleep in the caboose--to say nothing of two in the cab of the oncoming train, and yet no lives were lost. Even though the Watertown Fire Department spent most of the rest of the night putting out the fearful blaze that arose from the wreckage. Corn meal was spread bountifully about atop of the snow, and no one on the flats lacked for pudding the rest of that winter.

Once, in the Britton regime, there had been nearly a week when Watertown was entirely cut off from Richland and the towns to the South of it. A show-troupe, marooned at that junction for seven fearful days, had rigged up a theater in the old depot and there had played _Ten Nights in a Barroom_, in order to pay its hotel bill. At least so runs the tradition.

The Rome road felt that it owed some obligation to its old, chief town and all the while it kept steadily at its all but hopeless task, although every night the fresh wind blowing down from Canada and across the icy surface of Ontario filled the long miles of railroad cuts and completely erased the sight of the rails. Parsons had bought plows for the road such as it had never seen before--huge Russells and giant rotaries that would cut the snow as with a giant gimlet, and then send it shooting a quarter of a mile off over the country, so that it would not blow back at once into the cuttings. There is a good deal of real technique in this practical science of fighting snow--and a deal of variance as to the proper technique. For instance, in the Rome road they used to place its old-fashioned "wing-plows" ahead of its pushing locomotives, while the Black River line invariably had its plows follow the engine. It claimed for itself the proof of the pudding, in the fact that whereas in blizzard weather the Rome road almost invariably was blocked, the Black River line rarely was. It is but fair to add, however, that the original construction of the R. W. & O. north of Richland was very bad for snow-fighting; there were many miles of shallow cuttings into which the prevailing winds off Lake Ontario could easily pack the soft wet snow. In after years and under New York Central management this primary defect was corrected. And the large expense of the track elevation was quite offset by the great economies in snow-fighting costs that immediately ensued.

Yet try as H. M. Britton might and did try he seemed fated there in the eighties to buck against the worst storms that the North Country had known in more than half a century. That same storm that tied up his main line roundabout Richland--always a snow trouble center--completely paralyzed the Cape Vincent branch. It came as the grand finale to a sequence of particularly severe snowfalls and hard blows. The deficit upon the Cape Vincent branch that winter--I think it was the spring of 1887--rose to an appalling figure. Finally the R. W. & O. gave up the Cape branch as a hopeless proposition and hired a liveryman to carry the mails between Watertown and Cape Vincent, in order that it might not violate its contract with the Postoffice Department.

After the branch had been abandoned a full fortnight, a delegation of citizens from the Cape drove to Watertown and there confronted Britton, who had made an appointment to meet them. They made their little speeches and they were pretty hot little speeches--hot enough to have melted away more than one good-sized drift.

"When are you going to cart that snow off our line?" finally demanded the spokesman of the Cape Vincent folk.

Britton looked at the delegation coolly, and lighted a fresh cigar.

"I am going to let the man that put it there," he said slowly, "take it away."

And he did. It was thirty-two days before a railroad engine entered Cape Vincent from the time that the last one had left it.

The days of that final decade of the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburgh were, most of them, however, good days indeed. Fondly do the men of that era, getting, alas, fewer each year, speak of the time when the Rome road had its corporate identity and, what meant far more to them, a corporate personality. For the R. W. & O. did have in those last days those elusive qualities, that even the so-called inanimate corporation can sometimes have--a heart and a soul. Yet, in every case, attributes such as these must come from above, from the men in real charge of a property. The courtesy of the ticket-agent, the friendliness of the conductor are the reflection of the courtesy and the friendliness of the men above him. It is enough to say that H. M. Britton was at all times both courteous and friendly. He was a tremendous inspiration to the men with, and below him.

In the doleful days of the Sloan administration the R. W. & O. began to deteriorate in its morale, with a tremendous rapidity. In the days after the coming of Parsons and of Britton it began slowly, but very surely, to regain this quality so precious and so essential to the successful operation of any railroad. The property began to pick up amazingly. At first it was, indeed, a heartbreaking task. As we have seen, at the end of the Sloan regime little but a shell remained of a once proud and prosperous railroad. The road needed ties and rails, bridges, shops, power, rolling-stock--everything. More than these even it needed the future confidence of its employes. It needed men with ideas and men with vision. From its new owners gradually came all of these things.

