History of the the Rivergate Trail
© 2003 Greg Hall, Historian, Rivergate Wheelers, Inc.
The only legal ATV Trail in Jefferson County is situated primarilly on the old abandoned railroad right-of-way, connecting Clayton with Lafargeville, Orleans Four Corners, Stough’s Station, Douglas Crossing and Rivergate. From Rivergate, the trail turns south to Shurtleff Crossing and terminates at Acheson’s Crossing at State Route 11 in Philadelphia. Back at Rivergate, the trail turns north to Theresa and terminates at Redwood.
Few people remember the New York Central Railroad in operation, but did you know there were three other railway corporations running passenger and freight trains into the area long before NYC had an interest in the Thousand Islands?
AREA RAILWAY UNDER CONSIDERATION
During the winter of 1852-53 the idea of a railroad in the area was beginning to draw some interest from Central New York. On Jan. 8, 1853 there was a large meeting in Lowville to discuss a railroad up the Black River Valley to the Thousand Islands. Meetings soon followed in Theresa on Jan. 20th and Boonville on the 26th. After many more meetings and political wrangling it could not be decided which railroad company would build northward, the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg or the Black River & Utica.
On April 16, 1853 Articles of Association were filed by the RW&O to run a Road up to Boonville, Talcottville, Collinsville, ect to Carthage and Clayton, with a branch Road to Morristown and Ogdensburg. Final surveys of the competing Roads were finished before summer was over. The RW&O ran into construction difficulties, and staggering costs, causing the financial backing to dry up, and the Road was soon abandoned, unfinished.
On April 7, 1853, the Ogdensburg, Clayton & Rome Railroad was formed. Their idea was to reach Boonville ahead of the U&R and since the area could not support two Roads, they would have all of Lewis, Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties all to themselves. Because of funding problems and little construction work actually done, the corporation ceased to exist on April 15, 1857 having spent $550,000 on construction, with no part completed.
The Black River & Utica Railroad had better luck with their venture, connecting Utica with Boonville in 1855. So instead of Boonville having two competing Railroads, it now had just one.
By 1858 the construction of a railroad into the Thousand Islands was again considered by the two rival railroads. The RW&O extended their Road from Rome up to Watertown and later Philadelphia, reaching there on May 22, 1861, then on to Ogdensburg, bypassing the Thousand Islands. In 1861 the Black River & Utica reorganized and became the Utica & Black River Railroad.The U&R ran its Road from Utica north to Philadelphia by Febuary, 1873.
The hamlets of Theresa and Morristown wanted the railroad extended north to them. The Towns of Philadelphia, Theresa and Alexandria bonded $15,000, $60,000 and $60,000 respectively. A new railroad company was formed to extend the Road north from Philadelphia, called the Black River & Morristown Railroad on March 22,1870 with a capitalization of $600,000. Theresa was reached on Dec. 9, 1872, with regular service established on Oct. 29, 1873. The Road was extended northward to Redwood by Nov. 1874 and Morristown in November, 1879.
THERESA, OMAR RAILROAD?
A railroad was proposed from Theresa to Omar, but Col. Russel D. Biddlecom of Lafargeville, raised enough money to have the proposed Road connect Theresa with Clayton, passing through Lafargeville. A new railroad company was formed called the Clayton & Theresa Railroad on Feb. 7, 1871. The Town of Clayton bonded for $100,000.
The Road from Clayton would connect with the Black River & Morristown Railroad at what would be called “Theresa Junction”. This junction of the two Railroads contained a switch house only, which is located approximately 1 mile west of the Co. Rt. 46 (River Road) Trestle, in the swamp.
The Lafargeville Depot was completed in 1872. The first freight shipment out of the Lafargeville Depot was on March 8, 1873, consisting of 35 boxes of “Large” cheese, totaling 4,268 lbs. from L.V. to S. Gallas of New York City and 37 boxes of “Large” cheese, totaling 5,483 lbs. to F. & G. Gerber of New York City. 72 boxes of cheese totaling 9,751 lbs of cheese (4.875 tons) shipped on the first day of service! This shipment was followed by a large quantity of butter from a different shipper, also destined for New York City.
Ground was broken for the Road into Clayton on April 25, 1872 near Goose Bay. Road grading was mostly complete by Sept. 14, 1872. Clayton & Theresa Railroad purchased 89 individual parcels of land in 1872. The track was layed from Lafargeville to Clayton by July 8, 1873. Foundation work was started on the Depot on July 8th also. By Aug 5, 1873 the Road was complete and the first Locomotive arrived at 6:00PM. The Turntable, to turn the Locomotives around, was completed on Aug. 25, 1873. The Train Shed was also completed that year. The “Official” opening of the Depot occurred Sept. 30, 1873 with a train, pulled by the Locomotive “John Thorn” arrived from Utica with about 250 dignitaries.
Tourists now had an easy way to get into the Thousand Islands instead of taking a steamer from Cape Vincent. The areas popularity grew in part because of glowing press reports of the area when George Pullman invited President Ulysses S. Grant and General Sherman to his island, located on “Millionaires Row” near Alexandria Bay in 1872.
MERGERS AND ACQUISITIONS
During the next few years many mergers occurred consolidating the many small railroad companies.
1875 Utica & Black River leased the Black River & Morristown Railroad tracks.
Jan. 14, 1885 RW&O leased U&B Roads.
April 15,1886 RW&O purchased U&B railroad. At the time of the sale, U&R had 180 miles of Road, 24 locomotives, 26 passenger cars, 14 baggage cars, 361 freight cars, giving the new RW&O 600 miles of Road + 80 locomotives.
By 1888, RW&O had amassed 91 locomotives, 91 passenger cars, 48 baggage, mail and express cars, and 2302 freight cars.
