While the railroads from Boston had pushed west to join the New York “Central” lines that were being built from Albany to Lake Erie, New York City’s first experiment with an intrastate railroad, the New York & Erie, had met with stiff opposition from Albany in defending the Erie canal’s economic hegemony over the route to Buffalo. It had taken the better part of ten years for railroad interests in New York City (which included Van Buren’s use of Ogden’s 1835 speech in the New York State Assembly) to overcome the upstate’s political antagonism, but by 1846 the monopoly to the West enjoyed by the Boston/Albany/Buffalo railroad was being threatened by the potential of a revitalized Erie Railroad that had finally emerged from New York City as a worthy competitor for the race to the West. However, it would still take the better part of five and half years to complete the Erie to the shore of Lake Erie, that finally ended on May 14, 1851.
Meanwhile, the mounting pressure to forge a direct rail link between New York City and Lake Erie was such that a second railroad out of New York City had been proposed. The New York & Harlem Railroad, an enterprise originally incorporated in 1831 to be a Manhattan commuter line, had its charter amended by 1840 so that its tracks could be extended to Albany. Rather than starting from scratch and building straight to Lake Erie from New York City as the Erie was attempting, however, the Harlem thought that it would be quicker to build a link from New York City along the east bank of the Hudson River to directly across from Albany, and thereby forge a through route to Buffalo via the “Central” route in upsate New York. Similar to the Erie, unfortunately, the Harlem’s construction had been sporadic because of political interference, and had correspondingly not managed to lay much track during its sixteen-year existence to date. A competing road that was planned to more closely follow the east bank of the river, the Hudson River Railroad, however, was chartered on March 4, 1847, by Joseph Sheffield and James Boorman, a New York banker and merchant who specialized in iron imports. The genesis of the HRR seems to have been an attempt on Sheffield’s part to build a competing line to the Harlem because he had been forced off the Board of Directors of the NY&NH, a company that he initially had chartered and financed in 1844, by the very man he had appointed as its president, Robert Schuyler.
Sheffield was a very successful financier who eventually had settled in New Haven in 1835. In 1840 he had purchased a controlling share of stock of the Farmington Canal (that ran from New Haven north into Massachusetts to connect with the Connecticut River at Northampton), in which he had made a lifelong relationship with the company’s engineer, Henry Farnam. In 1844 Sheffield, along with Samuel J. Hitchcock, then the president of the Hartford & New Haven Railroad, chartered the NY&NH Railroad, intended as an extension of Hitchcock’s H&NH to New York City. Sheffield had intended that Hitchcock would also be the president of the new company, but he unexpectedly died before the company’s organization was completed. Hitchcock’s premature death in 1845 would have a significant impact on Chicago’s history and urban form. Sheffield was forced to find a replacement for Hitchcock as president of both companies, and it seemed that Robert Schuyler, who along with his brother George, headed a well-respected Wall Street brokerage firm (and were from the highest stratum of New York City society, as they were grandsons of Revolutionary General Philip Schuyler, the hero of Saratoga, as well being nephews of Alexander Hamilton), seemed to fit the position perfectly.
Construction of the NY&NH went smoothly, once an agreement was signed with the Harlem that required the NY&NH to use the Harlem’s tracks to enter New York City. During the period of constructing the NY&NH, Sheffield was forced to confront the unprofitability of the Farmington Canal, to which Farnam posed the solution of using the canal’s property as a right-of-way for a parallel railroad from New Haven to Springfield (with a connection to Bliss’ Western Railroad). Sheffield provided most of the financing for the Northampton Railroad, that Farnam began construction in January 1847, that would, necessarily, compete with the H&NH’s route, Hitchcock’s original company now run by Schuyler. Sheffield had leased the Northampton to Schuyler’s NY&NH in good faith with the understanding that Sheffield and Farnam would continue building the Northampton to Springfield, once Sheffield secured a charter in Massachusetts. Schuyler then went back on his word and contracted with the H&NH as the sole carrier for the NY&NH to Springfield, completing blocking Sheffield’s plans for the Northampton and earning Sheffield’s personal and professional enmity. While this move put Schuyler in sole control of not only the line from New York to Hartford and Springfield via New Haven, but also with the Harlem, the ability to forge a direct route between New York and Albany, it caused Sheffield to choose to compete directly with Schuyler’s Harlem by financing the Hudson River Railroad, a parallel route from New York City to Albany. Sheffield and Boorman hired New York’s leading engineer, John B. Jervis, who by this time, had among his accomplishments the construction of New York’s first railroad, the Mohawk & Hudson, as well as New York City’s Croton Aqueduct and Reservoir as the road’s superintendent. Jervis began construction of the HRR in 1847, during which he set what was then a record: he averaged 36 miles per year. Sheffield enjoined a modicum of satisfaction in that the HRR arrived in Albany ahead of the Harlem on October 1, 1851, by two and a half months.
Beebe, Lucius and Charles Clegg. Hear the Train Blow: A Pictorial Epic of America in the Railroad Age. New York, 1952.
Harlow, Alvin F. Steelways of New England. New York: Creative Age Press, 1946.
Harlow, Alvin F. The Road of the Century. New York: Creative Age Press, 1947.
Johnson, Arthur and Barry E. Supple. Boston Capitalists and the Western Railroads. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.
McLellan, David and Bill Warrick, The Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway, Polo, IL: Transportation Trails, 1989.
Porter, Noah, A Discourse Commemorative of the Life and Character of Mr. Joseph Earl Sheffield, Delivered at the Battell Chapel, June 26, 1882.
Stover, John F. Iron Road to the West: American Railroads in the 1850s. New York: Columbia University, 1978.
Withington, Sidney, “The Strange Case of Robert Schuyler,” Railway and Locomotive Historical Society Bulletin, No. 98 (April 1958).
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