The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2000

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A Biography of John Magee

Chapter Four


Gary M. Emerson

Introduction, Chapter One and Chapter Two, Chapter Three
Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine

Building Railroads

The first suggestion that a railroad should and could be built through the Southern Tier of New York was made by William Redfield in a pamphlet that came to be called the Redfield Pamphlet. It was a bold proposal, since at the time of the suggestion there were only nine miles of track in the entire United States.143 Citizens of the Southern Tier counties were supportive of the suggestion. The Erie Canal performed miracles for the growth of the central region of New York State, and anticipation grew that a railroad could be equally beneficial to the southern portion of the state.

Some of the far-western counties of New York, such as Allegany and Cattaraugus, actually began to lose population after the Erie Canal was completed in 1825. Bath, once a thriving center of Western New York, because of its location on the Conhocton River that connected with the Susquehanna River and the ports of Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Baltimore, stagnated as the Erie Canal diverted the commerce of Genesee County away from the Susquehanna route.144 Communities isolated from the booming canal region were plagued by its success.

On July 29, 1831, a meeting of citizens of Monticello, New York, endorsed the building of a railroad through the counties of Rockland, Orange, Sullivan, Delaware, Broome, and Tioga.145 They also announced their determination to succeed. Similar meetings soon followed in the towns of Jamestown, Angelica, Owego, and Binghamton.146 The climax of these small town meetings was a large convention held in Owego on December 20, 1831, with representatives from thirteen counties.147 Committees were formed to write endorsements of a railroad. On the committee to draft such a memorial to the New York State Legislature was Constant Cook, a representative of Steuben County.148 The Owego Convention asked the New York State Legislature "for the incorporation of a company with the necessary privileges to construct a railroad from Lake Erie, commencing at some point between the mouth of the Cattaraugus Creek and the line of Pennsylvania, and to run thence from the southwestern tier of counties by way of the village of Owego to the Hudson River." 149

In 1832, the New York and Erie Railroad Company was granted a charter. Listed among the seventy-five incorporators was John Magee.150 One of the original projectors of the railroad, he would play an important part in its final completion.

As one of the incorporators, Magee had the duty of selling the stock of the company. The capital stock was set at two million dollars by the charter, each share selling for one hundred dollars.151 Appearing in the Steuben Farmers' Advocate under a letter in which James G. King, then President of the New York and Erie Railroad Company, lamented the lack of aid to the undertaking by the Legislature and the need to sell 750,000 shares of stock, was a notice from John Magee, cashier of the Steuben County Bank:

in pursuance of the above notice, the subscriber being duly authorized by the Company, will receive subscriptions at the Steuben County Bank daily, until further notice, for share of the capital stock of the New York and Erie Railroad Company, and the first instalment thereon of Five Dollars per share, and will issue certificates duly executed and counter signed by him.
Dated Steuben County Bank,
14th May 1835,
John Magee, Cashier 152

Construction of the New York and Erie Railroad (known as the Erie) began at sunrise on November 7, 1835, when ground was broken on the east side of the Delaware River near Deposit, New York. It was estimated originally the railroad would cost six million dollars to complete, it actually cost twenty million dollars.153 The railroad progressed slowly due to lack of funds and constant opposition from the politicians representing the canal counties. They opposed every move meant to sustain the undertaking and fought against requests to the New York Legislature for financial aid. Even though the completion of the New York and Erie Railroad would surely benefit New York City, "the political influence of the Erie Canal was so great that the people of the City, the power of Wall Street, and the many metropolitan newspapers opposed the work and discredited the Company and its efforts at every turn."154 Although planned to be completed by October, 1842, the railroad did not reach Binghamton until December 27, 1848.155 At that point, the railroad was not yet half-finished, had only three more years to run on its charter, and the treasury was empty.156

Plans to build the railroad beyond Binghamton, using piles to elevate the track above the ground, had already begun by May, 1840.157 Plans called for using a hundred miles of pile-road on the Susquehanna Division of the railroad (from Binghamton to Hornell).158 The reasoning was that piles could be used to make a level track more inexpensively than the laborious task of grading the landscape. The pile roadway actually was quite hazardous and was abandoned when the coffers of the company were drained upon reaching Binghamton. The cost of installing a hundred miles of the piles had been $6000 to $1 million.159

By 1848, The New York and Erie Railroad was facing failure. Unless some way to raise the needed resources could be found, the plans for the New York and Erie Railroad seemed doomed.

