The continued agitation of railroad projects resulted, in the spring of 1836, in the incorporation of the Syracuse, Cortland and Binghamton railroad company.
Shut in, as the inhabitants of this county had been, from easy and rapid communication with the rest of the State, which was more fortunate in this respect, the exultant anticipations of the farmers along the rich valleys of the Tioughnioga and the tradesmen of the prominent villages in the county over this prospect of a railroad, may be left to the imagination of the reader. But railroad building was not then so well understood as it became within the succeeding few years, and this project was doomed to abandonment. This organization was given four years only in which to construct their road, the route of which is indicated by its name. Among the commissioners who were authorized by the act to receive subscriptions for stock we find the names of Henry Stephens (afterwards president of the Syracuse and Binghamton railroad), E. W. Edgcomb, Augustus Donnelly, Samuel G. Hathaway, E. C. Reed, Roswell Randall and William Randall. These names of Cortland county men, or many of them, are found in connection with all measures of importance; to them is undoubtedly due much of the credit for the early growth of the material interests of the county. Another railroad company incorporated that year was the Owego and Cortland. Its road was to run from Owego, through Dryden and thence to Cortland and Homer. Neither of these projects, as is well known, was consummated; but their incorporation shows that the idea of railroad communication with the other portions of the State was not allowed to sleep, imbued the inhabitants with faith in their ultimately standing on a level with other localities in this respect, and gave assurance that it was a question of only a short period before the locomotive and its train would dash through the fertile valleys of the country.
But the greatest obstacle to material advancement was still the difficulty or reaching markets and of traveling beyond the boundaries of the county, except by methods that had begun to be looked upon as somewhat primitive. The plank road constructed between Cortland village and Syracuse in the years 1849-51 afforded a degree of relief, enabling passengers to take either of two lines of stages each way per day, which made the trip in about six hours, while freight was transported in heavier loads and in much shorter time than over the former turnpikes; the plank road was good in its way, but it was not what was needed. The old-fashioned coaches, drawn by four horses, guided by skillful drivers, who swung them up with a grand flourish at the doors of the famous hostelries---Van Anden's and Harrop's in Homer; the Eagle and the Cortland House in Cortland and scores of lesser establishments along the various turnpikes leading to Syracuse, Owego, Binghamton, Truxton and Cazenovia and other points---were often overloaded with passengers.
Old residents still recount many amusing and interesting incidents connected with the former coaching days; but, while that method of travel was undoubtedly picturesque in favorable seasons and conducive to health and pleasure, it was decidedly slow when compared with the locomotive. It was doomed. The turnpikes, and later the plank road from Cortland to Syracuse, were necessarily thronged with heavily-laden wagons during the greater portion of each year, transporting the products of the county to the canal and railroads, and returning with goods for the merchants and stock for the young manufacturing interests of the villages; but this mode of freighting scotched the wheels of progress and growth, and the leading minds of this county and vicinity felt the force of that fact and deplored it. The Tioughnioga, and the Susquehanna, as far as it applied to this section, had long been given up as permanent and useful channels of transportation; the waters of the Tioughnioga, once a broad and rapid stream, were gradually but surely diminishing, and the last freighting of much importance on its freshet tides was done as late as about 1840.
In this condition of affairs and for all these reasons, it is little wonder that one of the unfailing themes of discussion and the constant hope and dream of the inhabitants, in their semi-isolated situation, was a railroad. It had been discussed in all its bearings ever since the first charter was granted, by men who fully appreciated its importance and were ready and willing to contribute largely to its success, and by others all the way down the scale of brain, energy and wealth to those who could not have bought a single spike and could scarcely summon the energy to drive one. Everybody wanted a railroad.
Syracuse was pushing forward under the impulse of her salt interests and canal and railroad connections, while farther north Oswego sat at the foot of the great lake system of the country, thriving upon her commercial marine. To the southward Binghamton, with a population of 10,000, contiguous to the opening coal fields of Pennsylvania, with the consequent extensive railroad connections, gave promise of being the bustling city of to-day. These were some of the outside business centers toward which Cortland stretched her burdened hands, but which could be reached only by the slow means of horse-power; her inhabitants saw the tide of commercial and manufacturing prosperity swelling around them in all directions, but were helpless---without a railroad.
