Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Peg Leg Line: The First Fulton Chain Railroad

P3935-Peg-Leg-Railroad-Leaving-Moose-River-Settlement-enlargedEarly Brown’s Tract settlers Albert Jones and his son Eri had gotten into trouble with the law in 1877 for mistreating Eri’s wife, leaving her in a critical condition to be cared for by a neighbor.  Around the same time, like many early Brown’s Tract pioneers, they were squatters south of Thendara on the Moose River middle branch called Stillwater.

Albert had become sick and weak, presumably from a hard life as a businessman, lumber mill owner, rancher and breaker of horses for their Spanish owners in Mexico.  He claimed that if he was going to die, he wanted to die in the woods.  Temporarily, Adirondack weather was the cure and Albert and Eri set up Jones’s Camp as a boarding camp with boats for campers. It was a stopover twelve miles from the Forge along the Brown’s Tract Road.

In the years 1880 to 1883, Woodcraft  author Nessmuk stopped there on his way up the chain.  If Albert was there in March, 1883, he would have witnessed the huffing and puffing from guide Jonathan Meeker, assisted by “Old Line” buckboard drivers Charlie Phelps and R. H. Ward, pulling the steamer Hunter on runners on its way to become the first steamer on the Fulton Chain.  Captain Meeker planned to “pole” the engine-less craft on the Moose River from Jones Camp (on land owned by the deCamp family) to Forge Pond.

In 1882, papers reported that wealthy men in Syracuse planned to start a 20 mile railroad called the Black River and Fulton Chain Railroad, used primarily to haul Port Leyden ore and Adirondack lumber.  This did not happen.  In October 1887, rumors circulated that the deCamps would place a log and board dam at Stillwater to raise the stream for operating a steamer between Jones Camp and Old Forge to carry tourists to the lakes.

In April 1888, Alexander Crosby and Samuel F. Garmon purchased the Forge House (which burned in 1924 on a site now occupied by Slickers and other businesses).  To provide prospective guests with an “easy, quick and agreeable route” preferable over the infamous Brown’s Tract Road from points south, they partnered with G. H. P. Gould to begin building a “horse drawn” railroad from Moose River Settlement to the Forge House.  Moose River Settlement was 13 miles from Boonville and 11 miles from Port Leyden.  It was a popular stopover for those making the weary tramp to the Forge and had quickly grown to a village around a nearby  tannery.

The railroad would be 13 miles through the woods to the Forge House.  With Gould’s uncut 10,000 acres purchased in 1872, the trio already had seven miles right of way.  They needed a critical six miles through the inherited lands of Julia deCamp, whose husband William had helped manage the lands.  The railroad would carry passenger traffic.

Peg Leg RailroadThe partners used wood to build the road in as few months as possible, but it was reported that “these will be superseded by iron in the course of two or three years” when profits permitted.  The wood was immediately present (only the straightest hemlock and spruce used for 3-foot gage lines when cut for the roadway), but iron rails would take time to buy and haul through the wilderness.  Wood blocks or stones were used in uneven spots.  The obituary of Lafayette Wetmore, who later built water-powered electrical plants in the Lowville region, noted that he was the builder of the wooden track line.  Contracts were made with Francis McCrary to take his portable sawmill into the wilderness to cut wood for the roadway and wooden trestles (Peg Legs) up to 20 feet were constructed.

Horsepower was planned because the deCamps owned lands on both sides of the Moose River from Jones Camp to Fulton Chain and they feared that locomotives would endanger their woods and the shoreline of the Moose River.  The partnership still needed a right of way however, through the deCamp lands.

The papers reported frequently on the progress of the “wooden railroad” in the months ahead.  By June 1888, a mile had been completed from Moose River Settlement; they hoped to complete 7 miles by July 1.  A locomotive was shipped by Ryther & Pringle in July.  At some point in the same year, a decision was made to replace horse power with a steam engine fed by wood, not coal.  This, however, required considerable reworking of the wood rails.

