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The Industrial History of the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge and the Central New England Railway’s Maybrook Line

Gail Goldsmith ’12

Hudson River Valley Review Vol. 26, No. 2

Introduction to the Development of Industryand Transportation in the Hudson River Valley

The history of the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge spans a large part of the economic development of the Hudson River Valley, as it served as a focal point for economic development and strengthened railway-centered commerce by providing an east-west route across the Hudson River. The rallying of local entrepreneurs for the advancement of this structure solidified industrial energy. Lauded in the press as an engineering achievement, the bridge was a vital conduit for the transportation of people, products, and supplies as lopsided population growth and uneven resource distribution necessitated such exchanges. Prominent industrial cities developed along the East Coast (New York, Boston, Philadelphia) and the borders and outlying areas of the Great Lakes (Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Detroit, Buffalo, St. Louis, Cincinnati), while regional centers across the rest of the country relied more on agriculture, lumber, and mining.1

In his Hudson: A History, Tom Lewis links industrial advancements and transportation to the nineteenth-century zeitgeist of the Hudson River Valley:

Steamboats and sloops ply the water, while across the river, at the foot of mountain peaks, a small town nestles on the shore. Smoke rises from its red brick buildings, telling us of industry and prosperity within… …the cities great and small that were strung along the east and west riverbanks between New York and Albany, all helped make the Hudson River into an icon of America’s nineteenth century sensibilities.2

The “rising tide of population” in the Hudson Valley helped to spur the need for systems to transport people, goods, and supplies between urban centers and rural areas, resulting in a gradual spread of opportunities. The Erie Canal served as the spine of a network of canals, including the Champlain and Delaware & Hudson canals, linking Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Delaware. Nationwide railroad expansion, an effect of the Industrial Revolution, and fascination with symbols of “progress” served to increase the speed, reach, and efficiency of the flow of information, people, materials, goods, and culture.

The rise of railroads also was fueled by the national fascination with this evidently efficient and imposing transportation option and helped by the ease of immigrant labor. Railroads facilitated the spread of communication by transporting daily newspapers and mail order catalogs as well as the materials and personnel to build and maintain telegraph and (later) telephone systems. In Hopewell Junction: A Railroaders’ Town, Central New England Railway historian Bernie Rudberg notes that rail systems facilitated a bi-directional flow between rural and urban spheres by bringing farm products to the cities and city culture to outlying farms. Rudberg also credits railroads with the rise of the vacation as a viable recreational opportunity by decreasing travel time, cost, and discomfort.3 He further writes that economic opportunity enticed businessmen: “When the idea of taking advantage of this economic potential took hold there were plenty of people with high hopes to join in and get rich. As in any new undertaking there were lessons to be learned and a dose of reality to cope with. Some actually did get rich. Most did not.” 4

Many small-scale local railroads sprang up, coalesced, and spiraled down into bankruptcy. Dutchess County hosted several of these ventures as the Hudson River Valley emerged as a high-profile center of commerce due to its natural resources, available workforce, successful port and manufacturing industries, and banking establishments. The increase of transportation facilities and methods rose largely in tandem with the increase of industry, as industry manufactured useful components of construction. The valley was not only a supply route for grain and goods, but also a natural resource for building materials including stone, bricks, and cement.

A geographically strategic location, Dutchess County was a high-priority area for businessmen and developers interested in railroad planning. On a north-south axis, it is between New York City and the state capital in Albany. Most early railroads were arranged on this axis, and could serve a New York City, Albany, and Montreal route. East to west, however, Dutchess County links the western states and Pennsylvania coal fields to southern New England. Other modes of transport across the Hudson were more weather-dependent; steamboats could not travel when the river was frozen, and rail cars had to cross via the ferry at Newburgh. Goods had to be unloaded and transferred to ferries or steamboats and then reloaded if headed farther than the port of call.

The inconveniences of these other transportation systems compared unfavorably with a more direct route across the Hudson. In combination with several other factors, this made Poughkeepsie a focal point for dynamic area entrepreneurs promoting the idea of building a bridge. The city’s economic profile rose along with that of the region as industries in and near the city developed and expanded. Local businessmen Matthew Vassar and Harvey Eastman were energetic advocates of the bridge idea, realizing the economic and strategic advantage of such a structure.