Yet, before the things material, came the things spiritual, if you will let me put it that way. Britton gained the confidence of his men. He played the game and he played it fairly. And no one knows better when it's being played fairly by the big bosses at headquarters, than does your keen-witted railroader of the rank and file. Perhaps, the best testimony to the bigness of H. M. Britton came not long ago, from one of the men who had worked under him--a veteran engineer, to-day retired and living at his home in St. Lawrence County.

"We didn't get much money, I'll grant you," says this man, "but somehow we didn't seem to need much. And yet, I don't know but what we had as much to live on as we do now. But that didn't make any difference. We were interested in the road and we were all helping to put it in the position that we felt it ought to be in. In those earliest days, you know, our engines used to have a lot of brasswork. We used to spend hours over them, keeping them in shape, polishing them and scrubbing them. And when we had no polishing or scrubbing to do, we'd go down to the yard and just sit in them. They belonged to us. The company may have paid for them, but we owned them."

So was it. "Charley" Vogel running the local freight from Watertown to Norwood, down one day and back the next, in "opposition" to "Than"

Peterson used to boast that he could eat his lunch from the running-board of his cleanly engine; which had started her career years before as the _Moses Taylor_, No. 35. Ed. Geer, his fireman, was as hard a worker as the skipper. This frame of mind was characteristic of all ranks and of all classes. Indeed, the company may have paid for the road, but the men did own it. And they owned it in a sense that cannot easily be understood to-day--in the confusion of national agreements and decisions by the Labor Board out at Chicago and a vast and pathetic multiplicity of red-tape between the railroad worker and his boss.

Take Ben Batchelder: We saw him a moment ago with John O'Sullivan working a thirty-six hour day to clean up a circus wreck just outside of Potsdam.

That was Ben Batchelder's way always. Incidentally, it was just one of his days. One time, in midwinter, during a fortnight of constant and heavy snow, when Ben had become Master Mechanic at Watertown, the Despatcher called him on the 'phone and asked for a locomotive to operate a snow-plow. Ben replied that all the locomotives were frozen and that it would be slow work thawing them out, and making them ready for service.

"Then why don't you take them into the house and thaw them out?" shouted the Despatcher.

"There's no roof on the house, and I'm too busy to-day to put one on," was the quick retort.

Faith and loyalty--we did not call it morale in those days, but it was, just the same. Here was Conductor William Schram with a brisk little job, handling the way freight on the old Cape branch: He had just spent three days bringing a big Russell plow through from the Cape to Watertown. On getting into Watertown it was needed to open up the road between that city and Philadelphia. Schram had been on duty three days without rest. Another conductor was called to relieve him. William Schram protested. He said that he did not feel that he could desert the road when it was in a fix.

Three other conductors, well famed in the days of the Parsons' regime of the Rome road, were Andrew Dixon, Tom Cooper and Daniel Eggleston--and a fourth was the well-known Jacob Herman, of Watertown. Jake was a warm personal friend of both Parsons and Britton. Finally, it came to a point where the President would have no other man in charge of his train when he made his inspection trips over the property, and he advanced and protected him in every conceivable way. He insisted even upon Jake accompanying him back and forth from New York on the occasion of his frequent visits into the North Country.

In an earlier chapter I referred to the easy traditions of the long-agos in regard to the passenger receipts from the average American railroad.

The R. W. & O. had been no exception to this general rule. Along about 1888 or 1889 Parsons decided that he would make it an exception henceforth. He violated the old traditions and sent "spotters" out upon the passenger trains. As a direct result of their observations some thirteen or fourteen of the oldest men on the line were dropped from its service. Not only this, but several months' pay was withheld from the envelopes of each of them as they were discharged. Just prior to this volcano-like eruption on the part of "the old man" Parsons sent Herman up to Watertown as station master--a position which he has continued to hold until comparatively recent months.

