Ohio History Journal

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13
  • 14
  • 15
  • 16




Erie Lackawanna: An Ohio Railroad


The Erie Railroad possessed a strange past. In the nineteenth century it

could claim to be an unusual road. For one thing, it was America's first

long-distance trunk line. Under the corporate banner of the New York

& Erie Railway, the company in April 1851 completed a 483-mile route

"Between the Ocean and Lakes," linking the New York communities of

Piermont on the Hudson River with Dunkirk on Lake Erie. The railroad

also extolled its distinctive broad or "Erie Gauge," the impressive six feet

between its iron rails rather than what emerged as the standard width of

four feet eight and one-half inches. (Later the company advertised ex-

tensively that because of its uncommon construction, "[It] ... is select-

ed over and over again for handling oversize shipments because it is fa-

mous for the highest and widest clearances of any eastern railroad.")1

But there was a dark side to Erie. Its building process took nearly a gen-

eration, in part because self-serving politicians forced it to push through

New York's rugged and sparsely settled "Southern Tier" of counties. As

a result the road missed direct ties to the burgeoning cities of New York

and Buffalo and skirted the traffic centers of northeastern Pennsylvania,

thus weakening its earnings capabilities. The property was hardly a mod-

el for emulation. In the 1850s it was in such wretched shape that Edward

Harold Mott, the Erie's first chronicler, observed that it "became notori-

ous for the insecurity of travel upon it." When reorganized and revitalized

during the Civil War, the Erie Railway soon became the "Scarlet Woman

of Wall Street." The unscrupulous speculator, Daniel Drew, discovered

the company and manipulated its stock. Then, in 1867, a three-way bat-

tle erupted for control, with interests represented by the wily Drew; John

Eldridge of the Boston, Hartford & Erie; and "Commodore" Cornelius

Vanderbilt of the New York Central. Two other financiers joined the fra-

cas: the resourceful Jay Gould and the flamboyant Jim Fisk. When the

smoke cleared, Vanderbilt lost, although subsequent negotiations between

Drew, Eldridge and Vanderbilt produced a satisfactory compromise agree-




H. Roger Grant is Professor of History at The University of Akron.


1. Edward Hungerford, Men of Erie: A Story of Human Effort (New York, 1946), 105-

35; Erie Magazine, 45 (October, 1949), 36.