A savior was found in Alexander Diven. Diven organized a construction syndicate to complete the building of the railroad. For their work, the men of the syndicate would receive income certificates from the railroad entitling the holder to a share of its profits once in operation. Originally a member of the company he proposed, Diven sold out his interest in it to John H. Chedell of Auburn. The other members of the company were Constant Cook, John Magee, John Arnot, Charles Cook (cousin to Constant Cook), and James S. T. Stranahan.160 The company was called Constant Cook and Company, and Constant Cook managed most of the affairs of the construction company. Under the terms of the agreement that Cook made with the others, the company was set up as a mini-corporation. The interests of the company were divided into twenty equal shares. Each party would pay the Treasurer, John Arnot, five hundred dollars for each of their shares.161 Any losses or profits were agreed to be pro-rated according to the number of shares each person held. The income certificates from the railroad were kept by the Treasurer to be dispensed as needed to defray the expenses of the company. Constant Cook was empowered to make contracts in the names of others in order to acquire the materials needed to do the work and pay on any contracts made with others. Only he could receive money from the Treasurer to pay expenses.162 Constant Cook received $4,000 annually from the income certificates to pay for expenses such as traveling costs and other personal expenses incurred in carrying out the business of the company.163

Under the terms of the May 18, 1848, contract with New York and Erie Railroad, Cook and Company agreed: "…to furnish all materials except as hereinafter specified, and perform all the work and in every respect complete all that part of the New York and Erie Railroad as the same is now or shall hereafter be located between the west bank of the Chenango River in the village of Binghamton, and the Depot Ground in the Village of Corning, being about seventy-seven miles,…" 164

The work to be done included:

…the clearing of Grubbing, Grading, Masonry, Piling, Ditches, Culverts, Bridge Abutments and Piers, Bridge Superstructure, Slope and Retaining Walls, and all other things requisite to complete the Road Bed and prepare it for the Superstructure of wood and iron for a single track Railroad, including the necessary turnouts, branches, and switches:…165

The New York and Erie Railroad would supply Cook and company with all iron rails, chains, spikes, castings, and all other iron materials required for the superstructure or tracks.166 It was up to Cook and Company to locate and buy the other materials needed to perform the work. The railroad company also clearly specified in the agreement that all work was to be performed "without the use of ardent spirits." 167

The contract was also specific concerning a timetable for work. It stated:

The work shall be commenced on the first day of July next or as soon as the Company shall have acquired a title to the roadway and shall be completed from Binghamton aforesaid to the Village of Owego, on or before the first day of June one thousand eight hundred and forty nine, and to Elmira on or before the first day of October thereafter, and the remainder to the Corning Depot Ground or on before the first day of December of the same year.168

The New York and Erie Railroad agreed to pay to the contractor predetermined amounts for certain work or materials supplied:

For excavation of Earth (sand, gravel, loam, quicksand) 20¢/ cubic yd.
For excavating rocks90¢/ cubic yd.
For all masonry work $7/ cubic yd.
For all iron found by Cook & Co. 12½¢/ lb.
For laying superstructure $650 for each mile of single track
For clearing and grubbing $275 / mile for the entire distance from Binghamton to Corning
For switches $50/ switch
For crossties supplied 44¢ each 169

Originally, the members of Cook and Company received the railroad income certificates as agreed. However, it was later agreed, by both parties, that the contractors turn in their income certificates in exchange for four million dollars in mortgage bonds to run for ten years at seven percent interest.

