The Story of Mitchell S. Blair
By Richard F. Palmer
Mitchell S. Blair is shown here with his wife, Harriet, presumably taken at their home in Hornellsville. He died April 14, 1902. She survived him by 16 years and died March 3, 1918 in St. Louis, Mo. The family is buried in Until the Day Dawn Cemetery Angelica. (Photo from archives of Pittsburg Shawmut & Northern Railroad Historical Society, Angelica NY)
(Note: Very little has been written about this man who played a very important role in
the development and operation of the early railroads that later formed the Pittsburg, Shawmut & Northern. This article is an effort to give Mitchell S. Blair his rightful place in the history of this enterprise).
With the death of Mitchell S. Blair, General Superintendent of the Pittsburg, Shawmut and Northern Railroad, we feel as if we have lost a dear father, as does nearly every man in his employ or associated with him in any capacity whatsoever - Portville Autograph, Friday, April 18, 1902.
One of the most noteworthy men who helped create the Pittsburg, Shawmut & Northern out of a complicated web of rail lines in western New York was Mitchell S. Blair, who for a short time before his death served as General Superintendent. For many years these old properties with a variety of names had been on the verge of collapse, some having done so. But by personal effort and the cooperation of the men that were under him, Blair pulled the system of old lines "out of the mud."
He was an exceptional railroad man who knew the business well. He was involved in most of the railroad developments that led to the formation of the Shawmut. As early as 1881 he was on the board of directors of the Allegany Central, a narrow gauge line built from Friendship to Swains, a distance of 31 miles. In 1883 he is listed a one of the directors of the "second" Lackawanna and Pittsburgh. This company owned and operated 45 miles of standard gauge road between Belfast Junction and Perkinsville, and 42 miles of three-foot gauge between Olean and Angelica. When financial problems set in, on September 9, 1890, Blair was named receiver of this line, by now called the Rochester, Hornellsville & Lackawanna.
When this railroad took on the new name of the Central New York & Western in 1892, Blair was promoted from auditor to superintendent. He gave great attention to detail and made sure every penny was accounted for. The Bolivar Breeze of March 31, 1893 reported: "General Superintendent Blair of the C.N.Y. & W. was in town Saturday. In conversation with a reporter he stated that the company now owns nine standard gauge engines, and that a few days ago he purchased a string of new boxcars and three new standard gauge passenger coaches. Over 100,000 new ties have been contracted for and all indications point to a broad gauge railroad. Supt. Blair stated that the new rolling stock was purchased for cash and that everything pointed to the fact that the present owners of the C.N.Y. & W. mean business. The gauge cannot be widened too soon to suit the shippers and the rest of the folks along the line."
Within a year the narrow gauge portion of the line had been rebuilt as standard gauge. The narrow gauge between Bolivar and Nile was dismantled in Dec. 1893, and the apparently unneeded standard gauge connection between Angelica and Belfast Junction was ripped up in June 1894, including a bridge over the Genesee River. "There is more travel on the Central New York & Western between Bolivar and Olean than many suppose," it was reported in the Bolivar Breeze on December 15, 1893. " Conductor 'Jack' McLaughlin's cash fares average about $400 a month, and the receipts of the ticket offices and the sales of mileage books must amount to as much more. It is doubtful if there is a more accommodating or gentlemanly set of employees in the employ of any road in the country than the C.N.Y. & W. can boast of. From General Superintendent Blair to Brakeman Laffin they are courteous and accommodating. It is simply another illustration of the value of civility in business." When the railroad was so deeply "in the hole" it could barely operate, it is said
Blair personally dug into his own wallet to keep the line in operation. Little by little Blair was able to put the railroad on its feet. The editor of the Portville Autograph recalled on April 18, 1902 that Blair "not only had to be the chief engineer of everything, but he had to look pretty sharp to see where the money was coming from to pay all the bills at the close of each month." He would not contract a bill he could not meet. "As matters righted themselves he was placed in charge of the entire property. He was a hard working official of the highest ability. The Shawmut is indebted to him for its present prosperity."
