William Seward Webb’s building of the Adirondack & St. Lawrence Railroad was a notable achievement. Although educated as a physician, he built two hundred miles of railroad in a short period of time and opened up wilderness where others had failed.
Webb’s ancestors came to this country in 1626. His grandfather was a general in the Revolutionary War. His father was a newspaper editor who coined the name “Whig” for the political party of that name. He also served as ambassador to Austria and Brazil. William Seward Webb was born in New York City on January 31, 1851. He went to Rio with his parents in 1861 and returned to the United States in 1863 to attend a military academy at Sing Sing, New York. There he spent five years, after which he went to Columbia University until 1871. This was followed by two years of medical studies in Paris and Vienna, then more medical school at Columbia. He interned for two years, set up a private medical practice, then got interested in business.
He became a partner in a Wall Street firm. In 1885 he was elected president of the Wagner Palace Car Company and remained in charge of that corporation until it was merged with the Pullman Company in 1899. He used his executive talents to make Wagner into a strong and profitable enterprise. He increased the rolling stock from 170 to 800 cars.
In 1881 Dr. Webb married Lila Osgood Vanderbilt, youngest daughter of William H. Vanderbilt, by whom he had four children.
“Adirondacks” means “tree eaters” to the Indians, so named because a tribe who lived there had to eat bark because it was so tough to find food sometimes. Geographically, the region is bordered on the east by Lake Champlain; on the south by the watershed of the Hudson and Mohawk; and on the north and west by the St. Lawrence valley and Lake Ontario. The region stretches about one hundred miles east-west and seventy-five miles north-south. It consists of rugged mountains, virgin forests and numerous streams and lakes. The New York State Legislature established the area as a forest preserve and as a park. Dr. Webb made the Adirondacks a practical reality to the people of New York and the whole United States.
While several railroads touched the borders of the Adirondacks ( Delaware & Hudson from Albany to Rouse’s Point for example), none really went into the Adirondack Park until between 1868 and 1874 when the Whitehall & Plattsburgh (later D&H) extended to Ausable Forks.
The Sacketts Harbor & Saratoga struggled with the Adirondacks for twenty-three years beginning in 1848. In 1863, Dr. Thomas C. Durant acquired the floundering company, changed its name to the Adirondack Company, changed the proposed terminus from Sacketts Harbor, and built as far as North Creek. The D&H acquired the road in 1889.
Other railroads entered portions of the Adirondack Park. The Chateaugay Railroad ran from Plattsburgh to Saranac Lake by 1887. A railroad was built from Carthage to Benson’s Mine near Cranberry Lake to haul out iron ore. John Hurd’s lumber road (later Ottawa Division of the New York Central) ran from Moira to Tupper Lake.
To give some idea of the traveling conditions in 1890, it took twenty-four hours to get to the Fulton Chain of Lakes from Utica. First there was a railroad trip from Utica to Boonville and a stay there overnight. Then a stage ride to Moose River Village. Then a ten-mile trip over a wooden railroad with horse-drawn cars to Minnehaha followed by a little steamboat through the winding channel and last a hike of three miles to Old Forge.
Aside from opening the Adirondacks to the public, an Adirondack route represented the only route not already preempted for trade between the Port of New York and Canada. Canada has winter problems and everything becomes ice-bound except Halifax and St. John. Therefore, New York is a better winter alternative from the Canadian Northwest which can ship to Montréal and Québec in the summer.
The New York Central had no direct entry into Montréal and was at the mercy of the roads which did. The Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburgh avoided the Adirondacks by a long haul to the west. The Delaware & Hudson monopolized the Champlain Valley. A combination of the Fitchburg, Rutland and Central Vermont ran to the east of Lake Champlain. By 1890, the New York Central planned to confront the RW&0 and was considering a parallel route, possibly from Rome to Boonville and on to the St. Lawrence over an old line which had been partially graded previously.
Dr. Webb had always been an Adirondack enthusiast. He hunted and fished a lot. He thought a lot about building a railroad through the Adirondacks and was encouraged by the New York Central.
Dr. Webb planned that his railroad would start in Herkimer and follow the West Canada Creek into the Adirondacks. He acquired the Herkimer, Newport & Poland Narrow Gauge Railroad with the plan to standard gauge it. He hired George C. Ward to lay out a line from Remsen to Paul Smiths and on to Malone.
By 1891, the RW&O had sold out to the New York Central. The Central now had no interest in another route through the Adirondacks, but Webb proceeded with his railroad anyway.
The route he selected was to be from Poland to Remsen and then north by way of the Moose River. At Remsen, there was a junction with the RW&O. Later on, traffic would go through Utica to Remsem and then north. Finally the Herkimer-Poland-Remsen route would dry up. Webb tried to buy John Hurd’s road to Moira from Tupper Lake but couldn’t reach a deal.
With the northern terminus fixed at Malone, Webb acquired a partially complete route and trackage rights to the St. Lawrence and a connection to Montreal via the Grand Trunk.
Construction of the line was carried out with earnest, and with all the energy that was characteristic of Dr. Webb. A number of companies were organized to cover different portions of the line. Summer rains made bogs of the roads over which supplies had to be hauled, and the winter cold froze the ground to be graded. Some of the contractors brought in black laborers from Tennessee, but the cold was very difficult for them and many quit. Newspaper articles were unjustly critical of Webb. Although the contractors brought the blacks in, Webb personally did a great deal to improve their working conditions.
