One afternoon in early July 1905, four girls aged about seven years old were playing on the railroad tracks in the newly incorporated Old Forge village. They were the Levene girls and fellow classmates Hilda Abbey and Erma Garratt. The village school had dismissed the students for the day. The schoolhouse had been built ten years earlier.
While the girls were playing, a train was backing up to its depot at the Forge dock and the engineer did not see the children. The children may not have heard the train since it was propelled by an oil burning engine and was probably coasting. People on the scene claimed that the children would surely have been killed had the train’s brakeman on the last car had not seen them and given signals to stop at once. The alert engineer was able to stop the cars two feet from the startled children on the tracks, the tracks of the 2 and a 1/4-mile Fulton Chain Railway.
In 1888, Dr. Alexander Crosby and Samuel Garmon had purchased the “Old Forge House” and, partnering with lumber baron G. H. P. Gould and the deCamp family, managed the First Fulton Chain Railroad until its replacement by Dr. William Seward Webb’s Mohawk and Malone. Webb’s new line inaugurated service to Fulton Chain in July of 1892 and through the rest of the Adirondacks beginning that October. Word quickly spread across the state among the hotel owners and steamship lines of the Fulton Chain, and among the region’s Great Camp owners about this new railroad in the North Woods.
The volume of passengers and freight quickly overwhelmed the teamsters who carried those arriving at the Fulton Chain Station to the steamers at the Forge dock. Travelers faced long waits and other hardships. The dirt roads through the Forge village were rarely dry and often treacherous for horses, wagons and carts. In April 1895, proprietor Alexander Briggs of the Forge House hired additional stages such as Henry Earl of Lowville to move the human and freight cargo.
Important local figures such as hotelmen Charles Barrett and Fourth Lake’s (not yet Inlet) Fred Hess, boat builder Theodore Seeber and even ex-President Benjamin Harrison urged the building of a railroad. As early as December 1893, it was reported that a 1 and 3/4-mile electric railroad was running. A year later, the Plattsburgh Sentinel reported that incorporation papers had been filed for an “Old Forge Road”, a two mile line from the (now Adirondack & St. Lawrence) station to Old Forge. No parties were named, and I’ve found no other mention of these lines or if they were the same.
The Utica Sunday Tribune reported in August 1895 that Forge Tract owners Garmon and Crosby hoped that Dr. William Seward Webb could be interested in building a two mile railroad from Fulton Station (Thendara today) to the Forge House dock. Garmon and Crosby would contribute land they owned for half of the route but the rest of the route was on Julia Lyon deCamp’s lands. They couldn’t speak with her because Mrs. deCamp was gravely ill and would die that month. Dr. Webb felt the road should be built, but by regional local private interests, and chose not to participate.
Then in October, 1895, Victor Adams and others from Little Falls bought into Crosby & Garmon’s Forge House partnership. Mr. Adams’ group acquired a half interest in the Old Forge property, including the Forge House and 1300 plus acres. The trio agreed not only to improve the hotel and develop a town, but also to build the branch railroad from Fulton Chain to the Forge House. Then, incorporation papers were filed in February, 1896 for building a standard gauge line just exceeding two miles to the Forge House and Fulton Chain Navigation docks. They issued shares for $60,000 divided into $100 price per share.
Thanks to the many affidavits and the ex-President’s recommendation, “it would be a good thing”, the Franklin Gazette reported in early March 1896 that the State Railroad Commission had approved the filing. Later that month, not wasting any time, the first Board of Directors meeting for the Fulton Chain Railroad Company was held in Utica and Victor Adams was elected President, Crosby Vice-President and Garmon, President of its Executive Committee.
Work commenced on the line that spring, but a problem arose quickly. The section of the route from Fulton Chain to the Garmon and Crosby half of the line was on land belonging to the deCamp family, now under the executorship of Julia’s widower, William Scott deCamp. In April 1896, the construction crew had staked the right of way (not yet conveyed) on deCamp’s lands. Seeing this trespass on his property, deCamp had his employees pull up the company’s stakes and any markings for gradings and leveling.
Though the Old Forge Company threatened condemnation proceedings, they and deCamp ultimately agreed to a transaction that provided the Company a 66-foot-wide strip through deCamp’s Township 7 lands. Today, standing at the Thendara Station, this route can be identified by a line of telephone poles stretching toward Old Forge. A bridge over the Moose River has recently been reinstalled for the TOBIE hike/bike trail.
By June 1896, newspapers reported that contractor James Campbell had been hired to supply all materials and build the railroad. The entire road bed had been prepared and its ties laid for half of the line. The railroad company issued bonds totaling $35,000 secured by the Old Forge Company and the Forge House. The article included a sales pitch for the bonds. Interest would be paid in gold coin. That July, the line had an engine and construction train, and rails had been laid nearly to the Forge Pond. An additional 20 men were added. Finally, Lowville’s August 22 paper announced that the Fulton Chain Railway had inaugurated service.
At the end of June 1897, the line purchased an additional passenger coach from a Pennsylvania company. Harry Dale of Little Falls was hired as the superintendent of the Old Forge Company’s operations, the railroad and the Crosby Transportation Company, which ran the steamers on the chain.
A year later, the line was leased to the New York Central and a small depot had been built. The Central would run two trains daily, an improvement on the Saturday and Sunday-only offerings until then. That winter, a new depot with a “commodious” waiting room, baggage room and ticket office was built. But the operation of another new railroad would signal the loss in clientele not only for this line’s service, but also for the Crosby Transportation Company’s steamer service to Inlet and Eagle Bay.
