Road bridge burning was hot topic

Today’s steel railroad bridge west of Tribes Hill would be impossible for vandals Jacobs and Schuler to damage. (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

I wonder if anyone today can become even remotely as excited about any new technological development as our 19th century forbears did when they gathered long the new ‘iron roadway’ to watch the first Utica & Schenectady Railroad train steam westward through the valley Aug. 1, 1836.

No doubt many people, including even some still-living Revolutionary War veterans, interrupted their day, hitched up their wagons, and found vantage points along the new roadbed to witness the passing of this first chuffing steam engine, hauling its primitive passenger cars westward to Utica.

Very likely many horses were hard to control. The message they sent their human masters from their very first encounter with this roaring, smoke-belching machine was simple: “We don’t like this thing!”

What about hauling freight? The Utica & Schenectady Railroad’s charter originally prohibited freight hauling except during winter when the Erie Canal was closed because state legislators, many indebted to canal interests for political support, didn’t want canal profits threatened by this faster conveyance, and besides, freight cars as we know them didn’t exist yet. When the Legislature finally authorized year-round freight hauling eight years later, the first primitive freight cars, called ‘stage wagons’ appeared.

No timetables were originally printed because only one train at a time ran the length of the line, stopping at the same places daily at about the same time, and local newspapers printed the schedule.

According to SUNY Oneonta Professor Daniel Larkin, author of “Pioneer American Railroads”, the daily trip from Albany to Utica took a little over six hours, a miracle of speed.

An Albany Evening Journal reporter who experienced one of the first test runs on July 26 wrote, “On one side lay the Turnpike, where the stages of Thorpe and Sprague, once the swiftest messengers of which we could boast, now seem in comparison to stand still! On the other side was the canal, full of boats dragging their slow length along. These contrasts most forcibly illustrate the superiority of rail roads as a mode of conveyance for passengers. Imagine! At four o’clock a.m. we were in Albany, and at half past ten, at Utica. Truly this is the age of improvement.”

The Utica & Schenectady was an immediate success, so one wonders why anyone wished it harm.

Yet two people did.

The Aug. 9, 1837 Canajoharie Radii reported, “On Thursday night some ill-disposed miscreants set fire to the rail road bridge near Tripes Hill, which caused so much damage the night train of cars couldn’t pass. Such an outrage looks more like the age of vandals than civilization. We understand, however, that the villains are detected, and no doubt an example will be made of them.”

The Utica Observer gave more details, reporting the vandals “tore up several lengths of rails and set fire” to the bridge.

The Observer also lobbied for passage of a bill stalled in the legislature which specified dire penalties for willful damage to railroad equipment, asking, “What has become of the bill reported to the present session of the legislature for the prevention of similar outrages? Is there no member who will take it upon himself to expend a word or two in its behalf? Or are our legislators willing to entrust themselves, when returning by railroad to their own homes, to the mercy of wretches who do not scruple, so long as they have no fear of the halter, to pull rails and burn bridges?”

A modern version of the original bridge, located on old Route 5, just west of Tribes Hill, continues to carry trains over Danoscara Creek today.

Over a month later, the Sept. 27 Batavia Advocate announced, “Two persons were indicted by the grand jury last week at Fonda for setting fire to the rail-road bridge between Tribes Hill and Fonda. The names are Benjamin R. Jenkins and Lawrence Shuler. Both reside in the neighborhood where the crime was committed. The providential detention of the cars for an hour behind the usual time saved them from destruction. Mr. Jenkins has heretofore borne an irreproachable character and is a man of property. He has been held on bail of two thousand dollars. Mr. Shuler has not yet been taken.”

The Advocate also editorialized, “We cannot conceive of a more black-hearted depravity than would prompt men to coolly plan the destruction of a multitude of innocent, unoffending persons.”

Who were these railroad wreckers, and what was their motive? So much time has elapsed that facts are few and conjecture reigns. One unrelated document regarding Benjamin Jenkins, preserved in Montgomery County’s Department of History & Archives, dated April 4, 1837, states, “Benjamin R. Jacobs applies for a loan of $600 and to secure the same proposes to mortgage property situate in the town of Mohawk, bordered north by the Mohawk Turnpike, east by lands of Abraham and John Hanson, south by the Mohawk River, and west by lands of Cornelius Hoffman, being 175 acres, 75 improved.”

Contemporary censuses identify Jenkins and Shuler as town of Mohawk farmers, Shuler with a large family and in earlier censuses, owning five slaves. Possibly they held grudges against the railroad for seizing right-of-way land from them by eminent domain: some landholders did sue over this, but all lost. It’s vexing that I haven’t found trial documents, but Montgomery County Archive records do reveal the railroad sued both men for damages.