Vassar—a brewer, owner of a whaling ship, and later founder of Vassar College—envied the success of Albany and New York. Steamboats chose Kingston and Newburgh as destinations instead of Poughkeepsie, which in winter often was isolated by ice. In 1842, Vassar hired engineers to report on the viability of a bridge; they found that building a span five feet above the water would be cheapest. These findings galvanized steamboat owners, whose influence on the state Legislature dissuaded it from granting bridge proponents a charter.

By 1871 the timing, economic conditions, and commercial climate of New York State favored Harvey Eastman’s new bridge proposal. In February, Eastman— the head of Poughkeepsie’s Eastman Business College—advocated for building the span in a public letter, writing: “If the reader will draw a line on the map from Boston to Pittsburg [sic] he will be surprised that Poughkeepsie is not only directly in the line … nearly so … are Springfield, Hartford and the Pennsylvania coal fields.”

A month later, Eastman was in a better position to advocate for the bridge as the newly-elected mayor of Poughkeepsie. Together with Jonathan I. Platt, the editor of the Poughkeepsie Eagle, and Pomeroy P. Dickinson, he drafted a charter for the Poughkeepsie Bridge Company. They included concessions to gather local support, providing crossing space on the bridge for “foot passengers, teams, vehicles, cattle, horses, sheep, and swine.” 5

The Poughkeepsie Bridge Company

Building the bridge at Poughkeepsie appealed to many; the railroad tracks could easily connect to the Hudson River Railroad, the Poughkeepsie & Eastern Railroad (which was planned to expand to the Connecticut border), and other lines. The geographic features of the area also were opportune. The height of the surrounding bluffs would allow the construction of the bridge to facilitate river shipping. A visiting committee from Boston found reason to support this entrepreneurial enthusiasm: “We have no hesitation in saying that it is in the interest of Boston and … and all of the southern Northeast to have this bridge built as speedily as possible.” 6 In addition, the project was endorsed by an editorial in the Boston American Union stating that the span would bring “trade and profit, and honor and glory.” 7

Vocal opposition came from Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad, which did not relish the prospect of competition or diminished traffic for its bridge at Albany. Other towns, of which Newburgh was the most vocal, feared their economic clout would wane. Other entrepreneurs were worried that the bridge would interfere with river navigation and reduce the need for shipping across or along the river.8

The first crib for the rectangular truss bridge was built in 1876 by the American Bridge Company. The crib’s ensuing collapse from construction difficulties exacerbated the financial weaknesses of a company still recovering from the Panic of 1873. The Poughkeepsie Bridge Company soon liquidated. Meanwhile, Eastman died of tuberculosis, and bridge-building efforts stalled without his energy and vision.

Interest in the proposed Poughkeepsie bridge was reinvigorated in 1886 by the increase in rail-car ferry crossings at Newburgh, proposals for a bridge to be built instead at Storm King, and an influx of funds from William W. Gibbs, a utilities executive from Philadelphia who bought stock in the Poughkeepsie Bridge Company. By August 1886, it had contracted with the Union Bridge Company. Union’s president, Thomas Curtis Clarke, and partner Charles MacDonald were most involved with the design and construction of the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge.

From the 1840s to the 1870s, most railroad work was done by Irish immigrants, but by the 1880s construction laborers were more likely to be Italian, as most working on the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge were. In a debate paralleling the contemporary controversy, The Poughkeepsie News-Telegraph defended this hiring practice as not taking jobs away from Americans, but hiring out the “mean” and “hard work” no one else “could or would do.” 9

In a lecture at Cornell University, Thomas Curtis Clarke called the bridge a “considerable piece of engineering,” though he qualified his remarks on the bridge’s appearance, saying that in American engineering “aesthetic considerations are little regarded. Utility alone governs design.” 10 The Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge was completed in December 1888 at a height of 212 feet so ships could easily pass under.11 Promoters had been calling it the longest bridge of its kind in the world, but in 1890 they conceded that title to the cantilever bridge across the Firth of Forth in Scotland.12