By 1890, RW&O had amassed 100 locomotives, 98 passenger cars, 35 baggage cars and 2609 freight cars.
Having taken over the competing line (Utica & Black River), the RW&O then routed its tourist trade to the Thousand Islands region via the new Clayton division instead of Cape Vincent. Soon after, there was a need for a new eastern terminal for the Great Lakes grain traffic and prospectors looked over this locality with the idea of building large grain elevators in Clayton, where there was a good harbor for deep draft vessels. One Railroad company that expressed an interested was the Elmira, Cortland & Northern Railroad with its northern depot in Camden. They tried to interest Jefferson County in supporting them in extending their Road to Clayton via Watertown.
The New York Central & Hudson River was also interested in the Thousand Islands and proposed building a branch Road from its Road in Oneida County to Clayton with a new railroad company called the Mohawk & St. Lawrence. The New York Central sent surveyors, and laid out a pathway from its Oneida County depot through Watertown and Depauville into Clayton, entering the village near the water at the eastern end of the bridge across French Creek and following the general shoreline to the northern waterline. However this new proposed line was never to be built.
NEW YORK CENTRAL ACQUIRES RW&O
On October 14, 1891, NYC leased the RW&O Roads for 99 years, giving it a ready-made Road to the Thousand Islands.
The telegram received by the Division Superintendents of RW&O RR was as follows:
Oswego Oct. 14,1891
To all Division Superintendants
The entire Road and property of this company has been leased to the New York Central & Hudson RIver Railroad, and by direction of the President, I have delivered possession to H. Walter Webb, third Vice President of the company. Each Superintendent please acknowledge and advise all agents on your division by wire.
Watertown was not happy to loose “their” railroad! Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. and Chauncey Depew of the NYC, made a trip to Watertown, to assure the local people, the division headquarters would be established in Watertown and the RW&O name was to be incorporated in timetables, and that all changes would improve service to its customers. Service did indeed improve, especially because of the Central’s sleeping cars which began running to the Thousand Islands from Rochester and New York City. This turned the Thousand Islands into a premier summer tourist area.
UNDER NYC&HR, AREA ROAD TRAFFIC INCREASES
The Road traffic into the 1000 Island region increased dramatically. There were at one time eleven passenger trains arriving and leaving daily in Clayton. The Clayton railroad wharf was a busy spot with yachts arriving and departing for summer homes. The steamers, St. Lawrence, New York, Islander and several other smaller vessels made hourly runs between Clayton and Alexandria Bay.
The Consaul-Hall Co. was located next to the railroad depot and shipped thousands of tons of coal for the increasing shipping business. The hotels near the depot were thriving establishments in the summer season too.
Because all of the area’s Locomotives utilized on these Roads were of the wood-burning type steamers, large quantities of wood were purchased and stored along the line in great sheds at convenient places for fueling engines. Refueling stops like Strough’s Station were necessary. The heavily forested area around Strough’s was clear-cut to provide this wood. When new Locomotives arrived that burned soft coal and the old wood-burners were converted from wood grates to coal grates, the importance of Strough’s Station disappeared and the stop was abandoned. By Jan. 1903 most trains on area Roads were converted to coal.
In 1908 the large RW&O Division was subdivided further creating the “St. Lawrence” Division, along with the Ontario Division to make the job of managing the operation of the RW&O by the NYC easier. Watertown was again chosen as the division headquarters (with Oswego as the headquarters for the Ontario Division).
NEW YORK CENTRAL PROPERTIES CONSOLIDATED
New York Central continued to manage the RW&O as a separate railroad until April 16, 1913, when the merger was consolidated. In 1914 the Vanderbilts created a new corporation and took all of their properties and consolidated into a new corporation called the “New York Central Railroad”.
THE END IS NEAR
1946-47 saw the last Pullman “Sleeper” service from NY City to Clayton. Citing losses of $5600 during the last year of operation, they would never again run that service into the Thousand Islands.
Passenger Service to Clayton was terminated April 29, 1951. Redwood’s passenger service held out a few years longer, ending on Oct. 28, 1956. NYC control of the Lafargeville Depot ended July 17, 1959. Redwood and Theresa saw their last train on May 2, 1961. The last train to pass through Redwood and Theresa was on Sunday, May 21, 1961. The “Beeliner” from Ogdensburg to New York City had just 13 passengers.
By 1961, the St. Lawrence Division was merged into the Mohawk Division. In 1968 New York Central Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad merged forming Penn Central Railroad. This merger was doomed to failure from the first due to the debt load of the new railroad corporation. And on June 21, 1970 Penn Central filed Chapter 11.
Freight service to Clayton and Lafargeville was terminated on Dec. 12, 1972, and the Road abandoned leaving Philadelphia as the only village still with a railroad. With the removal of the rails, the Road soon started reverting back to underbrush.
A NEW BEGINING
This then brings an end to our transportation corridor until it was revived years later as a hiking trail by a Clayton based non-profit organization called the Thousand Island Land Trust (TILT) formed in 1985. The first section of the now trackless Road right-of-way was acquired in 1993 by TILT in an auction of Penn Central properties with a subsequent purchase in 1999. The first purchase, along with sections of “Road” right-of-way owned by private individuals is now known as the “River Gate Multi-Use Trail System” which opened Aug. 24, 1996. The former hiking trail was converted to multi-use by TILT because motorized recreational users were more willing to maintain the trail than non-motorized users and funding grants are more readily available for multi-use recreation facilities. This multi-use trail system is maintained for hikers, bikers, horseback riding, ATV’s, and snowmobiles by Rivergate Wheelers Inc., an All Terrain Vehicle Enthusiast Club.
Click here for the PDF write-up of the River Gate history.
Check out an old 1953 Times Table of the St. Lawrence Division of NYC.