Blair got along very well with the men who worked for him. The Bolivar Breeze noted on Friday, January 10, 1896:
"A pleasant event transpired in the Central New York and Western station at Bolivar shortly after noon on Tuesday. It was the presentation to General Superintendent Mitchell S. Blair of a gold-headed cane by the employees of the narrow gauge division. The cane was a dry fine one, handsomely chased, suitably engraved, and valued at $25. Since Mr. Blair was placed in charge of the C.N.Y. & W. the relations between the officials and employees have been very friendly and the employees appreciating Mr. Blair's uniform courtesy and fairness decided to forcibly remind him that they were pleased with his administration of the affairs of the road. Mr. Blair was much surprised at the gift and heartily thanked the donors. Mr. Blair is one of the most popular of railroad men and it is little by plays like this that makes life worth living."
A short time later, on January 26 at the passenger station in Hornellsville, the employees of the standard gauge division presented Blair with an engraved gold watch. He was completely surprised and overcome. Commenting on the improved condition of the railroad, he said outsiders referred to it as "consisting of the right of way and two streaks of rust, but by hard work it has been brought to a respectable condition with very flattering prospects for the future." This was due, he said, not only to good management but with the cooperation of employees of the road. Then, Mrs. Blair was presented with an attractive gold ring set with diamonds and rubies as a token of appreciation of the many courtesies received by railroad employees by the Blair’s.
Mitchell S. Blair was born December 15, 1838 in Durham, Greene County, N.Y. At the age of 13 he came with his parents to Angelica, where his father was pastor of the Presbyterian Church. In October 1850, he became associated with William Franklin in the operation of one the largest grist mills in Allegany County. He married Harriet Denison of Forestville, N.Y. on December 23, 1860. He was appointed postmaster of Angelica in 1879. They had two sons, Charles E. and Frank S., and a daughter, Mary. She graduated from Vassar College and was a teacher in Hornellsville schools.
Blair was very much involved in the formative years of the Pittsburg, Shawmut & Northern that was largely a reorganization of the Central New York & Western. This was largely the result of three years of work by a syndicate headed by Major John Byrne of New York that resulted in the consolidation of six short lines in western New York and northern Pennsylvania. Blair was a personal friend of Byrne and was appointed general superintendent of the new company. At the same time, another friend of Byrne, Charles
H. Hammond was appointed general passenger agent. * “Loyalty goes for a great deal in the railroad business," reported the Bolivar Breeze on August 17, 1899, "especially
when that loyalty is directed toward a man of the John Byrne stamp, and we firmly believe it will receive its reward in the case of Messrs. Blair and Hammond, who have never wavered in their allegiance to the man they linked their fortunes with a dozen or more years ago. Both are able railroad men, and it can be truthfully said of them that the building up of the Central New York & Western railroad and its present prosperous condition is due very largely to their unceasing efforts, which have at all times been well directed and wonderfully successful."
At the age of 64, Blair was still going strong when he became seriously ill from a carbuncle on his neck. Physicians had treated him, but blood poisoning set in. He died on April 14, 1902 at his home. It was a sad time on the P.S. & N. A special train with some 100 employees aboard came from Hornell, via Nunda Junction, to attend the funeral service. The train was drawn by engine #8 in charge of Engineer Silas Wheeler, Conductor P. Clancey, and Trainmen William Dumjohn and George McLaughlin. The engine and cars were appropriately decorated. Among those aboard the train were President John Byrne, Vice President and General Counsel Frank Sullivan Smith; B.E. Cartwright, Fourth Vice President and Coal Agent; C.A. Deer, Engineer, and W. H. Hufstader, Trainmaster, of Hornellsville.
It is said this was the largest funeral service ever held in Hornellsville. Subsequently a special train took the remains to Angelica for burial. Mrs. Blair died March 3, 1918. At the time she resided in St. Louis, Mo. Her remains were returned to Angelica and she is buried next to her husband and two sons in Until The Day Dawn Cemetery.