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Inclined Planes of the Ithaca & Owego Railroad

Sat, November 21, 2020 4:32 PM | Anonymous

Inclined Planes of the Ithaca & Owego Railroad

    The steep rolling hills surrounding Ithaca, New York offered great  challenge to early-day railroad builders. Prior to its abandonment in 1956, the Ithaca Branch of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad entered the city by way of switchbacks. After the D.L. & W. was abandoned a segment of this was later used by the Lehigh Valley Railroad to serve Morse Chain.

    The Ithaca & Owego Railroad was organized in 1827 and is reputed to have been the third railroad built in North America. It was the missing transportation link in an otherwise water route between the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. It connected Ithaca, on the southern shore of Cayuga Lake with the Susquehanna River at Owego. Ithaca was a rapidly-developing small city with a population of 5,000 by 1840.

     Pre-dating a "zig-zag" or switchback system were two inclined planes which overcame the steep South Hill. From the summit it was a “flat land” 30-mile railroad to Owego. Although the planes were abandoned in 1850, they have long captured the interest of railroad historians.  For generations remnants could be found on the Ithaca College campus. A similar operation existed with the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad in Albany.

    Acting upon requests from local pubic representatives the U.S. Army Topographical Engineers in 1828 assigned Lieutenant (later captain) William H. Swift to survey two local railroad routes. One was between Ithaca and Owego and the other between Ithaca and Catskill. Swift secured the necessary surveying instruments to Ithaca. In a letter to Swift, General Alexander Macomb, chief of the Topographical Engineers, wrote:

    “There is a young Gentleman at Ithaca, a Mr. Hughes, who was formerly at the Military Academy, who will be a very able assistant to you and I desire that you employ him in order that he may be useful to the Company after you have completed the location of the road.” 

     Swift began his surveys in May of the two suggested routes between Ithaca and Owego. These routes had originally been suggested for a proposed canal that never materialized. He determined that one along Six Mile Creek and the East Branch of Catatonk Creek was more feasible than the other along Cayuga Inlet valley via the Village of Spencer. In retrospect, the latter course might appear preferable. The first route was chosen for a number of considerations.

    The country from the top of South Hill to Owego was not as expensive to construct. The only costly construction would be for two incline planes. The total cost for building and equipping the railroad up to the end of 1838 was $575,393.05. In defending his South Hill proposal, Swift said most traffic would be southward from Ithaca to Owego and this route had the easier grades; an important factor in the days of horse-drawn trains. Swift then turned his attention to surveying a route for a railroad from Ithaca to Catskill. He also surveyed what became the Catskill and Canajoharie Railroad.   

    About this time, Simeon DeWitt, Surveyor-General of New York State, and other local businessmen became identified with the effort to build the railroad. With renewed interest and capital, John Randel Jr. was secured from the New Castle & Frenchtown Railroad in Delaware to do the engineering work. In his report to the directors and officers of the Ithaca & Owego in 1833, Randel said overcoming the elevation between Ithaca flats and the summit of South Hill “was one of the most formidable obstacles that presented itself in the location of this Rail Road.”

    Randel said the total elevation to be overcome was 511 feet, in a distance of 4,193 4/10 feet. His solution was to “to divide the whole elevation between two inclined planes in such proportions as would give each a grade that would pass nearly along the general slope of the hill, or rock, and thus lessen the cost of excavation through it."

    The foot of the first plane was located about 400 yards southwest of a bridge over Six Mile Creek on South Cayuga Street; and 114 feet northwest of the foot of South Hill. From here, it was 1,733 feet to the head of the first plane. A “middle yard" was provided for at this point, for a length of 250 feet. The upper plane then extended 2,226 feet to the summit of the hill. An engine house was constructed at the head of each plane. The lower plane had a rise of one foot in about every 4 1/4 feet, making a total rise of 405 feet. The upper plane rose one foot in twenty-one.

    Samuel J. Parker, in his reminiscences of early-day Ithaca, said: "At the foot of the lower inclined plane was a high fill of stone dug out in making the plane, through which was a road culvert for the common wagon road up the valley.  I often went to see the rock blasted out; the heavy long pine timbers laid 12 to 16 inches square, the strap iron, spiked on the timber, the cable wheel for the large rope that was to, and did for years draw the cars up the hill; and at last the extraordinary long cable two and a half inches in diameter laid in these wheels; the great power house at the top of the first incline plane; which building was 85 feet wide, and 80 feet long, and stood on an artificial mound made of rock excavated above it, for the second incline plane. This building was just below the road, running just above the upper switch of the present D.L. & W. Railroad a little southwest of the present stopping place of passenger cars."

    Contracts for grading the first nine miles of the railroad were signed in February, 1832, and work on the planes soon commenced. From Cayuga Inlet the route extended in a semi-circle to the foot of the planes, closely following what today is Titus Avenue.

