Imprinted in the Hudson Valley; Early Train Development Connects People and Places

By Sarah Muskin

In the early nineteenth century railroads began to emerge as a major transportation means in the Hudson Valley. Many originally acted as supplements to the canals in New York State, which had been a method of transport for natural resources located upstate like timber, or coal. When the locomotive was invented in the 1820s industrial transportation became faster. The first chartered railroad built in New York State was the Mohawk and Hudson line, which was fully constructed by 1831. The cities this rail served were Albany and Schenectady. In fact the line was renamed after these cities later in 1847.  This steam railroad was built to work as the hypotenuse between Albany and Schenectady along the Erie Canal[1]. The rail significantly decreased travel time of people and goods moving between the two cities. As use of this locomotive increased and its success story spread, industrial trains became a sensation in the Hudson Valley. Increasing numbers of railways were built, and by the 1840s wealthy entrepreneurs became interested in the growing industry. When big businessmen began dominating the railroad business, train use increased more rapidly and many lines began to replace canals. By late century, trains became a commodity as well as a tool. What initially began as a significant innovation for industrial development in the Hudson Valley, soon transitioned into a common service for transportation, tourism and travel.

As mentioned, railroads were constructed all over New York State by mid-century. There were two specific lines that particularly impacted the landscape of the Hudson Valley. These lines were the Hudson Division of the New York Central System, and the Delaware and Hudson. The New York Central System serves as a case where an industrialist developed and grew a railroad corporation, and The D&H line is a prime example of a rail line that replaced a canal for industrial transport. These rails each impacted the land around them in terms of both industry and human use, and in regards to disruption of the idyllic backlands in the valley.

The Hudson Division of the New York Central was opened for use in 1846 along the East side of the river. Wealthy men in the Poughkeepsie area including Matthew Vassar, C. Appleton, T. Davies, C. Grooke, D. Lent, and seven others contracted this line four years earlier in1842. They hired the civil engineer R.P. Morgan to survey the location of the rail and organize construction. He made a report of his findings to these eleven executives. In his report he discussed exactly where the tracks would be laid from Albany to New York and over what land they would travel. For example he mentioned a difficult place for construction when he said, “half a mile south of the State prison is a rocky promontory, forming a bay below it of considerable extent; but the estimate for this section allows of sufficient excavation in the rock to form a facing to the embankment across the bay, and includes the excavation.”[2] He also compared the elevation change of the proposed rail and track distance to very successful railroads already built in London and Boston. Further, he listed exactly how much the project should cost per mile of track laid[3]. The most interesting portion of his report though, was how optimistically he portrayed this project. He described the Hudson line as a business opportunity that would connect New York City capitalism to the Hudson Valley. He felt the executive committee would be foolish not to implement the project immediately, for the Hudson population was longing for this advancement. He did not idolize the countryside; instead, he only focused on the plentiful resources:

“The citizens of New-York and capitalists will look at the [Hudson Division] unbiased by local feeling, they will see the absurdity of jeopardizing their own interest for the imaginary advantage of opening as many lines of communication to the interior as possible. The valley of the Oblong on the eastern route, is a fine country; but on the line I have now surveyed, the country within its sphere is equally fertile, three times as extensive, and would yield a far more abundant supply to the New-York markets at quite as cheap a rate.”[4]

This quotation also hints at a debate over where the route would run, either over an eastern area, or immediately along the river. The rail was built right along the Hudson though, and in fact lived up to many of Morgan’s hopes for its use.

In 1864 the Hudson Division was incorporated into the New York Central system by Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt was an extremely wealthy entrepreneur from New York City. He began his career as a ferryboat operator, but soon began collecting ownership of many railway lines.[5] The Hudson Division along with the entire New York Central System brought him his even greater fortune. In 1876, the New York Central System encompassed the New York and Harlem, Lake Shore and Michigan Southern, Canada Southern and Michigan Central railway. Vanderbilt continued to amass his monopoly of railroads in the Northeast.