The option of converting the bonds into New York and Erie Railroad stock, at any time before maturation of the bonds, was also extended to the contractors.170

Much of the work from Binghamton to Corning was done by sub-contractors, with Cook and Company and the New York and Erie Railroad supplying the necessary materials. James S. T. Stranahan, a member of Cook and Company, Joseph White, and Horace G. Phelps served as sub-contractors from Elmira to Corning and did much of that work.171 The arrangement worked well, and the timetable agreed to was kept. Owego was reached right on schedule on June first, 1849. Elmira saw the arrival of the railroad on October second, 1849, and Corning was achieved on January first 1850.172 Actually, the Binghamton to Corning stretch of the railroad was the easiest to build since the route was flat and well settled.173

The success of Cook and Company encouraged renewed interest in the New York and Erie Railroad, and there was no further interruption in the construction of the railway.174 Although the work of Cook and Company was completed when the railroad reached Corning, John Magee and Constant Cook were also significant in seeing the railroad's extension beyond Corning. They had the contract to carry the railroad from Hornellsville to Friendship, a distance of forty miles.175 Of that, twelve miles was sub-contracted to a Horace R. Riddle. The contractors took from one-third to three-eights of the contract price in stock.176

As the railroad construction pushed near Corning, alarm broke out in the Canisteo Valley. Although the route of the railroad had been surveyed to pass through that valley, the citizens there feared the influence of Magee and Cook in Bath, situated in the Conhocton Valley, which the railroad had bypassed.177 Many landowners in the Canisteo Valley had hoped to sell land needed for the railroad and realize a large profit. A rumor circulated that the railroad expected the route through the valley to be donated and an alternate route was being considered.178 A large meeting was held in Cameron at Mrs. Jones' Tavern to discuss a solution. The Canisteo Valley inhabitants finally donated the right of way, saving the railroad a considerable sum of money, however, as was later disclosed, a change in the route had never been planned!179 Magee and Cook had once again helped the railroad progress.

The railroad finally reached completion and the route was opened all the way to Dunkirk on Lake Erie on May 14, 1851. To celebrate, a train carrying the President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, and other prominent statesmen, one of whom was Daniel Webster, rode over the line.180 It was partly through the efforts of Diven, Cook, Magee and others that the distinguished party's trip was possible. The men who had taken the railroad seventy-seven miles from Binghamton reaped a fortune from the bonds they accepted as payment.181

The New York and Erie Railroad helped the Southern Tier grow, Hornellsville saw its population rise from about 500 in 1850 to 4,230 in 1860.182 When Elmira was reached by the railroad, its population numbered 3,000. By 1898, it was 45,000.183 During the same time span, Corning jumped from 1,200 to 10,000, and by 1898, Hornell had reached 13,000 citizens.184

The fact that Bath had been bypassed by the Erie Railroad concerned Magee and Constant Cook, who went to work to cure the problem, even before the Erie was fully completed. With others, they began a drive to organize a railroad that would connect with the Erie, run through the Conhocton Valley and finally connect with Rochester and Buffalo. The news was warmly received in Buffalo, as that city had hoped to be the terminus of the Erie Railroad. On January 10, 1850, a meeting was held at the Eagle Tavern in Bath to organize the effort to construct the proposed railroad.185 One of the speakers at that meeting was John Magee.186 The meeting set up a committee whose purpose was to arouse favorable public sentiment to the project. Chosen to serve on that committee were John Magee, Constant Cook, and eleven others.187

On Thursday, January 24, 1850, a large convention gathered at Geneseo. Representatives from the counties of Erie, Genesee, Wyoming, Livingston, Ontario, and Steuben were in attendance.

The Steuben delegation numbered as many as one hundred.188 The purpose of the convention was to organize the effort to get a charter for the Buffalo and Conhocton Valley Railroad (as they decided to name it) from the New York Legislature, and stimulate local interest and investment in the railway. At the opening of the proceedings, The President, Charles H. Carroll of Livingston County, "…called upon Mr. Magee of Bath for a statement of the preliminary proceeding of the citizens of Steuben County, and of such information as had been collected in regard to the feasibility of the [Conhocton] route, and the character and amount of traffic which could be anticipated, and the probable subscription to the stock of the proposed road." 189

Later, in the Thursday proceedings, Magee proposed that a committee of three be established to "…report resolutions and a memorial for the consideration of the Convention."190 Magee, E. S. Potter of Naples, and Charles Shepard of Dansville were chosen. A committee of nine persons was also created to draft a petition to the Legislature asserting the need for the railroad. On Friday morning, January 25th, Magee reported the memorial and resolutions drawn up by his committee.

