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History Happened Here

 

Tracking the Mighty O&W

 

Fifty years ago, the New York Ontario & Western Railway ceased all operations. But in its heyday, Middletown was at the center of it all 

 

by Jennifer Leba

 

 

photo courtesy of Ontario & Western Railway Historical Society, Inc.

The abandoned O&W railway station in Middletown is not much to look at these days. But Ronald Vassallo recalls how he loved exploring the partially abandoned building before a 2004 fire damaged the already decaying 1892 structure. “Once inside the doorway I can’t help but feel that I have transcended time and I immediately feel like I am in 1952,” he wrote about a 2000 visit. “I was immediately hit with the old familiar smell of old wood, dirt, paint and neglect. You don’t have to go far inside the old beast to catch the beauty of this beauty. Just looking up the stairwell one can catch an eyeful of design, form and craftsmanship.” Like countless other railroad enthusiasts, Vassallo, the webmaster of the Ontario & Western Railway Historical Society, is captivated by imagining the time when Middletown was the center of the thriving O&W Railway.

 

The New York & Oswego Midland Railroad, the O&W’s predecessor, was the grandiose vision of Dewitt C. Littlejohn, a dynamic politician who bore an uncanny resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. He envisioned a direct rail route northwest across New York State, serving virgin territory not reached by any existing line. Thus, in 1868 the “Midland” began laying track, meandering this way and that to reach the towns which had put up money for its construction. Its twisting route — from Weehawken, N.J. to the port of Oswego on Lake Ontario —  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 in 1880 was reorganized as the New York, Ontario & Western Railway (NYO&W).

 

The railroad flourished under new President Thomas P. Fowler. During these golden years, it firmly established itself as a tourist carrier to the resort hotels and camps in the “lower Catskill” mountains of Orange, Sullivan, and Delaware counties.

The road also hauled milk, dairy products, mail, and most importantly, anthracite coal from northeastern Pennsylvania. This was due to the railroad’s most-ambitious expansion program: the construction in 1889-90 of the 55-mile Scranton Division. Branch lines were also built to Kingston and Port Jervis.

 

But at the center of it all was the railroad’s Middletown hub. The O&W built and serviced most of their train cars in Middletown, huge piles of coal were stored there, and passengers hopped off the trains to eat at the famous Seeholzer’s restaurant at the Middletown station. (There was no food service on the O&W.)

 

This grand station was built in 1892 of local brick and Pennsylvania sandstone by noted Grand Central Terminal architect Bradford Lee Gilbert. The polished cherry counters and open fireplace at Seeholzer’s beckoned to thousands of travelers each day who had 10 minutes to grab a ready-made sandwich, down a beer, and polish off a piece of fruit — all for 20 cents.

 

Gentlemen could top off their meal by purchasing a Seeholzer O&W-brand cigar for five cents. In the busy season, selling 4,000 to 5,000 sandwiches and 1,000 quarts of milk a day was the norm. With the Erie Railroad also stopping downtown, Middletown was a hopping railroad center, offering hundreds of jobs to boost the local economy.

 

Although the coal business wavered in the 1920s, it remained strong into the early years of the Great Depression, permitting the O&W to continue paying dividends. Nonetheless, coal was losing ground to petroleum fuels, natural gas and electricity. O&W handled only about four percent of the anthracite shipped out of Pennsylvania, but in the early 1930s, this one commodity still accounted for over 50 percent of the railroad’s income.

 

The decline of coal was not O&W’s only dilemma. Economic activity as a whole in the U.S. was changing dramatically. Manufacturing activities were moving to the South, Southwest and West, and the resultant population shifts were altering the consumer markets and the rural economy. The decline in the importance of small towns and cities, the expansion of suburban industrial parks, and population shifts to metropolitan areas or to other parts of the country were severely felt by “rural roads” such as the O&W.

 

The milk and passenger business continued to drop off through the early 1950s, and the railroad was eventually forced into bankruptcy. On March 29, 1957, the final train pulled into the Middletown station, ending the O&W’s long and fabled run. It was the first Class I railroad to be abandoned, but certainly not the last.

 

And the old Middletown station? In the 1970s, it became a popular nightclub (called the O&W) and later housed many businesses including an art studio, a driving school and a Baptist ministry, among others. At the time of the 2004 fire it had a handful of tenants. Today, only the O&W station sign remains intact.

 

But the railroad lives on through the work of the Ontario & Western Railway Historical Society. The group’s well-organized Web site houses dozens of articles and hundreds of photographs by members who obsessively track the most detailed history of the railroad and, like modern-day treasure hunters, chart the many remnants of the line which can be found throughout the region — if you know where to look.

 

There’s the single-track steel girder bridge, one of the line’s few surviving, right where I-84 meets up with Route 17; the stations at High Falls, Ellenville and Cottekill, which are all now private residences; a 1905 arch bridge near Cornwall; and paths that have been turned into rail trails. The list goes on and on.

 

“Could it be that just as one visits a cemetery and touches a tombstone to find some solace over human loss, we take pleasure from finding a still extant water column, roundhouse or concrete coaling tower, as a similar connection to the past?” one historical society member wrote on the Web site.

 

Dozens of devoted O&W Railway fans know that he is on to something. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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