The Smith Street Yard in Poughkeepsie connected bridge traffic to the Poughkeepsie & Eastern Railroad and the Poughkeepsie & Connecticut Railroad.13 The bridge line was also connected to Hopewell Junction. The bridge also provided a valuable short-distance connection by enabling people to commute from Orange and Ulster counties to Poughkeepsie.14 Soon after the bridge’s completion, construction began on the Hudson Connecting Railroad from Highland to Orange Junction. This later became the Maybrook Switching Yard.15

Evolution of Routes, Infrastructure, and Commerce Along the Maybrook-Danbury Line

The Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge had been planned when the Hudson Valley’s railroad system was mostly composed of small companies serving the local area. However, the bridge was at the height of its efficacy and prominence during the Central Northeastern Railway years, as the line on top of the bridge—commonly known as the Maybrook-Danbury Line—served as the crucial link across the valley to Northeastern states.

In 1889, a group of investors from Philadelphia consolidated several of the small railroads in Dutchess County into the Central Northeastern and Western Railroad. Under newly-chosen president Archibald MacLeod, the system was reorganized as the Philadelphia, Reading & New England Railroad. MacLeod now controlled both of the railroads connecting at Hopewell Junction to the Northern Dutchess & Columbia Railroad, the New York & New England Railroad, and the Philadelphia, Reading & New England Railroad. Feeling the threat of competition, J.P. Morgan used the New Haven Railroad to cut off access to the New York & New England Railroad. The Philadelphia, Reading, & New England Railroad system also had inherent faults that would limit its success. Often only single tracked, it wound through a sparsely populated, mountainous area that necessitated steep grades and curves.16

The ensuing complications from Morgan’s move as well as financial strain and a stock market crash forced the Philadelphia, Reading & New England Railroad into receivership from August 1893 until 1899, when Arthur Brock and Henry O. Seixas purchased the company at a judicial sale and reorganized it into the Central New England Railroad.17 Brock and Seixas’ company retained all Philadelphia, Reading & New England Railroad personnel and adopted all their orders, circulars, rules, and regulations to ensure a smooth transition.18

To control the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge and the Maybrook-Danbury Line route, Morgan’s New Haven Railroad bought the Central New England Railway in 1904, continuing operations under that name. New Haven’s personnel also closed the Newburgh rail-car ferry, eliminating what was by this time paltry competition. In 1905, the New Haven Railroad also purchased the Newburgh, Dutchess & Connecticut Railroad and the Poughkeepsie & Eastern Railroad, merging both into the Central New England Railway, which operated under that name until it was formally merged with the New Haven Railroad in 1927. The Central New England Railway was able to improve its current holdings and expand as a result of its success. In 1907, the tracks on top of the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge were rearranged into a gauntlet configuration, which meant that only one train could cross at a time.19

The Central New England Railway absorbed the Dutchess County Railroad and the Newburgh, Dutchess & Connecticut Railroad in 1910, also adding the Springfield branch in Massachusetts to solidify its presence in the Northeast beyond New York. By leasing track rights from Hopewell Junction to Danbury, Connecticut, in 1915, the Central New England Railway solidified its main east-west route. The rails on top of the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge would come to be known as the Maybrook line in recognition of the high traffic between the Maybrook Switching Yard and Danbury Station.20

As a conduit for commerce, the stretch of railway between Maybrook and Danbury originated little of the line’s high volume of tonnage traffic; it served primarily as a strategic connector. Especially in the early twentieth century, most of the freight rolling into New England was raw materials, predominantly coal. Significant amounts of oil, grain, lumber, beef, and farm produce also were shipped there. Shipments from the Northeast to western and mid-Atlantic states were comparatively lighter and consisted mostly of manufactured goods and (during the season) Atlantic fish, Maine potatoes, and Cape Cod cranberries. 21

The Rise and Decline of Maybrook

Facilities at the Maybrook Switching Yard and Danbury Station were instrumental in easing the transfer of goods. The former hosted a workshop for repairing cars, a roundhouse with twenty-seven repair stalls, a turntable, expansive stockyard, coaling and watering facilities, an icing platform, and freight transfer mechanisms. The icing plant, built in 1910, allowed meat from Chicago, California fruit, and vegetables from the South to be shipped across the Northeast by replenishing ice in refrigerator cars.22

