The St. Lawrence & Adirondack Railroad, also known as the Mohawk & Malone – eventually owned by the New York Central and called the Adirondack Line or the Adirondack Railroad ran directly through the Adirondacks from Herkimer (near Utica) to Malone connecting the rail lines along the Mohawk River to the Main Trunk Line running into Montreal. The line is often attributed to William Seward Webb, but it was the men who actually built the line that are the subject of this essay.
On March 29, 1892 a Boston Globe article titled “Labor’s Slaves in the Adirondacks” reported that Utica “resembled Washington during war times, hundreds of penniless and destitute Negroes are camped out tonight in the temporary places of shelter given them, and the citizens of Utica are consulting as to the best means of returning them to their homes.”
The Globe told readers that all night, “runaway slaves” had been coming into town. One hundred and fifty of them, mostly black laborers from the Deep South, but some recently arrived European immigrants as well.
They had walked, some of them a hundred miles, from the railroad camps of the Adirondack Railroad – which was then being laid north of the Bog River near Tupper Lake. They wore “the thinnest of covering to protect them from the chill winter blasts” the newspaper reported and they arrived skinny, hungry, and tired – some with frozen hands and feet.
The men who were pouring into Utica, were railroad construction laborers, members of what were called section gangs – these were the men who were hired to clear the way through the forest and lay the track. These men were essential to building the Adirondack Railroad because of the particularly rugged route the railroad hoped to open – through the heart of what was then a great wilderness.
African Americans and immigrants from Europe, Mexico and Asia had already cleared, graded, and laid most of the tens of thousands of miles of track put down across the country in the nineteenth century. Initially railroad section gangs in the east and mid-west were made of recently arrived German and Irish immigrants.
The transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869, and the railroads of the northwest, both required enormous numbers of laborers who were drawn from certain ethnic immigrant groups – mostly Chinese, Japanese, and later Greek, Italian, Bulgarian, and Austrians – just a few black section gangs were hired for those jobs. In the southwest, railroads relied on Mexicans who were employed in the industry in larger numbers that any other business.
Black laborers had, of course, always served on the section gangs in the south. In the early 1800s some 20,000 slaves were exploited to lay and repair track for southern railroads. Before the Civil War enslaved people were rented from plantations or purchased outright; after the war many of the formerly enslaved left sharecropping in the off season to find railroad jobs.
Southern railroads also paid for mostly black convict labor and after the war railroad construction crews were primarily made of free black section gangs and leased convict labor.
Before the St. Lawrence & Adirondack was finished in 1892, railroads only encircled the Adirondack region. Tracks were laid along the St. Lawrence and Mohawk River valleys, along Lake Champlain and along Lake Ontario.
The first railroad actually built into the heart of the Adirondack wilderness was the Chateauguay Railroad. It was a narrow gauge railroad built by prison labor from Plattsburgh to Dannemora State Prison, now known as Clinton Correctional Facility, at the very northeast corner of the Adirondacks.
That route was expanded to transport prison labor to the Lyon Mountain mines in 1879 and eventually on to Saranac Lake in 1887. The biggest problem for New York Railroad magnets in the 1880s was trade between New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and other eastern cities and Canada. Ships were available only part of the year, because the ports of Montréal and Québec froze each winter. The rail traffic to Canada was split between the Rome, Watertown, & Ogdensburg on the west side of the Adirondacks and the Delaware & Hudson and the Rutland Railroads on the east.
The New York Central Railroad, which ran along the Mohawk Valley, had no direct link to Montréal, a serious disadvantage that was heavily discussed in the New York papers in the late 1880s. William Seward Webb – saw this as an opportunity. Webb was a Wall Street banker who had recently married Lila Osgood Vanderbilt, the youngest daughter of the railroad magnate William Vanderbilt, then considered the richest man in the world.
One reason Webb thought he could build this railroad, was that he understood how to use immigrant and cheap southern black labor. When Webster Wagner of the Wagner Palace Car Company was crushed between two cars and killed in a New Jersey rail yard, Vanderbilt, who owned controlling stock in the company, had Webb installed as President. Webb stayed in that position as the company was merged with the Pullman Palace Car Company.