In July, five miles were graded from Moose River Settlement and wood rails laid had been laid on 3 and 3/4 miles.  The railroad partners announced that when the road was finished to the deCamp lands, a team of coaches would take the tourists the rest of the way.

By August, the cars had been delivered to Lowville and at least two trial runs were made on the 6 mile line from the Settlement.  By September, five miles of the road were open to regularly running cars.  F. A. Barrett made arrangements with the partnership to carry passengers to the Settlement from points south and carry them to the Forge on a second line of stages from the end of the line.

At the end of September the Watertown Herald reported an agreement had been reached with Mrs. Decamp for the right-of-way.  The deCamps agreed to build locks and dams on the Moose River, and prepare the stream for nine miles of navigation.  Passengers on the wooden railroad would travel the line seven and a half miles from the Settlement, then make the remaining distance to the Forge House by steamboat through the deCamp’s lands.  They hoped that the boats would commence running by Spring 1889.  The Steamboat terminus would be at the foot of the Moose River, at Jones’ Camp.

HP146-Fawn-RR. Dwight Grant built the dams and locks on the Moose River route for the steamer.  To help keep the steamer to the middle in the wide, shallow places, Grant planned a series of “wing dams”.  At the halfway point of the route, called Little Rapids, he built a timber lock and dam to raise the steamer and water level to help make the landing near the Forge House without overflowing the river banks.  He protested against the actions of the state, when making reservoirs, not cutting trees when banks were overflown and causing the resultant forest to lose its beauty with dead standing timber on stagnant lands.

By November, the railroad from the Settlement had made it to within two-and-a-half miles of the Jones Camp.  While not running the entire way to the Forge House, the railroad would run about a mile-and-a-half along the stream before reaching Jones’ Camp, providing its riders with a nice view.  The steamboat, the Fawn, was built over the winter of 1888-1889.

In April 1889, Garmon & Crosby enlarged the Forge House, making it three stories in height, and added a 40 by 40 foot section.  The Forge sawmill now was totally operational, so that no more lumber needed to be imported from Boonville, and the new “wooden railroad” was ready for operations.  The road’s grading was finished in the fall and, within 10 days of the last frost, the wooden rails would be installed.  “The future of the Old Forge as a pleasure resort is very promising”, a newspaper reported.

Peg Leg Railroad Card Front001A more powerful 9-ton locomotive made by H. K. Porter of Pittsburg, Pa. would be used, and a line of Concord coaches would connect the Settlement with the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg.  In April, the Fawn was completed and launched and its engine soon installed with the cooperation of Theodore Seeber and John Sprague.  The First Fulton Chain Railroad and the deCamp steamer began operations July 1, 1889.

After the first year’s operations, the wooden rail lines needed much work, grades were lessened, curves improved to reduce strain on the wooden rails and a 30 by 40-foot depot was built at the Settlement.  The railroad operated for two more seasons.

Peg Leg Railroad Card Reverse002During its run, the railroad provided much anxiety and excitement for its owners and passengers, as well as fodder for the newspapers.  The engine, passenger and luggage cars were prone to stalling going up steeper grades, and needed to be pushed by its passengers, or they would move at hair raising roller-coaster speed across the wooden trestles.  Sometimes the train would arrive too late at Minnehaha, the new name for Jones Camp, and riders had to stay the night or be rowed to the Forge.  It must have been exciting to speed through the narrow lane through the woods to Minnehaha.

After its second season finished in 1890, the “Wooden-Legged Railroad” benefited from political news.  G. H. P. Gould, besides being a wealthy businessman and lumber baron, was also an Assemblyman.  It seems that a January 1891 New York paper complained that he used his influence to keep this railroad from the authority of the state’s railroad commission.  The paper criticized the railroad for being built without first forming a corporation, and for not including it on the state’s list of roads under its jurisdiction.  Because the line crossed no regulated highways (railroads) or lands outside of the partnership, their attorney’s concluded that it did not fall under state railroad law.

