"The Shawmut Through Richburg"
by Don Cady
Just after 1900, my grandfather Elias Cady erected the trestle posts around the valley now called Cadytown just north of Richburg. He had come to the area from the Ulysses Pa. area as a boy to work on a farm and his first job was to freight wooden oil tanks to Whitesville, leaving at 4 A.M. and walking beside the wagon the whole way. The next day he would deliver to the oil field and return to Richburg, walking to keep warm.
But that's another story.
The Shawmut Railroad was built primarily to move coal from the Pa. coal areas to Buffalo . The line terminated in Wayland where the load was assumed by others. Technical data and dates are available in books so I will relate some local lore as told by some who preceded it and outlasted it, as well as my own memories.
Passenger service was a plus, and haste was made to access the people of Richburg which were many at the time. The "Trolley Car Service" had plans to run track up from Bolivar and preclude the railroad, but under cover of darkness the Shawmut men brought two rails and dug them in across the dirt highway. The first team and wagon to go over them established a legal right of way which could not be crossed by other rails. The Shawmut could have made the grade up the West Notch according to many. It would have been very difficult as to grade and the low nature of the village, with so many residential properties to acquire.
So the above right of way and surveys caused the valley above Richburg to have a trestle in a horseshoe that was mostly backfilled with shale and sandstone dug out of the hillside with a steam shovel and backed out on narrow gauge rails by a donkey engine. Two large culverts were needed for the East Notch Road and Little Genesee Creek, a trestle over Pleasant Vallley (Hell Hollow), and many smaller ones for ravines and spring runs. The East Notch Culvert was barely wide enough for two cars, which slowed traffic and instilled caution. When the road was closed this summer from bridge washouts I recalled those slower days with little traffic.
Finally the trains started rolling. Dried grass in the spring caused many fires and even today the timber recently cut is mostly hollow from damage that was healed over. Cowcatchers were just that and the management refused to fence the right of way. Once a boiler exploded and the fireman or tender was scalded and brought down to my Grandparents house where he died. But most cattle and children and others learned caution; northbound trains were slow with heavy loads and steep grade. Often we would see a pusher engine behind.
The line was bankrupt and in receivership almost from the start, and by 1946 labor reform shut down the Shawmut Mines in Pa. and that finished things. But World Wars deemed it vital to production of steel so it was propped up by the government, and I suppose the same through the Great Depression.
It helped some neighbors through some tough times as the boys would hop the slow train on one side of the valley and throw coal off as fast as they could and later gather it in buckets for the nightly fuel. Most train personel ignored it, knowing how a family might suffer if made to stop. But one time the neighbor came and asked Grandpa to bring a small load of coal the next day but he would pay now and wanted a receipt. On questioning he said he had been reported and a railroad detective was on the way. He would not have known that without a local Shawmut employee telling him. As it was, the father and his teenage daughter died of pneumonia after that, leaving a widow with three boys and two girls. This was before antibiotics, about 1935.
When I have too many complaints I project back to those depression days! Hunger and cold for many as we were more fortunate with a farm and food. We played with axes and tools, some of which are still missing! Toys and bicycles and such from other generations and some new ones handmade or bought when possible. We could not have had better parents and neighbors.
One day I came home from school after trains had been discontinued and we watched huge machinery picking up the rails. Spikes are still scattered all about as well as a few rejected ties. The best were taken away and the others left to rot. This was about 1947, and before 1990 I met a Mr. Sturdevant from Scio at the Steam Exhibit of the County Fair in Angelica. Told him where I lived and he said he was on those trains and remembered seeing kids all over this valley and waved back at us. I think he was past ninety and had a stroke that disabled his hands, and proudly showed a wire hook he fashioned to button his shirt. Such were the clever and pleasant men of that generation, with solid work ethics and independence.
We used to watch the hand levered work carts go along the tracks for repair and inspection and wish we could ride. It looked so easy but I imagine it was very tiring. I ponder the passing of them and their time when I find the spikes or occasional adze or axe head or see the fallen telegraph wire grown into trees. And something about a railroad makes one want to walk it to infinity or the end of the line but the perverse planner set the ties just a little too close for the average person!
Many did follow the line. Probably safer and quieter and certainly more level than highways. We used to suspiciously eye the occasional "King of the Road" that would bisect the loop to ask Grandma for a handout. Most were very polite and one left a quarter, which was the price of a meal then. Charity literally began at home as far as we were concerned. Tresspass was an unknown concept; from one point to another you simply picked the best way. Politely.
I have known several people who lived near Richburg who rode the train to Friendship to attend school. A stop was made on the West Notch and another in Nile . Several miles by rail beat a much shorter distance on foot to Richburg. You could board the train at Richburg for excursions to Riverside Park in Olean or to Stonybrook Park and other places.
Today the crumbling culvert that dams the Rod and Gun Club pond is about the only one left. The one over the road was removed as was the trestle of Pleasant Valley . Just south of that is a wide area where gasoline was piped down from there into tank cars that were pulled away when filled. I recall the switch there but the casinghead gasoline was before my time. Many who ride snowmobiles and atvs around the valley don't even realize what they are traveling over, and wonder at the holes I fill with rocks as the trestle timbers slowly disintegrate underground. The slopes where the brush was cut back every few years are now covered with mature trees and undergrowth.
The railroad is missed with all its faults. Children and cows are in short supply. With the Shawmut gone and the Powerhouses of the oil fields vanished it seems almost too quiet and peaceful. It appears that the demise of the Shawmut was a harbinger of other things to come to this area? A good place to visit if you bring your lunch, or a good place to live if you can find a vocation.
I think the State and County governments and schools are about the largest employers today and will endure the longest, perhaps serving the public even after it's gone, or at least growing in inverse proportion to the population.
Don Cady 18 December 2003
copyright ©2003 Donald L. Cady