   On February 13, 1834, the inclined planes and 13 miles of railroad were “opened for transportation and travel.” The American Railroad Journal of February 22, 1834 reported: "The incline plane at Ithaca was for the first time used, and successfully. A car loaded with two tons of iron and thirty passengers, passed up the great plane, an elevation of 405 feet, in eight minutes."

   At the top of each of the incline planes there was an “engine house" containing a horse-operated winch with the necessary gearing for drawing up the cars. Windmills regulated the speed of the descending cars. Four horses were employed continually on the lower plane and two on the upper. Only two loaded cars were drawn up the planes at one time.

    An old time railroad employee, Jason P Merrill, recalled: "The Ithaca end of the road had two incline planes, the first one beginning at a point about where South Geneva Street intersects the Spencer road and ending on East Hill. Here the main power house, used for hauling up and letting down cars, and where incoming passengers were discharges and outgoing ones boarded the cars. The second or upper plane as it was called was located about a half mile south. From this point to the main power house, cars were run by gravity, the speed being regulated by hand brakes." 

    Alvin Merrill, father of Jason, recalled working on the plane driving horses when he was 11 years old. "The horses went round and round like those that worked a threshing machine. The cars were let down and hauled up the high, steep hill by that windlass-like system. While two cars were going down it aided in hauling one car up the plane. A man went along with the train carrying oak plugs to use as brakes in case the rope cable broke. The plugs were thrown into the car wheel spokes and caught the wheels against the car.”

    To save money, horses were substituted for steam engines for hauling up the planes. Large amounts of "Cayuga Lake Plaster" were shipped to Owego, while much of the incoming freight to Ithaca was lumber.

No records have been found detailing the operation of the planes. Mr. Parker said the “short little cars” were loaded at the storehouse at Cayuga inlet. The cars were then drawn by horses to the foot of the first 

plane, where they were attached to the cable or rope. After one or two cars were thus attached, a flag was waved to indicate it was all clear to go up the plane. Then the winch was set in motion by the moving horses. As the rope moved up the one side of the plane, other cars were lowered. This procedure took about 20 minutes. The horses were then hitched to the opposite side of the arm of the driving wheel, and the process was reversed.

    Mr. Parker said, "It was a lucky day when 25 cars thus went up the two planes, and on to Owego; the same number reaching Ithaca." The Ithaca & Owego soon was floundering in financial difficulties and could not meet expenses. Parker said, "It cost more to get plaster. to Owego and lumber to Ithaca, and keep the road in repair, than to use horses traveling the usual wagon roads." He said the line fell into disrepair.

    In spite of financial problems, however, the railroad was able to secure a steam locomotive; primarily through the efforts of one of the leading stockholders, Richard Varick DeWitt. This locomotive was built in Albany by Walter McQueen, a noted 19th century locomotive builder, and shipped to Ithaca by water  via the Erie Canal, and Cayuga Lake. It was hauled to the top of the planes by several teams of horses.

    To lighten its financial burden the State of New York loaned the railroad company $300,000 with the stipulation that if interest payments were not made, the Comptroller could sell the company at a public auction. In 1840, the state loaned the railroad another $28,000, with the total interest commitment to the State now being $14,000 a year.

    Total revenue for freight between 1834 and 1839 was $117,577.13 for freight and $2,097.14 for passengers

   The railroad failed financially and the state foreclosed. It was auctioned off in Albany on May 20, 1842.

It was picked up by a new organization called the Cayuga & Susquehanna Railroad Company, which was incorporated on April 18, 1843. No action was taken towards improving the property until 1849, when attention was given towards eliminating the inclined planes.

   A serious accident in 1842, told in detail below, resulted in the discontinuation of the lower plane for passenger travel. They were met at the foot of the upper plane by stagecoaches and carriages. However, work on replacing the planes with switchbacks as well as reconstruction of the entire railroad did not start until 1849. By that time, the Cayuga & Susquehanna Railroad fell into the hands of George W. Scranton of Scranton, Pa. and others who were building the Leggett's Gap Railroad from Scranton to Great Bend. This evolved into the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western. 

    Superintendent William Humphrey directed the laying out and construction of the new alignment into Ithaca. From the steamboat landing at the inlet it ran up the valley to Butternut Creek, where it swung to the northeast on a gravel filled trestle. It then gradually climbed up the, hill. To avoid the cost of bridging ravines near the level of Six Mile Creek, a reverse switch in the form of a Z was built on the South Hill. The new line struck the old grade four miles from the top of the inclined planes.

     For more than a century, trains would back up and go forward in a spectacular ascent and descent in and out of Ithaca. During reconstruction, the Ithaca depot was located at the top of the inclined planes, which had been abandoned before the new line was completed. 

Reconstruction work commenced on September 1, 1849, and the switchbacks were completed in March, 1850. The whole work was completed on May 1, 1850.