There were some dark moments because the route was blocked by state land which could not be sold since the land was in a forest preserve. Where possible, Webb bought private lands. The D&H lobbyists in Albany made sure no rules were broken. At length, a way was found out of the difficulty. A court ruling determined that Forest Preserve land could be exchanged for property of equal or greater value.
By mid-1892, the railroad was complete to Thendara (Fulton Chain) from the south. From the north, it was complete to Saranac Lake (later Lake Clear Junction), Tupper Lake Junction and Childwold. Sleeping cars ran into the northern points that summer via a circuitous route: Utica to Norwood on the RW&O; Norwood to Malone on the Ogdensburg & Lake Champlain; then over the Adirondack & St. Lawrence. Even so, this route was faster than the D&H and Chateaugay route from New York which involved a train change at Plattsburgh because the Chateaugay was narrow gauge until 1903.
The summer of 1892 saw a race to close the gap before another winter. It was sort of like building the first transcontinental railroad, except instead of Irish vs. Chinese, it was blacks vs. St. Regis Indians. By mid-October, the two lines met near Twitchell Creek Bridge. A one hundred and ninety-one mile railroad had been built in eighteen months!
While trains immediately began running to Montréal, much ballasting, widening, etc. had to be done over the next several months. A branch from Lake Clear Junction to Saranac Lake connected with the tail end of the Delaware & Hudson’s former narrow gauge line from Plattsburgh which reached Lake Placid. The completed project was reincorporated as the Mohawk & Malone Railway Company (but still called the “Adirondack & St. Lawrence Line”) and was leased to the New York Central in May 1893. Webb stayed involved with the line between Malone and Montréal for several more years.
Dr. Webb was a community builder as well as a railroad builder. Although much of the Adirondack land was owned by the state or by large tract holders like the Adirondack League (a private hunting and fishing club), Webb purchased 147,000 acres. He sold a lot of this land in the Fulton Chain and Big Moose area at moderate prices for camps. Permanent settlements were established which have grown into thriving communities. Webb succeeded where others, like John Brown of Providence, failed. Chauncey M. Depew characterized this work as “the fairy tale of railroading”.
In 1898 Dr. Webb joined with a number of other large land owners in the construction of the Raquette Lake Railroad. Collis P. Huntington of the Southern Pacific Railroad purchased a large camp on Raquette Lake. When traveling to his camp, he had to park his two railroad cars at Old Forge and take a series of small steamers through the Fulton Chain of Lakes. On one trip he had to ride all the way sitting on a keg of nails. He decided the time had come to build a railroad. Some of his neighbors that joined him in this venture were J. Pierpont Morgan, William C. Whitney and Harry Payne Whitney. Nehasane Lodge was built in 1893 on the shores of Lake Lila. The Webbs kept open house for relatives and friends during the hunting and fishing seasons for many years.
Nehasane Park Association was a private park and game preserve built by Webb. The name Ne-Ha-Sa-Ne is an Indian term meaning “beaver crossing river on log”. Any reputable sportsman could obtain a free permit to hunt and fish on certain portions of the preserve providing game laws, park rules and fire prevention measures were observed. At one time, a portion of the park was fenced in and stocked with big game like moose. That experiment ended when forest fires burned the fence.
Forest conservation was an important concern of William Webb. He was opposed to the destructive methods of lumbering currently in use. He sought the advice of Gifford Pinchot, later United States Forester and later still Governor of Pennsylvania. He was also advised by Henry S. Graves, later the dean of the Yale Forestry School. In addition, every effort was made to see that the railroad did not set any fires. Extra screens were installed on locomotive smokestacks. Firefighting equipment was placed along the right-of-way.
“Ninety Nine” and “Nehasane” were observation engines on which Webb was fond of taking friends for rides. “Ninety Nine” was originally a construction engine Webb had converted to a “Pony engine”. When it proved too small, he had American Locomotive build him the “Nehasane”.
The Adirondack Division continued to operate as long as there was a New York Central Railroad. However, passenger service ended in 1965 Just like it was doing elsewhere, and the Lake Clear Junction to Malone track had already been torn up. In 1972 storm damage caused the Penn Central to abandon the line.
The New York State Department of Transportation purchased the right of way and track in 1975. The Adirondack Railway was incorporated to rehabilitate the line and restore service by the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. The AR used Conrail track between Utica and Remsen. Although the track had been rehabilitated, derailments were common and the line shut down in 1981.
In addition to everything else, Webb was President and Chairman of the Rutland Railroad and held directorships on the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway, the Pullman Company, the National Life Insurance Company of Vermont, the Fulton Chain Railroad, the Fulton Navigation Company, the Raquette Lake Transportation Company and many others.
For many years he was a resident of Shelburne, Vermont, where he had a 4,000 acre estate on Lake Champlain. He bred prize-winning Hackney horses there. He was in the Vermont Legislature for two terms. He had four brothers, one of whom was Henry Walter Webb, former Operating Vice President of the New York Central. He died in Shelburne on October 29, 1926 at seventy-six years of age.