Over the winter of 1897-1898, John Dix’s lumber company built a two mile railroad, the beginning of the Raquette Lake Railway, from Clearwater to its stacked lumber at Rondaxe Lake. During the summer of 1899, this railroad was extended along the north shore of Fourth Lake with several stations to Eagle Bay, then to its terminus at the site of Alvah Dunning’s camp at Raquette Lake.
The Old Forge Company, with its sister companies the Crosby Transportation Company and Fulton Chain Railway, sued to stop the new railway. It was a futile effort however, since Webb’s Fulton Chain deeds already permitted right-of-way for a railroad since the days of Thomas Durant’s line to North Creek. Also, Dr. Webb included easements through the land transferred to the state in an 1896 settlement for land flooded by the Beaver River dam. The papers also argued that the current transportation systems, with their new Old Forge navigation dock and train depot, would soon be “out of date”.
In April 1901, the line and the Old Forge Company steamers were purchased by Dr. Webb. Using the railroad as an extension of Railway Express Service from Fulton Chain Station, Dr. Webb also obtained approval for transfer of Federal mails from the railroad to a steamer, the Old Forge. Though not an official postal station, the Benjamin Harrison (operated by Old Forge Lake Cruises) currently provides mail delivery to camps along the Fulton Chain, drawing on a long history of mail boats.
By the end of 1902, Webb was president of the Raquette Lake Railway, and of the Fulton Chain and Raquette Lake Navigation Companies that enabled travelers to go as far as Blue Mountain. As with his railroad, his management resulted in improvements to all of these travel options. The line’s name was changed from the Fulton Chain Railroad Company to the Fulton Chain Railway, and track repairs and the line’s cars were provided by Webb’s larger railroad affiliates. In 1903, Maurice Callahan became the superintendent and held that post for the remaining life of the railway.
During the first decades of the 20th century, the freighting of ice for the New York Central’s milk cars and ice houses became the significant portion of its business. And when the Public Service Commission required that passengers have an alternative to the railroad shuttle, Maurice Callahan of the sister Fulton Navigation Company began providing bus service from Fulton Chain station to Old Forge in 1915. Revenues for the Fulton Chain Railway, especially for passenger service, declined considerably.
The line never made money though now its board included millionaires such as Whitney, Webb, Vanderbilt and Morgan. When Alfred Vanderbilt’s will was probated after his death on the Lusitania in 1915, his only railroad interests were the Fulton Chain and Raquette Lake Railways.
In 1917, the New York Central acquired the Fulton Chain Railway and Raquette Lake Railway Companies by assuming their indebtedness to the tune of $60,000. Automobiles were replacing the need for travelers who had earlier required the two-mile connection to the lake navigation after departing from trains of Webb’s line. After 1910, the major transportation projects from Utica, Lowville and other entry points to the region were for building highways for a new medium changing forever the character of the Adirondack resort experience: the motor car.
In April of 1929 an application was made to the Public Service Commission to abandon the line from the Moose River Bridge to the dock. For the preceding five years, passenger traffic was minimal and very little freight was carried the previous two years. It was hoped that the road bed would be made a highway to aid in the development of the land along the tracks. In 1932, the Interstate Commerce Commission authorized the New York Central to abandon the two mile branch. By 1933 when the old steamer Clearwater was relaunched by the Hollywood Hills Corporation, the rails had become beams of rust covered with vegetation. Hundreds of feet of rails next to the Forge dock had been removed.
On at least two occasions, the Town of Webb pursued development on the old rail bed. In February 1938, the Town approved $49,500 in bonds to be issued for an extensive development program geared to make Old Forge a prime vacation destination. The lakefront properties of the former railroad right of way, the Fulton Navigation Company properties and Maple Ridge Park would be purchased to build a bathing beach, and additional ski runs; horse trails would be established in the Eagle Bay and Big Moose areas. In November 2006, $2 million in federal funds received enabled plans for more of the right of way to be used for completion of the TOBIE bike/hike path to Inlet, including the rebuilding of a bridge over the Moose River using the Railway’s bridge abutments. A remaining right of way exists from the train station to its path between and parallel to Route 28 and Birch Street until it meets its Moose River bridge location.
As the April, 1929 Lowville paper announcing the second Fulton Chain Railway’s closure lamented: “Perhaps it is just as comfortable to whiz away to your particular hotel in a high powered motor car, but it can no way compare with the approach to the Old Forge pond in the early morning when the mists from the lake were being dispelled by a rose and pink sun and the lapping of the waves against the dock was a musical setting for this glorious extravagance of nature.” These lines would be appropriate today for a morning biker on the TOBIE path who can now also travel across the new Moose River where previously the short rail line crossed years ago.
Photos, form above: Omnibus service, courtesy Town of Webb Historical Association (TOWHA); the railroad route (Forest Fish and Game Commission 1909 Annual Report); the Old Forge Dock in 1897 (from the F.E. Slocum Fulton Chain souvenir booklet, courtesy TOWHA); the Fulton Chain depot, 1898; the Fulton Chain enlarged depot in 1899; a steamboat and railroad schedule published in Adirondack News in July 1900 (TOWHA); a Pullman car at the railroad depot in 1900; the depot and navigation dock in 1910 depot.