The resolution said in part:

Resolved, that in the opinion of this convention, the construction of a railroad from the city of Buffalo through the counties of Erie, Genesee or Wyoming, Livingston, and Steuben to the New York and Erie Railroad, by the valley of Conhocton, is imperatively demanded by the wants of the country through which the road is proposed to be built…Resolved, that to secure such right, we ask no aid from the State, but the simple declaration of the public utility of the said road;…191

The Buffalo and Conhocton Valley Railroad was not without competition, particularly the Attica and Hornellsville Railroad, which intended to connect Hornellsville and Buffalo. Initial plans for the Attica and Hornellsville Railroad had stalled, but proponents of the Buffalo and Conhocton were concerned, since Buffalo would support only one railroad. Then, Attica and Hornellsville Railroad was abandoned, clearing the way for the Buffalo and Conhocton railway and a promise from Buffalo to raise one-third of the money needed.192

On July 25, 1850, the Buffalo and Conhocton Valley Railroad was incorporated with capital of $1,400,000.193 John Magee was elected President; Orson Philips, Vice-President; Edward Howell, Jr., Secretary, and A. D. Patchin, Treasurer.194 Things seemed to be moving smoothly. "Every day seems but to add to the certainty that the Buffalo and Conhocton Valley Railroad is destined to go ahead…and we have not the least doubt that the subscriptions will overrun 300,000 and may reach $400,000;…"195 However, in September, 1850, plans were suddenly revived for the Attica and Hornellsville Railroad.196 This disenchanted some supporters of the Buffalo and Conhocton Valley Railroad, but the people of Livingston and Genesee Counties proposed that the railroad be built at least from Painted Post (where it joined the Erie) to Batavia, without the help of Buffalo.197 People along the route went so far as to mortgage their homes and farms to raise money to buy stock in the company.198 By February 19, 1851, it was announced, "the work on the Buffalo and Conhocton Valley Railroad has commenced. Mr. Bixby, who has the work through this village [Bath], broke ground this day;…" 199

The work progressed. By October, 1851, forty-five miles of the railroad was completed from the northern edge of Steuben County to the Erie Railroad at Painted Post.200 The laying of the track through the Conhocton Valley was delayed due to a late arrival of iron rails, difficulty in acquiring the right of way, and poor weather.201 There was an urgent need for more money and calls went out for stockholders to make the payments on their subscriptions on time (stock was sold by installments). One plea said: "Another call of ten per cent, being the fourth installment, has been made upon the stockholders, payable on the 15th installment and the vigorous prosecution of the work [during] this fall and winter will very much depend on the prompt payment of this call, together with the arrears of other calls…." 202 Since "The Directors have no other source to which they can look for means to meet their engagements, and if this fails them and the calls are not willingly and promptly paid, a vigorous and rapid prosecution of the work cannot be expected." 203

On March 3, 1852, the name of the company was changed to the Buffalo, Corning, and New York Railroad Company.204 The cost of the railroad was projected at $1,706,000 without equipment, or $1,950,000 with equipment.205 To raise the money for equipment, in April, 1852, "the directors of the railroad mortgaged its property and franchises for $1,000,000 to secure the payment of bonds for that amount to be issued by the company." 206 A second mortgage occurred to cover another bond issue of $600,000.207

Batavia was reached in 1854 and work was stopped. On October 1st, 1855, the company defaulted on the interest of the first bond issue, followed by the default on the interest of the second bond issue on December 1st, 1855.208 Many stockholders felt that the second default was uncalled for, and was merely a plot by the bondholders (who were mainly the directors of the railroad) to make a profit by selling the railroad.209 An investigation was begun on August 13, 1856, by the Board of Railroad Commissioners. But a finding was never made, since a bill was pushed through the Legislature repealing the Railroad Commission Act and the board.210 Also, Dean Richmond, head of the New York Central Railroad, bribed the commissioners with $25,000 not to oppose the repeal.211 There was a foreclosure on the Buffalo, Corning, and New York Railroad Company, and it was sold for three million dollars. The money went to the bondholders and the major stockholders, who were conveniently given the opportunity to convert their stocks into bonds, allowing them to make money on the deal.212 Small stockholders lost all of their investments, and many of those who had mortgaged property to invest in the railroad lost their homes. Some of the mortgage holders had been officers or directors (who owned bonds) of the company.213 The railroad route was later used as a connection by the Erie's Corning branch to Rochester.214