The "stove committees" "joshed" Jake pretty well over his boss's strategy, knowing full well all the while, that if there was one honest conductor on the whole line, it was that selfsame Jacob Herman. Not only honest, but courageous. It was in a slightly earlier era that the road had a good deal of trouble on the Rome branch with what they called "bark peelers"--woodsmen, who would come down out of the forest and in their boisterous fashion make a deal of trouble for the train-crew.

Jake Herman was told off to end that nuisance. It was a regular honest-to-goodness-carry-the-message-to-Garcia sort of a job. Well, Jake got the message through to Garcia. He picked out six brakemen as assistant messengers, any one of whom would have made a real Cornell center-rush. They were the "flower of the flock."

At Richland the gang boarded the evening train down from Watertown.

Somewhere between that station and Kasoag they detrained--as a military man might put it. But not in a military fashion. Along the right-of-way Captain Jake and his lieutenants distributed "bark-peelers," with a fair degree of regularity of interval. Up to that time it had been no sinecure, being a conductor or a trainman on the old Rome road. After that it became as easy as running an infant class in a Sunday School.

John D. Tapley was another well known conductor of those days, and so was W. S. Hammond, who afterwards became division superintendent at Carthage.

These men were U. & B. R. graduates, and it was but logical that when Hammond came to his promotion reward, it should be upon the corner of the property on which he had been schooled and with which he was most familiar. He was a man of tremendous popularity among his men.

Sometimes these men of the rank and file had their reward. More often they did not. John O'Sullivan's came when in 1890, after a few years of unsuccessful experimentation, General Passenger Agent Butterfield handed him the annual Northern New York Sunday excursion to Ontario Beach (in the outskirts of Rochester) and asked him what he could do with it. O'Sullivan replied that he could make it go. He had watched the success of the road's annual long-distance excursions; to Washington in the spring and to New York in October--this last for a fixed fare of six dollars, for a six or seven hundred mile journey. The excursions ran coaches, parlor-cars, dining-cars and sleeping-cars, and did a land-office business. Northern New York had acquired a taste for railroad travel. O'Sullivan knew this.

"I'll take you on," said he to Mr. Butterfield.

And so he did. For seventeen successive years thereafter he handled the annual Ontario Beach excursion from Potsdam and all its adjoining stations--all the way from Norwood to Watertown--on a one-day trip over some four hundred miles of single-track railroad. The excursion had a vast business--invariably running in several sections, each drawn by two locomotives, and having from fifteen to sixteen cars each. It carried passengers for $2.50 for the round trip. Few Northern New York folk along the road went to bed until it returned, which was always well into the wee small hours of Monday morning. And yet, it was withal, a reasonably orderly crowd. O'Sullivan kept it so. On the handbills which announced it each year appeared these conspicuous words:

"Behave yourself. If you can't behave yourself, don't go."

Yet a practical reward such as this could in truth be handed to but a very few of the road's workers indeed. Yet it continued until the end to command their loyalty. Not even the cruel handling of the property by the predecessors of Parsons could dampen that loyalty. To even attempt to make a list of the hard-working and energetic workers of that day and generation of the eighties would mean a catalogue far larger than this little book. There comes to mind a brilliant list--names some of them to-day still with us, and some of them but affectionate traditions: George Snell, who began by running the _Doxtater_; Patsy Tobin, who had the old _Gardner Colby_ on the day that she exploded on Harrison Hill, just outside of Canton; Ed. McNiff; William Bavis; Butler (who had started his career toward an engine-cab as blacksmith at DeKalb Junction, trimming for relaying the old iron rails that the section-gangs brought to him); and Superintendent W. S. (Billy) Jones.

Jones was a much-loved officer of the old R. W. & O. He started his railroad career at Sandy Creek, as an operator, receiving his messages with one of the old-fashioned printing-telegraphs. One day Richard Holden, of Watertown, dropped into the Sandy Creek depot and suggested to Jones that he throw the old contraption out of the window--it was forever getting out of order. Jones demurred for a time; then accepted the suggestion. And in a few weeks was one of the best operators on the line, which led presently to his appointment as agent at Ogdensburgh, where he remained until the days of the Parsons' control.

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