Hence, the renewed agitation of the subject of a road from Syracuse to Binghamton, running through the central portion of this county, in 1848-49, found hundreds of earnest men ready to favor it to the utmost of their ability; among them were several of the original charter petitioners. Again the Legislature was petitioned and a charter obtained. Meetings were held in the towns of the county, and along the entire line, at which the proposed road was explained and its advantages advocated. Subscription books were opened, and, early in the year 1850, such progress was made in this direction that steps were taken for preliminary surveys. W. B. Gilbert, a thoroughly competent engineer, was engaged for the survey. But it must not be presumed that this line of road was to be finished without meeting with obstacles. Difficulties in the way of organizing the company, growing, to some extent, our of personal feeling, were encountered, and just as the work of construction was begun, the country began to feel the effects of one of those periodical financial revulsions to which it has on several occasions been subjected. Those persons who had money became wary about letting it leave their possession for even such a boon as a railroad; those who had little or none, saw the apparent necessity or hoarding all they could get for future needs; many who had subscribed in good faith for stock in the road, found themselves unable to fulfill their obligations.
Yet, in spite of all this, and through the persevering efforts and the indomitable energy of those who were at the head of the enterprise, many of whom were residents of this county, with the liberal subscriptions of all classes throughout the counties traversed by the line, the work was finished in 1854.
A formal opening of the road occurred on the 18th and 19th of October, of that year. An excursion train of twenty-seven cars ran over the road from Syracuse of Binghamton and return, which was so loaded with enthusiastic passengers that many were compelled to stand. The gratification felt in this county over the auspicious event was exhibited in the ringing of bells, firing of cannon and display of banners at every station, while immense crowds congregated to witness the fruition of their long-deferred hopes.
The original plans of the projectors of this road included connections with the Syracuse and Oswego road to Lake Ontario, and, or course, direct connection with the Erie canal in Syracuse. The feasibility of making these connections was used as among the strongest arguments in favor of the construction of the road. But the company were unable to secure the coveted connection to Oswego, or even to run their tracks through to the canal for the rapid and economical transfer of freight to the great waterway. Another company was, therefore organized under the general act to construct a broad gauge line to Oswego from Syracuse, on the east side of Onondaga lake and the Oswego river. But no satisfactory arrangement for this purpose could be made with the holders of the mortgage bonds of the existing road to Binghamton, and operations had to be suspended.
These untoward circumstances crippled the road and so restricted its operation and profits that in 1856 the bondholders were forced to foreclose and sell it. It was bought by J. M. Schermerhorn, then of Homer, and the company subsequently reorganized. The road was finished to the canal, and arrangements were perfected whereby the Erie railroad would accommodate the cars of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western road for the transportation of coal and freight, making the Syracuse, Binghamton and New York road (as it was renamed) the proper and most available channel for carrying their coal to the canal at Syracuse and to Oswego, Canada and the great west. This road passed into the hands of the great corporation, the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Company, a double track was laid, and it is now one of the best equipped and most successful branches in the State.
While the sale of this first railroad in this county under the mortgage was disastrous to the original stockholders, none of whom realized anything directly from their investments, it is doubtless true that not one of them failed to see in the near future that their money had thus been wisely expended. Every acre of land in the county was increased in value, while the annual benefits to farmers, tradesmen and manufacturers, after the road went into operation, could scarcely be over-estimated.
The construction of railroads in this county produced the common effect of building up some of the villages at the expense of others. It was about the period under consideration, or a little later, that Cortland began to show unmistakable indications of rivaling and outstripping her sister village on the north; though the almost phenomenal growth of the former place did not begin until some years later. Preble and Little York, which were (especially the former) busy and thriving villages previous to the advent of the railroad, soon came to a stand-still, if they did not actually retrograde, in favor of Homer and Cortland; the same may be said of Virgil and Blodget's Mills, the former once thriving and growing village suffering materially from its permanent isolation from railroad communication. Marathon is situated far enough south of Cortland to prevent the loss of much of its business in that direction, while it has profited by the contiguity of Lisle (Broome county) on the south, and the hamlet of State Bridge and East Virgil on the north. It is, moreover, in the midst of an excellent grazing and agricultural district, and became a market of importance for butter and other products, so that its advancement has been continuous. Cincinnatus, Taylor, Willet, Scott, and most of the hamlets of the county have not directly gained in business importance through the construction of the railroad.
Internet Archives--1885 History of Cortland County