[Reprinted with permission from the Cuba Patriot and Free Press, May 18-24, 2022.]
The Last Spike at Cuba
William D. Burt
The New York and Erie Rail Road, linking the Hudson River with Lake Erie, was completed at Cuba in 1851. At the time it was the longest railroad in the world. The inaugural train carried the President of the United States and much of his Cabinet. Wildly cheering crowds greeted it at every stop. Cannons boomed. Bands played. Refreshments flowed and tables overflowed with food. The driving of the “last spike” some weeks earlier, witnessed by only a few, has been all but lost to history.
In 1832, the New York State Legislature granted a corporate charter for NY&E to build a railroad from the Hudson River across the Southern Tier to Lake Erie at some point below the outlet of Cattaraugus Creek at present-day Irving. Legislators from the Erie Canal counties saw to that charter made it nearly impossible to raise capital. Despite a $3 million loan of the state’s credit in 1836, NY&E went broke in April 1842. It operated only 46 miles of railroad between Piermont (on the Hudson just below the present-day Tappan Zee Bridge) and Goshen in Orange County.
On May 14, 1845, the Legislature forgave the $3 million loan on condition that NY&E complete its proposed Piermont-to-Dunkirk line within six years. The railroad opened to Hornellsville on September 1, 1850, and in November the steam locomotive made its first appearance at the “Setchel crossing” on the east side of Cuba, where the track intersected Main Street and a temporary station had been thrown up. Cuba remained the end of the line during the winter of 1850-51, as Irish immigrant laborers furiously excavated the cut through Prospect Street hill and built the long fill around the south edge of the village. More heavy grading was required for the approaches to the three graceful arches of stone that would carry the railroad high above Tannery Creek. Another viaduct of the same design, but not as tall, was being built over South Street, along with a stone arch spanning Griffin Creek. Meanwhile, the contractors were fast laying track from the west.
On Tuesday, April 15, the Buffalo Courier stated that it had learned “from the best authority” that the last rail would be laid “this day” and that an inspection train would take NY&E president Benjamin Loder and the directors over the completed railroad from Piermont to Dunkirk the following Monday and Tuesday. This article seems to have inspired several others that trumpeted the Erie’s completion but failed to confirm that it had actually happened. Finally, noting that NY&E stock and bonds were up sharply, the April 18 New York Tribune stated “A locomotive passed over the entire road yesterday, and the Directors will take a ride to Dunkirk on Monday next to examine the work.” The April 18 Buffalo Republic confirmed that “the last rail of the Erie railroad has been laid, and the cars will pass from the Hudson to Lake Erie on Tuesday next.”
Edward Harold’s Mott’s 1901 Between the Ocean and the Lakes: The Story of Erie is the best history of the railroad’s early years, but it gives three different dates for the last spike: April 17, 19, and 21. It is also the source of the oft-cited claim that chief engineer of construction Silas Seymour did the honors. Local sources told another story. In his 1910 Civic History and Illustrated Progress of Cuba John S. Minard stated that David Kirkpatrick and Daniel McMahon drove the last two spikes, adding that few but the workmen witnessed the event. Kirkpatrick, of Cuba, was their foreman. He went on to a 31-year career with the Erie and lived until 1903.
According to longtime station agent John A. Lanning, Kirkpatrick always maintained that he drove the last spike, and Lanning stated it as fact in articles for the Erie Railroad Magazine. Track supervisor Peter J. Keenan of Cuba, who had charge of the main line from Hornell to Cuba Junction and the River Line from Hunt to Cuba Junction, agreed. In an address to a local club, Keenan identified the location of the last spike as “on the farm now owned by John Rhow, about ½ mile west of Cuba depot” near the West Main Street crossing.
Kirkpatrick’s claim was corroborated in 1923 by John K. Chapman of Hornell, who as a fifteen-year-old boy worked with his father building the Erie in Allegany County and watched the last spike being driven. Chapman was being interviewed by the Erie Railroad Magazine because, at age 87, he was the longest-serving employee on the Erie. The old raconteur still drew a paycheck because, after a long career pulling a throttle, the company had created a job for him supervising Hornell’s yard engineers. When he died in 1931, Lanning succeeded him as the Erie’s longest-serving employee.
The directors’ inspection train chuffed out of Piermont as planned on April 21 and, following an overnight stop at Elmira, passed through Cuba and arrived at Dunkirk on the evening of April 22. Four days later the company filed with the comptroller of the State of New York Benjamin Loder’s affidavit attesting that the railroad was complete to Lake Erie.
Important as the “last spike” was for legal purposes, those who built the Erie knew that mudslides, sinkholes, washouts, and other problems would make it a work in progress for years to come. The railroad passed from the Susquehanna to the Genesee watershed at Tip Top between Alfred and Andover. The large pond there today evidently was a swamp in 1851, and the track crossed it on a causeway. On April 29, a hundred feet of it collapsed under a train spreading ballast. The crew barely escaped with their lives, and the engine kept sinking until only the smokestack and part of the cab remained visible. It was pulled out by fastening heavy ropes to a cherry tree on solid ground. People came from all over to watch as workers struggled for days to save the engine. Meanwhile, work gangs built a new roadbed on the edge of the swamp.
The inaugural excursion trains (there were two, one behind the other) carried over 300 hundred passengers led by President Millard Fillmore and several Cabinet officers. The first train arrived at the Setchel Crossing about 9:30 a.m. on May 15 and paused briefly to allow for some speechmaking and take on a delegation from Cuba. Many in the cheering crowd had come to see their first President and, even more, the famous orator Daniel Webster, who was Fillmore’s Secretary of State.
Leaving Piermont the day before, Webster rode in a rocking chair strapped to a flat car, wrapped in a heavy coat and armed with a jug of rum. He wanted to see the scenery, he said. By the second day, the 69-year-old warhorse was worn out from giving speeches at every stop, and at Cuba he refused to come out from his car. The story that Webster relented only after David Kirkpatrick ordered his men pile to ties on the track appears to be true; at least no one contradicted the big railroad builder when he told it later. Less likely is the suggestion sometimes made that Webster was too intoxicated to speak. By the time the trains arrived in Dunkirk that evening he was too ill to join the festivities, and he stayed an extra day to recuperate. He died in 1852.
President Fillmore and his entourage went on to Buffalo by lake steamer. The Erie’s excursion trains returned east May 16. Climbing to Cuba Summit, the first train slowed and finally stalled, out of steam because the green wood the engine was burning did not make a hot fire. It ground to a halt on the farm of William Bennett. Asked whether he could supply some wood, Mr. Bennett cut up some well-seasoned fence rails. As the train prepared to resume the assault on the hill, the crew threw off garbage to save weight. The champagne bottles later became collectors’ items.
Regular passenger and freight service began Monday, May 19. The first train from Dunkirk arrived at Piermont in about 17 hours. A new day had dawned for Cuba.