The small village of Maybrook was home to many of the Switching Yard’s employees; during the railway years, the population was about 1,400:

“The residents of Maybrook became accustomed to living with the snorting of engines, the hissing of air brakes, the crash of cars coupling, and smoke. They also got used to living with crusty railroad men, men who worked at all hours of the day and night, men who could be both fiercely protective of one another and fiercely competitive. They were also men who, living constantly on the edge of danger, were sometimes called to be heroic. Railroading, said President Theodore Roosevelt, demands heroic virtues.”23

Railroading was apparently not a job for the faint of heart. Workers risked getting snared by the many large, heavy machines. A Maybrook-based conductor was fond of telling his crew, “Eat your pie first, boys. You are liable to get killed any minute.” 24 Small fires were common on the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge. Men would walk behind trains as they crossed, tracking the conditions by punching into three clocks along the span if there were no problems. Failure to punch in after the passage of a certain amount of time signaled that emergency service was necessary.25

As employees in high-risk jobs were often the first to unionize, these dangers inspired workers to engage in collective bargaining. The Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen formed at Maybrook in 1904, early in the American labor movement. The union aimed to improve workers’ wages and hours and increase vacation time. This gave workers a feeling of engagement in this enterprise, which boosted morale.26

Employees who did not live in Maybrook could commute on “Scoot” or free Ontario & Western Railroad shuttle cars from Poughkeepsie and Middletown, respectively. Railroad crews based elsewhere were housed in Maybrook’s YMCA or a boarding house. The men often amused themselves by boxing or playing pinochle. Saloons were a popular place to congregate and relax for residents and non-residents alike. 27

In the 1940s, the Central New England Railway and its key sites at Maybrook, Danbury, and Poughkeepsie contributed to the war effort, as did most American industries. The Maybrook-Danbury line was well-placed for shipping military rations, gasoline, and other supplies to ports at New London, Providence, and Boston.

In Carlton Mabee’s Bridging the Hudson: The Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge and Its Connecting Rail Lines, one employee remembers the striking image of carscoming through the Maybrook Switching Yard carrying naval fighter planes onDecember 8, 1941—the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.28 Both trooptrains and trains carrying prisoners of war traveled the line. The former metwith cheers from Switching Yard employees, the latter with more diverse—andpredominantly negative—responses.

Mabee singles out this one incident:

“However, Frank Doolittle, Jr., then a yard clerk, remembers German soldiers giving him letters to mail—he mailed letters for some of them, watching that he didn’t get caught doing it.’ 29

The Central New England Railway modernized after the war, replacing its paper waybill cargo tracking system with IBM punch-card devices that transmitted car numbers, destinations, and each car’s assigned cargo by Teletype to teleprinters, providing tracking information and delivery confirmation.30

Despite this and other modifications, the Central New England Railway began to decline in the latter half of the twentieth century with the ascendancy of trucking and air freight industries.

Looking Back and Toward the Future

The Penn Central Railroad Company was formed in 1968 to combat the decline of the formerly prominent railroad companies of the Northeast: the New York Central Railroad, Pennsylvania Railroad, and the New Haven Railroad.

When the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge caught fire and burned in 1974, its tracks were deemed irreparable and fell into neglect. Sparks from the trains were a common cause for such fires, but the Hudson Valley Hornet alleged that Penn Central may have sponsored arson to wash their hands of the declining route.31 As trains could no longer cross the bridge, this rendered the Maybrook Switching Yard irrelevant. Traffic was instead redirected to the Livingston Avenue bridge in Albany, built in 1856.

“After the fire, Maybrook had to shut down as traffic slowed. You couldn’t get across the bridge. The route they found to solve the problem bypassed Maybrook. When you look at industrial history, so many places lived and died by one industry,” explained Susan Isaksen, historian for the Town of Montgomery and a volunteer with the Maybrook Historical Society.32

The Penn Central Railroad proved to be an unsuccessful operation; in 1976, the federal government created the Consolidated Rail Corporation (known as Conrail) to save it from a sudden collapse. The Newburgh, Dutchess & Columbia Railroad was now owned by Conrail; the Maybrook line and the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge, in their industrial incarnations, were eliminated by Conrail after the last run in 1982.

