The train doesn't stop here anymore...
(the story of the Erie Railroad in Monroe)
By Jim Nelson
Do you still hear the distant train whistle or is it a ghost of one of the thousands of trains that once passed through Monroe or is it a train going through Sugarloaf? Either way it’s a long forgotten sound that once was familiar to all of us who grew up near the main line of the Erie Rail Road. What child did not love the railroad, those trains that we rode as children, or just watching to see the trains passing through our town headed for some distant destination.
It was in 1841 when the building of the railroad reached Monroe, and one of the great train stories to come out of that time has been handed down from father to son and is recorded in Rev. Freeland’s “Chronicles of Monroe in the Olden Time”. The first train reached Monroe in 1841. It was a construction train. It created a great sensation, some meeting it at Seamanville, the young girls leaving the milking-yards in sunbonnets and aprons. They climbed on the sides of the engine when it stopped.
"We were permitted to ride to the village," said our lady informant, "and we got our clothes greased, but it was one of the great events of our lives." After it reached the village of Monroe the hands ran the engine on the switch and reversed it. They then retired to the hotel of Mr. John Goff for a meal. The boys then, true to instinct, climbed on board and commenced monkeying with the brakes and lever. They soon found out how to open the throttle, which they did. But they did not learn how to use the lever. The engine soon began to move off slowly down the track. They tried to stop it, but failed to reverse the engine. They tried their best to overcome the mischief by throwing wood and rails before the monster, but on it kept till near Seamanville, when the engine hands, scenting trouble, ran down the track, put on the brakes and stopped the runaway; but not a boy was in sight, or there would have been more pungent memories of the escapade.”
It was ten years later after the first train reached Monroe that the entire train line was completed on May 14, 1851 extending from Piermont to Dunkirk, New York. All this while the steamboats conveyed the passengers to Piermont, where they were transferred to the trains of the road. We remember at this time an incident of Conductor Ayres, who, hearing the complaint of an old lady that she had left her umbrella on the boat,-" Never mind," said he, "I will telegraph for it." He touched the bell-rope overhead, went forward and soon returned with the lost article. "what can't the telegraph do!" was her exclamation.
The William Crooks stops in route to the ‘39 World’s Fair
The Erie itself was chartered in April of 1832, first named the New York and Erie Railroad. In its first charter it was not allowed to enter any other states or connect with railroads from any other state. In 1861 it changed its name to Erie Railroad. In 1875 the railroad was bankrupt and it was sold for six million dollars to New York, Lake Erie and Western Railroad. It too went bankrupt and was reorganized in 1895 as the Erie Railroad Company.
The first railroad station was located at Seamanville across the street from the cemetery on Spring Street. A number of local businessmen felt that station should be located closer to the present day village so they got together and purchased a property in the center of the present village. They made renovations to the building and let the railroad use the building for the new station rent-free.
In 1846 the businessmen who purchased the station sold the building to Chauncey Knight for $400.00. After that date Mr. Knight enlarged the building and started charging the Railroad rent. The railroad station would continue to operate at the same location until August 1913 when the construction of the new station was completed. This original station building still stands in the Village of Monroe and is now known as Fat Boys.
Many people in the village were opposed to moving the station down the road and thought it should stay in the business district. When the new station opened in 1913 on what is now known as Carpenter Place the station agent was L. H. Marvin of Monroe, he would be employed by the Erie Railroad for 43 year. The station continued in use until about 1960 when the railroad was under financial strain, and was forced to close up many of its stations.
The station was no longer maintained or used again, and disaster struck on July 5, 1977 when the station was destroyed by fire set by an arsonist who was later apprehended. Twenty-two cars were either destroyed or damaged by the fire.
As the railroad was established, hotels and boarding house became very popular, The Monroe House, Erie Hotel and National Hotel in Monroe, but nothing was more popular or imposing then the Orange Inn located in Turner’s (Harriman). Built in 1866, with tracks passing on both sides, the hotel was used as a main stop for passengers to eat and/or rest. The hotel was the most impressive building in the village, estimated to cost $200,000.00 and constructed of stone. Many of the well-to-do and famous people of the day would relax here were they could picnic, enjoy a grand meal before embarking on the train again. The building only had a short life, on Christmas Eve 1872 it was destroyed by fire.
The residents of Harriman were told they would get a new station to replace the ramshackle building that had served as the station for several generations. The new station was opened January 1911, the station agent was Fred Mapes.
Like the Monroe station, the Harriman station was no longer used by the railroad and still stands waiting to be rescued from the waiting fate of total destruction. Though the County of Orange and the Town of Monroe wanted to save the station, they have been waiting for the cooperation from the Village of Harriman to proceed. Last year the station may have been saved, but because of the deteriorating condition its fate may now be sealed.
South Main Street looking north. circa 1917
On the tragic note the first fatal disaster to an Erie passenger train occurred in Monroe in July 24, 1846. The train consisted of four passenger cars and three milk cars and departed Middletown at 6:30 in the morning with 200 passengers aboard. At the Seamanville section of Monroe, the train derailed which was attributed to the break in the spooked wheels that were then in use on most trains.
After the accident was over, local residents joined people that were uninjured in trying to free passengers from the wrecked train. They worked vigorously demolishing the cars to free people one by one. Conductor Lytle dispatched a man on horseback to Middletown to get aid; this was the only form of communications in those days. Dr. Boyd of Monroe was soon at the scene to aid the injured, he was later joined by doctors from Chester. Three people were killed in the accident, 22 people were seriously injured and others with less serious injuries.
After this disastrous accident the spoke car wheels were replaced by solid wheels, not only on the Erie but also on other railroads. They also replaced the four-wheeled cars with eight wheeled cars. It also led the regular testing of car wheels by tapping them with a hammer to detect defective wheels.
What effect did the railroad have on our community, it was profound, it allowed our community to grow from 1841 up through the first half of the 20th century. It was our community’s lifeline allowing its citizens to travel all through the country, it brought our coal to our furnaces, and it allowed our farmers a real outlet for their milk to New York City. The Monroe Cheese Company was able to ship its fine cheeses to New York City and throughout the United States and became world famous for its Liederkranz Cheese. And the city folk, they came in droves to enjoy our fresh mountain air and our beautiful lakes. Many farms started taking in boarders, and the hotels in the area such as the Monroe House, the Cedar Cliff Inn and the Idle Hour Inn to name a few became stops for many of the folk from the city. And only because of the Erie Railroad did this happen.
With politics playing a part it was announced that the main line of the railroad that passes through Harriman and Monroe would be abandoned and future trains would run on the Graham Line. The last regular train to come through Harriman and Monroe was Friday April 15, 1983, thus ended 142 years of railroading in our town. And the end of the rails came on December 12 1984, when the final train came through Monroe removing the tracks, and leaving only the ballast as a reminder of that bygone era.
And now with loss of the railroad we now gain hiking and biking trail as Orange Pathways tries to make its way to Harriman. The last portion of the trail to open was from Museum Village to the Monroe Airplane Park, and that was dedicated June 11, 2003. The struggle to extend the trail to Harriman continues as the Orange Pathways, Orange County and the Town of Monroe wait to get permission from the Village of Harriman to extend the trail to their village.
The train station on Spring St. circa 1920