George Pullman had been the first northern industrialist to hire black workers and the Pullman Company was famous for employing southern blacks as porters – they were called Sam, George, or Joe by train passengers – instead of their real names.
Webb wanted to connect the New York Central Railroad running along the Mohawk with the Canadian Trunk Line running into Montreal – the only way left to do that was directly through the heart of the Adirondacks – the most difficult route.
Another route had been attempted, the Sacketts’s Harbor and Saratoga Railroad. Planned in 1848, two surveys were made to lay out the route from Saratoga to Lake Ontario. They planned to lay rails 182 miles up the Hudson Valley, through Newcomb toward Raquette Lake, across the Beaver, Moose, and Black river valleys, and on to Lake Ontario. But the money ran out only 30 miles from Saratoga. Only later did Thomas Durant’s company finish the road to North Creek in Northern Warren County. So at the time the Adirondack Railroad was being built, no standard gauge rail entered the Adirondack wilderness above North Creek, and no railroad of any size crossed it entirely.
The plan that Seward Webb laid out went 175 miles from Herkimer to Malone, across numerous rivers, swamps, streams, and mountains, and reaching an elevation of 2,000 feet at it highest point. The area between Utica and Albany in Herkimer County was already a significant transportation hub and so a natural place to branch a major rail line north, but the task was an incredible undertaking.
In places, such as south of the Black River, enormous quantities of fill were necessary to carry the rails over wetlands. Using fill was more time consuming than traditional truss work but the resulting line would be built to last in the harsh Adirondack weather. Embankments were made sturdier throughout the length of the line with longer slopes and where they were exposed to flooding, they used stone masonry.
The cuts through the hills and mountains were wider than had been typically used in American railroad construction and even the rails themselves were wider and heavier than was commonly used. At the Black River a bridge was built 50 feet above the water on granite piers and was itself another 25 feet high from the decking. The bridge at Trenton Falls was 350 feet long and 75 feet high it was to be the longest earth ballasted rail bridge in the country. Wooden bridges over smaller waterways and ditches were avoided in favor of stone arches – sturdier, but requiring a good deal more labor.
In order to build this railroad across the Adirondacks, Webb needed cheap, plentiful labor to clear the way and lay the track. To get it, his agents traveled to eastern cities like Buffalo, Boston, and New York to find newly arrived immigrants, and to the Deep South – especially Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina – where they found mostly young black men, many whose parents had been enslaved.
They hired many Poles, Austrians, Hungarians, Italians, Swedes, Welsh, Irish, and other newly arrived immigrants. From Maine and Montreal they brought French Canadians – 1,700 were brought from Bangor, Maine alone.
Most of the southern men were loaded onto trains wearing their cotton clothing from home, without winter coats, some barefoot – and some arrived sick, owing to the crowded rail cars. By early January 1892, 4,000 men were at work in the winter conditions all along the line.
Clearing the land of brush, trees, and stumps was done by the section gang men by hand – it was rough, heavy, and hard work, even under the best conditions. But these men didn’t have the best of conditions because black and immigrant laborers did not have the labor protections enjoyed by brakemen, engineers, firemen, and other operating train workers.
The work was arduous and dangerous. Accidents were common. Even if men escaped accidental injuries and death, the fear and threat of such happenings were inescapable and hung over everyone working on the line. The exact numbers of those injured and killed are impossible to know, because the federal government only required reporting of accidents for operating railroad employees.
Most accidents and mishaps in the remote Adirondack woods were remembered in song or verse, in family histories, and in short notices in the local newspapers. But by way of example – during 1889 alone there were more than 2,000 workers killed and 20,000 injured on the country’s railroad lines – those were operating train workers – at a time when there were about 200,000 total.
When accidents did happen, section gang workers had no accidental death or injury insurance which regular employees organized for in the 1880s. As many as one of every 175 track laborers were accidentally killed on the job during the building of the St. Lawrence & Adirondack Railroad.