Since no investigation was ever accomplished, guilt or innocence on the part of the directors of the Buffalo, Corning, and New York Railroad can only be conjecture. Although Magee probably was the target of anger and suspicion, along with others heavily involved in organizing and endorsing the railroad, it was not the end of his association with railroads. He was already involved with another railroad that would serve a new interest he had acquired—coal.

© 2000, Gary M. Emerson
Introduction, Chapter One and Chapter Two, Chapter Three
Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine

Notes for Chapter Four

143 Edward H. Mott, Between the Ocean and the Lakes: The Story of Erie, (NY: John S. Collins, 1899), p. 5.

144 Ulysses P. Hendrick, A History of Agriculture in New York State, (NY: Hill and Wang, 1933), pp. 253-254.

145 & 146 Edward H. Mott, , p. 10.

147 Ibid., p. 11.

148 Ibid., p. 12.

149 Thomas Dimitroff and Lois S. Janes, History of the Corning, Painted Post Country: 200 Years in the Painted Post Country, (Corning Area Bi-Centennial Committee, 1977), p. 39.

150 Edward Hungerford, Men of Erie, (NY: Random House, 1946), p. 20.

151 Edward Mott, Between the Ocean and the Lakes, p. 296.

152 Steuben Farmers' Advocate, May 20, 1835.

153 Chemung Historical Society, Erie Railroad folder, "Erie Railroad—Its Beginnings and Today."

154 Edward Mott, Between the Ocean and the Lakes, p. 50.

155 Ibid., p. 91

156 Ibid., pp. 91-92.

157 Ibid., p. 325.

158 Ibid., p. 49.

159 Thomas Dimitroff and Lois S. Janes, History of the Corning, Painted Post Area, p. 39.

160 Cornell University, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, Folder 1373. Original copy of the contract between Cook and Company and the Erie Railroad.

161 - 163 Ibid., the original contract between the members of Cook and Company.

164 - 169 Ibid.,contract between Cook and Company and Erie Railroad.

170 Edward Mott, Between the Ocean and the Lakes, p.92.

171 Ibid., 354.

172 Chemung County Historical Society, Erie Railroad folder, old typed article giving railroad opening dates.

173 Edward Mott, Between the Ocean and the Lakes, p. 353.

174 Ibid., p. 92.

175 & 176 Ibid., p. 327.

177 Ibid., p. 354.

178 & 179 William Stuart, Stories of the Kanisteo Valley, p. 81.

180 Ausburn Towner, History of the Valley and County of Chemung, p. 141.

181 Edward Mott, Between the Ocean and the Lakes, p. 92.

182 William Stuart, Stories of the Kanisteo Valley, p. 81.

183 & 184 Edward Mott, Between the Ocean and the Lakes, p. 102.

185 - 187 Steuben Farmers' Advocate, "Railroad Meeting," Jan. 16, 1850, p. 2.

188 Steuben Farmers' Advocate, "Buffalo and Conhocton Valley Railroad," Jan. 30, 1850, p. 2.

189 - 191 Steuben Farmers' Advocate, " Meeting at Geneseo," Feb. 6, 1850.

192 - 194 Edward Mott, Between the Ocean and the Lakes, p. 361.

195 Steuben Farmers' Advocate, July 14, 1850.

196 - 198 Edward Mott, Between the Ocean and the Lakes, p. 361.

199 Steuben Farmers' Advocate, Feb. 19, 1851, p. 2.

200 -203 Steuben Farmers' Advocate, Oct. 8, 1851, p. 2.

204,- 210 Edward Mott, Between the Ocean and the Lakes, p. 361.

211 - 213 Edward Mott, Between the Ocean and the Lakes p. 362.

214 Uri Mulford, Pioneer Days and Later Times in Corning and Vicinity, 1789 - 1920. (Corning: published by the author, 1920), p. 185.

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