P3934enhanced-Peg-Leg-Railroad-001Garmon bowed out of the partnership in June 1889 in part because he believed a full-gauged line would be built through the region, which proved correct.  The end was near for the first Fulton Chain Railroad, and on October 1, 1891, the company suffered a devastating loss when its Settlement depot and engine house burned.  Besides these structures, two locomotives, a baggage car, passenger car and two platform cars were destroyed.

With some replacements, it operated briefly the next summer carrying supplies for someone named Webb who would finish building a “fairy tale railroad” in eighteen months that made the Moose River to Minnehaha line recede into history.  Its purpose no longer critical, the Fawn was used briefly for short picnic trips and eventually fell into disuse, rotting at its moorings by the lock and dam.

Joseph Grady gives an appropriate eulogy to the rails in his 1933 history The Adirondacks Fulton Chain – Big Moose Region, A Story of a Wilderness:  “Birch and cherry trees, rooted between the wooden rails nearly forty years ago, have attained mature membership in the sedate tree family that borders it route.  The rails have long since disappeared, and decay has flattened the stringers and cross ties to nearly shapeless contours, but from their green moss coverings long rows of six inch wire nails protrude, erect, defiant and rusty, exotic growths of the forest that recall the story of a very small railroad that bowed humbly to the dust before the advent of a greater one.”

The DeCamps’ concerns about the woods would resurface again in the 1890s when the lumber barons got the 1894 legislature to declare the Moose River a public highway so they could float millions of logs through deCamps’ lands. Decamps won a victory for conservationists in 1897 when the court of appeals ruled the bill unconstitutional because the highway designation benefited not the public, but business interests only.

The Joneses?  Albert Jones lost his health again and died in 1884.  Eri Jones guided and traveled for a time with William Comstock, proprietor of a Boonville opera house.  I lost track of him after 1905 when he ran lock 62 on the Black River Canal, but just south of Flatrock Mountain near Minnehaha is Jones Mountain.

Photos, from above: Peg Leg Railroad leaving Moose River station;  the Peg Leg Railroad; the steamer Fawn; and the improved Peg Leg railroad (all photos courtesy Town of Webb Historical Association).


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Since the early 1980s when Charles Herr purchased a camp in Inlet he has been interested in the history of the Fulton Chain region of the Adirondacks. He has been contributing history articles about the times and people of the Fulton Chain, covering transportation, steamboats, hotels and most importantly, the people to the Weekly Adirondack of Old Forge since November 2006. His ambition is to uncover local and regional Fulton Chain history about people and events prior to 1930 and little covered in the histories of the region. He is the president of the Inlet Historical Society and presents summer programs on Inlet history at the Town Hall in Arrowhead Park in Inlet, NY. His book, The Fulton Chain-Early Settlement, Roads, Steamboats, Railroads and Hotels, was published in May 2017. More information is available at www.facebook.com/herrstory . During 2023, Herr was appointed Inlet Town Historian.

4 Responses

  1. Brad says:

    Again, a great little read…fascinating. Thanks,

  2. Ron Barr says:

    Are there any maps showing the right of way M R Settlement to Minnehaha? As a youth we often fished the Moose River from McKeever to Remsen Falls and Minnehaha south while staying at our camp at Otter Lake. I would enjoy exploring the r-o-w should there be a map telling one where to look. Great story and I hope to hear from you soon.

  3. Charlie Herr says:

    Ron, Richard Palmer who has published two works on this wooden rail railroad found a map that included the line’s route as part of a survey done on the Webb line years later.
    The Goodsell Museum was given a copy of the map by Palmer. It’s the closest to a map of the route.

  4. Ron Barr says:

    Charlie, I’ll bd up to the Old Forge area later this month and hope to visit the museum you referred to. Thanks for the info and if I discover anything ill be sure to pass it on to you

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