After the biggest national strike in American history – The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 – which included street battles in Buffalo, Albany, and New York City – many railroad workers were protected from labor exploitation, but not the men of the section gangs.
The section gangs who built the Adirondack were held in peonage – they were brought to remote wilderness camps, then charged for their travel, room and board, clothing and other supplies – and then forced to work – sometimes at gun point – until their debt was paid.
Here’s the experience of one group of Poles from Boston’s North End. Fifteen newly immigrated Poles were assembled with enough other laborers, likely Italians with whom they could not communicate, to fill two freight cars for the trip to Boonville. An overseer accompanied them on the train and held their tickets.
On the two-day trip they ate only what they had carried with them in their pockets or tied in handkerchiefs – black bread and bologna. In Boston they had been told that they would work nine hours a day and make $9 a week. They would have to pay $3 per week for room and board and $15 would be deducted from their first paycheck for the railroad fare to the camps.
As soon as the cars arrived at the camps bosses in blue flannel shirts and white hats herded the men toward the commissary where they could purchase, at exorbitant prices, clothing suitable for winter in the Adirondacks. It was widely believed that the clothing they were forced to buy for about $30 could be had in Tupper Lake for only $10. When they arrived at the camp they were told that they would be charged $3.50 a week for room and board, $2 for a workman’s jumper, $2 for overalls, and $10 for rubber boots. The first week, they were already $32.50 in debt to the company, a heavy financial burden for men who made only about $1 per day.
In another example, Hungarian immigrants who signed on in New York City were promised $1.25 per day and travel expenses. They were shipped to Lowville and taken the 42 miles into the work camps. But nearly two months later some of the men were still in debt and had not yet received their first paycheck. Other workers at various locations told essentially the same tale. One said he had been promised $40 per month, but had worked two months and received just $13 total.
The rains turned the roads to mud making it difficult for the men to get from the camps to the work site. Some camps ahead of the line required 25 to 50 miles of overland hauling to supply them – all the necessary supplies, including hay for the horses, had to be carried on the backs of men for many miles over many months in order to keep the work going.
Railroad bosses had no obligation to provide more than a paltry amount of food and shelter and that left some workers in danger of starvation and dying of exposure during winter. And many did.
The camps in which the workers were housed were named for the sub-contractors who ran them: Hunt’s Camp, King & Page’s, Murdock’s. They were rough, cheap, crude log cabins – some with only three sides – the largest were 40 by 25 feet, caulked with moss and covered with tar paper. They held as many as 75 men.
The Poles from Boston said they were forced to sleep on “scanty heaps of straw scattered on the floor.” When it rained at night water poured into the buildings making it impossible to sleep.
Workers said that the food was insufficient, poorly cooked, and consisted of pork and beans three times a day. Others reported that their only food was bread, “without milk or sugar.”
At remote camps, the walking bosses and foremen – some of whom were southerners – were free to use corporal punishment – like the cat o’ nine tails – various tortures, and in a few cases murder, to force men to build the railroad and pay their new debts to the company.
So at the end of the first winter the men fled, perhaps as many as half – on foot, avoiding bosses and gun thugs on horseback by staying far away from the already laid track back toward the Mohawk Valley. Hundreds of others fled to small Adirondack towns surrounding the new rail line.
They began arriving in Little Falls on the Mohawk River in early February, including one man described as “wearing scant clothing… nearly starved, and his hands and feet were frozen.” In mid-March a blizzard struck, sending more men toward the safety of the towns.
The Lowville Journal Republican reported: “The contractors.. seem to assume they are enjoying pro-slavery days and.. keep patrols out and mounted horsemen around with Winchesters and revolvers. If the men leave they are forced to go back at the muzzle of a revolver or Winchester, or stripped of their clothing and allowed to perish.”
By the end of March hundreds of men were streaming south, avoiding their bosses as they could so the Adirondack Railroad instituted a pass system – those traveling without a pass were returned to their camps.
It wasn’t all of the bosses – The Journal Republican also reported that a man had run into John O’Hara’s camp who said he had been beaten with a pick handle and pistol whipped. His nose was broken and clothing covered with blood from several wounds. The man’s boss, a southerner named Redmond, followed the man into camp and told O’Hara to turn him over. He had also brought a rope to drag the man back behind his horse. O’Hara and about 50 of his workers refused to turn him over however.