    Alvin Merrill recalled, "Civil Engineer McNiel, with Calvin Bogardus, Horace McCormick, Daniel Stevens, John Miller and myself laid out the seven mile zig-zag route down the hill to gain a distance of one mile, that made the incline plane a thing of the past."


Tompkins Volunteer, Tuesday, May 3, 1842


On Saturday last, our village was nearly panic struck by the intelligence that a passenger car had accidentally broken loose, and gone down the incline plane. The facts as near as we can glean, and from what we have seen are these in the first place, there are two incline planes, leading from the summit of

the railroad into the village. The upper one is about 2,200 feet, descending one foot in 22, we believe, and the second plane, eighteen hundred, descending one foot to four. 

    It has been the practice invariably to let the passenger car down the first plane, with the aid of what is called a brake, with the passengers in it. As usual the train from Owego arrived, and after detaching the

car from the rest of the train, they proceeded down the plane. After they had gone some one hundred feet Mr. Hatch, the superintendent of the road, and who always stands at the Brake, felt something give way. 

    He spoke to someone near him to assist him, as the car began to move with double rapidity. But he soon discovered that the brake was of no avail, and he leaped off thinking he could stop by blocking a wheel. But in jumping off, the car moved with greater velocity than he supposed, threw him, and before he could warn the passengers of their danger, the car was out of hearing distance of his voice.

    Some of the passengers seeing that all was not right, began to leap out, injuring themselves more or less. Before the car reached the foot of the first plane five or six had jumped out. Judge Dana of this place, and one or two more escaped from their perilous situation after the car had entered the Engine House where the other plane commences. 

    Judge Dana, we understand had his wrist either broken or sprained, we have not learned which, and one or two more were considerably hurt. A Mr. Wm. D. Legg, one of the passengers, deserves unusual praise, for his almost unparalled presence of mind, in saving himself, and a Lady who was in the apartment with him. He says he was unconscious of any danger, until he happened to look out and saw two or three jumping out, and the lady looking out at the same time exclaimed, " Oh we shall all. be killed.“ 

    He told her he would save her, and at the same instant clasped her around the waist, opened the car door, carried her out and walked to the back of the car and stood down on the step, and there watched for a favorable place where he could let her fall, without coming in contact with the timbers of the road.

   The car then under swift motion, as it entered the Engine House he let her fall, and immediately leaped off himself, when the car was within ten feet of the other plane. He struck on his feet and received no injury whatever, and ran back to help the lady. He found she had received but little injury, comparatively speaking, but was much frightened.

   But the worst is to be told. The car passed on, and says our informant, so great was its velocity, after it had left the second engine house, that it was scarcely visible, leaving behind it as it were, a pillar of smoke. It kept the track for nearly 1,700 feet, when it ran off with tremendous crash, and went end over end some one hundred feet, and was literally dashed to atoms, not a wheel or any part of the heavy iron works of which it was composed remained whole. They were either twisted or broken to pieces. 

   And what makes this accident remarkable is, that a Mr. Babcock who remained in the car the whole way, was picked up from among the wrecks of the car alive!!!-- But he was a horrid spectacle - his nose was nearly cut off, his right arm, between the shoulder and elbow, was broken in two places, his head was mutilated in several places in a shocking manner; but neither of his legs were broken, and we are informed that serious internal injury has been discovered.

    He was immediately conveyed to the nearest house, and Dr. Hawley dressed his wounds. The chance of his recovery is about two to five. We were by during the dressing of the wounds and few can describe the excruciating pain he underwent. He could be heard to hallo for twenty rods. If ever the tortures of the rack were exhibited it was at that occasion. He still continues deranged and the only fear that the Doctor apprehends of his recovery is that a concussion of the brain will take place, if so, death must ensue.

   We do not think that any blame can be attached, either to the Superintendent, Mr. Hatch, or the Company. It has been the custom for years to let the car down in that manner, therefore in our opinion, it can only come under the head of accident, and not carelessness. We were told soon after the “tragedy” had taken place, that we should "blow up “ the Company, but we are not of that “kind of folks." The deed is done, and experience,  although dearly bought, will, we are in hopes, induce them to abandon forever the practice of trusting passengers to come down on the plane in any vehicle whatsoever. 

(Follow-up article from the Tompkins Volunteer, May 10 1842)

                                        The Railroad Accident

    We made a most woeful mistake in our last, as respects the upper plane of the railroad, that is, the one that they have been in the habit of letting the car down by the aid of a brake. We were  misinformed. The plane is 2,200 feet long, instead of 1,200 feet, descends one foot in twenty-two, or in other words, 104 feet in 2,200. 

   We deem it proper to correct this error, from the fact, that any person of ordinary intellect, would at once see that plane of one foot to six descent, would be attended with imminent danger even if every wheel was fastened.

Richard Palmer is a historian with a specialty in railroad history. He is also a member of the Cornell Railroad Historical Society.

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