American Railroading Began Here

By Don Rittner, Schenectady County & City Historian



An area located a few feet west of the college has a significant place in American history. It is the location of the first railroad junction in America.


On December 28, 1825, Schenectady County native (Duanesburg) George Featherstonhaugh (pronounced fen-shaw) ran a newspaper notice announcing the formation of the Mohawk and Hudson Rail Road Company.  The Mohawk and Hudson Railroad became the first chartered railroad in NYS on April 17, 1826. Construction began in August 1830 and the railroad opened September 24, 1831, on a 16-mile route between Albany and Schenectady through the Pine Bush region that separates both cities.  The DeWitt Clinton locomotive made its first test run on July 2nd that year.  The railroad was seen as a way to expand land transportation as the Erie Canal was the leading transportation network of the time, but it took an extremely long time to go from Albany to Schenectady on the canal as there were over a dozen locks between the two cities.


Cars (modified stage coaches) were first pulled up both cities to the pine plains above using a system of horse drawn and steam powered pulley systems.  In Schenectady, the rail line ended near the intersection of Crane and Chrysler Avenues, and a stationary steam engine, built by the Clute Brothers Foundry pulled the cars with passengers down the hill where they were then hooked up to the steam locomotive and brought into the city near our present day Amtrak station.


Shortly after on February 16, 1832, another railroad, the Saratoga and Schenectady was chartered, and the 22-mile route was completed in 1832 becoming the second passenger railroad in America.  This railroad began at the intersection of State Street and Water Street (where the bus station currently is located) and ran 1500 feet north through the Stockade area via a tunnel or trench and then across the Washington St Bridge and north to Saratoga Springs.


Both railroads ran over wooden tracks that had metal strips on top for the cars and engine to move over.  These would often pop up where they were joined and enter the cars sometimes killing the passengers by impaling them.  They were called snakeheads!


The Mohawk and Hudson Railroad company then ran a connecting rail between its main line on the east side of the Erie Canal, over a lift bridge, connecting to the S&S railroad at State St via an embankment (now Railroad Avenue).  This was America’s first railroad junction and was a sign of things to come.  Shortly after, more railroads were emanating from Schenectady: the Utica & Schenectady chartered in 1833, Schenectady & Susquehanna Railroad, chartered May 5, 1836; and Schenectady & Troy Railroad, chartered in 1836, making Schenectady the rail hub of America at the time.


Ironically, both the Mohawk and Hudson and Saratoga & Schenectady were designed by engineer John B Jervis, who was hired for work on the Erie Canal as an axeman in 1817. While working he studied engineering and by 1819 he became the lead engineer on the canal's 50 mile long center section. His subsequent railroad inventions gave the canal a run for the money.


Earlier, in 1827, Jervis became the chief engineer for the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company and designed the Stourbridge Lion, built by Foster, Rastrick and Company  of England. This was the first steam locomotive to run on a commercial line in America.


In 1831, he became the chief engineer for the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad   and was the first railroad engineer to design a 4-2-0 steam locomotive; the 4-2-0 type is called the Jervis type in his honor. A 4-2-0 is a locomotive with a four-wheel leading truck (called a bogie) that guides the locomotive into curves and two powered driving wheels on a rear axle underneath the locomotive's firebox. The Jervis design became the standard American design.


Jervis in his career designed and supervised the construction of five of America's earliest railroads, was chief engineer of three major canal projects, designed the first locomotive to run in America, designed and built the forty-one mile Croton Aqueduct (New York City's water supply for fifty years: 1842 - 1891), and the Boston Aqueduct, and authored a book on economics, The Question of Labor and Capital (1877). He also helped found a local industry, the Rome Iron Mills; and was the founder of Rome's public library (he donated his house).


Today, there are remnants of both the MHRR and SSRR still surviving in the Capital District.