Perhaps as many as half of the men of the section gangs fled their jobs between early February and May, 1892. Locals reported that many couldn’t speak a word of English. They begged for food and asked directions by repeating “New York” and “Boston” over and over.
During the month of April, 428 workers were received at the Lewis County poor house and provided meals – doubling the cost of the county’s poor house for that year.
Prompted by the situation, Cornelius Haley, a labor friendly Democrat from Utica, introduced a resolution to the New York State Legislature. The resolution said in part, that railroad workers in the Adirondacks were being “compelled to work without sufficient food or clothing, and while portions of their bodies were frozen, and that several of them had been murdered by armed guards.”
Despite opposition from Republicans, the Democratic assembly directed the State Labor Board to investigate. Under the direction of Florence Donovan the board left Utica at the end of March on a “tour of investigation.”
The Labor Board took sworn statements from more than forty workers, contractors, walking bosses, commissary clerks, and section gang laborers. On the last night of the four-day tour, the Labor Board was taken to meet Seward Webb at his great camp – Little Rapids – and the next day they returned home. A final report was produced and presented to the New York State Assembly three weeks later.
Although no workers contradicted what another worker had said, and more than a few told stories of workers being killed by bosses or guards for refusing to work or attempting to run away, the Labor Board found that the “charges of ill-treatment of railroad laborers… was unfounded.”
Unfortunately the Labor Board’s final report no longer exist, it was probably destroyed in a fire at the New York State Library in 1911 – so we’ll never have the complete story of what happened to the men who built the Adirondack Line.
The final spike on the Adirondack Railroad was driven without ceremony by a junior civil engineer on October 12, 1892 – from the first survey to the final spike they had laid 191 miles in 18 months – an average of 2.5 miles of track a day.
Illustrations, from above: A Gainesville Midland, California all black section gang, with a white foreman (1890); Map of Adirondack Railroads created by Jane Mackintosh courtesy Adirondack Experience; 1892 photo of the Mohawk & Malone Railroad at Fulton Chain; and Adirondack and St Lawrence Railroad Timetable, published in the Malone Gazette, December 9, 1892.
Anita Prentice says
Thank you for this important history. It is so important to remember the people who built these railroads, especially as many miles of track are being removed for walking trails.
This account reminded me of the Japanese use of British and Australian prisoners of war to build a rail line through Burma.
Katie L Williams says
It is very important to remember, I agree. And I never knew about the Japanese/ Austrian POW built railway in Burma. I am going to read up on that, thank you.
Isn’t it amazing what sort of cruelty toward each other the entire human race is susceptible to, all in the name of greed?
Olivia Twine says
Great article, John! What courage and endurance these people had.
Kathleen Hulser says
Great article, the RR have a deep history that reveals the underside of the American economy. Don’t you think you should clarify in first paragraph that in fact in 1892, African Americans were not enslaved, and not runaways — indeed, it is interesting that a reporter would write such inaccuracies. And of course, the Constitution allows the use forced labor, e.g. slavery, when it is done by convicts — still true.
Big Burly says
Black Americans following the war between the states faced many obstacles. Our nation, like in many others over history, has parts of its history that would likely happen differently with what we know today.
Humankind’s inclination to cruelty to others was not unique to the construction of the railway you describe in this article. We all need to continue to strive to be better.
Pam Malcolm says
thank you for sharing this important piece of our history! Great article!
NOEL A SHERRY says
Wow John, this was outstanding. I really should have done a search here at NY Almanack when I was researching my piece for Webb’s RR. You really uncovered the dark social side of the labor situation. I would have added this dimension for sure and quoted you on my work. If I ever publish this, I will add in this side of the picture, which has not been covered except by you. I am NOT a fan of Webb, and even less so after researching the two Big Moose Lake lawsuits he was behind. Great job on your research for this. This is a very important part of the story!
John Warren says
Thank you Noel. I’m glad you liked the piece!