However, the three major components of the Maybrook-Danbury line still survive, albeit in different capacities. The Maybrook Switching Yard facilities are commemorated in a small museum and library that is moving from the village’s public library to its municipal center.

“The move will not affect current resource holdings, but rather the larger space will hold expanded displays,” said Susan Isaksen.

The library’s resources include pictures of the switching terminal, employees, and trains; artifacts include badges, equipment, the lamp that lit the Switching Yard at night, and a model railroad mapping routes and facilities; documents, papers, and timetables.33 Some documents have been digitized for the online archive on the Hudson River Valley Heritage Web site; volunteers are in the process of digitizing more.

In its current incarnation as Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park, the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge stands as a monument to the Industrial Revolution in the microcosm of the Hudson River Valley and northeastern United States.

The Danbury Station is commemorated at the Danbury Railroad Museum, located at 120 White Street in Danbury, Connecticut. It provides educational exhibits and guided tours as well as train rides from April to December. Call 203-778-8337or visit www.danbury.org/drm for more information.

Maybrook Village Hall, which will house the museum dedicated to the Maybrook Switching Yard, is located at 109 Main Street. It can be contacted at 845-427-2717. The Maybrook Historical Society’s collection may be seen online at www.hrvh.org/browse .

Bernard L. Rudberg, author of Twenty-Five Years on the ND &C: A History of the Newburgh, Dutchess & Connecticut Railroad, and historian of Central New England Railway, can be contacted at brudberg@optonline.net . Mr. Rudberg also conducts annual rail tours of the CN&E.

Access to Walkway over the Hudson is from Parker Avenue in Poughkeepsie and Haviland Road in Highland. For more information, call 845-454-9649 or visit www.walkway.org.

Bibliography

Brock, John W. “Executive Order No. 1.” Philadelphia: Organizational Communication, January 19,1899.

Gould, Steve, and Peter McLachlan, interview by Jason Schaaf. Oral History: Danbury Station and the Maybrook Line

The Industrial History of the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge and the CNE Railway’s Maybrook Line 129

Isaksen, Susan, interview by Gail Goldsmith. The Maybrook Historical Society (March 8, 2010).

Lewis, Tom. The Hudson: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Mabee, Carleton. Bridging the Hudson: The Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge and Its Connecting Rail Lines. Fleischmanns, NY : Purple Mountain Press, 2001.

Rudberg, Bernard. “Hopewell Junction: A Railroaders’ Town.”

Rudberg, Bernard. “The Central New England Railroad Tour 2008.” 2008.

Wohl, Ellen. Disconnected Rivers: Linking Rivers to Landscapes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Endnotes

1. E llen Wohl, Disconnected Rivers Linking Rivers to Landscapes. (New Haven: Yale University Press,

2004 ) 96-97

2. L ewis. Hudson,

3. (Rudberg, Hopewell Junction: A Railroaders’ Town n.d.)

4. (Rudberg, Hopewell Junction: A Railroaders’ Town n.d.)

5. Mabee. Bridging the Hudson, 10

6. Ibid., 23

7. Ibid.,24

8. Mabee. Bridging the Hudson,11

9. Ibid.,42

10. Mabee. Bridging the Hudson, 54

11. (Rudberg, The Central New England Railroad n.d.)22

12. Ibid.,55

13. Ibid.,45

14. Rudberg, The Central New England Railroad n.d., 17

15. Mabee. Bridging the Hudson 64

16. (Rudberg, The Central New England Railroad n.d.)17

17. (Rudberg, The Central New England Railroad n.d.)32

18. (Brock 1899)

19. Rudberg, The Central New England Railroad n.d., 35

20. Rudberg, The Central New England Railroad n.d., 45

21. Mabee. Bridging the Hudson, 128

22. Ibid.,118

23. Ibid.,122

24. Ibid.,119

25. (Gould and McLachlan n.d.)

26. Mabee. Bridging the Hudson,123

27. Mabee. Bridging the Hudson, 121

28. Ibid.,139

29. Ibid.,124

30. Ibid.,121

31. Mabee. Bridging the Hudson. 248.

32. (Isaksen 2010)

33. (Isaksen 2010)

 

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