New York Central System 1876


New York Central System 1900

New York Central System 1900

By the 1900s New York trains were some of the most well known in the country. Travellers from all over chose to ride on New York Central trains including the Hudson Division, which was extremely successful early on as Morgan anticipated. For this reason the Hudson Division railroad serves as an excellent example of how in the 1800s railroads impacted the land in the Hudson Valley by making it available and convenient to be exploited for its natural resources. It also shows how, though initially intended to transport goods, the Hudson rail soon became an everyday commuter rail, taking millions of people into New York City from upstate. This is true of many New York trails, especially those leading into the Catskills. Trains were a commonly used means of human transportation by the turn of the century. Railroad use changed life in the Hudson Valley, from transportation ease; to the way robber barons like Vanderbilt lived and dominated business.

Another breed of railways constructed at this time were trains for purely industrial purposed. The Delaware and Hudson line was one such train. Before the idea to construct the D&H rail was conceived, the Delaware and Hudson Canal was extremely active. The canal primarily transported anthracite coal from the woods of Pennsylvania to Kingston, NY. The trip could take up to a couple of months, but it was still a successful and efficient means of transportation.  In the 1860s though, the first section of a D&H railroad was constructed nearby the canal[6]. Train transportation was faster and more expensive to use, but with the industrial revolution providing monetary means and the inconsistency of canals due to seasonal and weather changes, businessmen opted to use the train. The less advanced canal system service therefore began to decline. By 1872, even Dickinson, the devoted president of the D&H Canal Company, “proposed the idea of abandoning the canal and substituting it with a railroad along the towpath in its place”.[7] He felt that in order to maintain business, the D&H Canal needed to evolve to compete with the railroad businesses growing around them. Over the course of the next twenty years, the D&H canal purchased and implemented railways all along their canal. Finally, in 1899 the canal was drained and it shut down permanently. The company was sold to new management and renamed to the Delaware and Hudson Company. Under the leadership of S. Coykendall the company continued to transport coal and other goods through a complex network of trains leading towards the Hudson Valley.[8] The company lasted for another hundred or so years as an industrial train, but eventually declined and use halted. The line fell to disrepair for a while, but recently other train companies have bought sections of the track to incorporate into their own.

In the Hudson Valley today, there is still evidence of these trains built in the1800s. The indication of these old trains could be the Hudson Division line (which now serves the Metro-North and Amtrak), the Walkway-over-the-Hudson bridge in Poughkeepsie (a rail bridge developed into a state park), or any of the numerous rail trails in the area. All these remnants serve as relics of an earlier time, when trains were first built for industry, then exploited by businessmen to create an intricate transportation system particularly in the Hudson Valley. Trains in the Hudson Valley connected businesses and resources to New York City just quick enough to surpass both canal and boat transportation use. The building of train tracks led to the downfall of canal industries and barge transport, but paved the way for human transportation that had never before been experienced. Train tracks built in the nineteenth century left a print on the land in the Hudson Valley that would remain for a long time.



“The Mohawk And Hudson Railroad.” American American, n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2013. <>.

Morgan, Richard P. Report to the Hudson River Railroad Committee. Poughkeepsie: Egbert B. Killey, 1842.

“Our Historic Route.” Catskill Mountain Railroad. Catskill Mountain Railroad, n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2013. <>.

Parker, William. “Railroad Titans.” Trains, 58 no. 7 (1998): 36-41.

Shaughnessy, Jim. Delaware & Hudson: The History of an Important Railroad Whose Antecedent Was a Canal Network to Transport Coal. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1997.

“The Hudson Division.” New York Central System Historical Society, Inc. New York Central System, n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2013. <>.


[1] American, “The Mohawk And Hudson Railroad.” American <> (accessed 22 April 2013).

[2] Morgan, Richard P. Report to the Hudson River Railroad Committee. (Poughkeepsie: Egbert B. Killey, 1842) 3.

[3] Morgan, Report to the Hudson River Railroad Committee, 7-9.

[4] Morgan, Report to the Hudson River Railroad Committee, 102.

[5] William Parker, “Railroad Titans,” Trains 58, no. 7 (1998), 37.

[6] Jim Shaugnessy, Delaware & Hudson: The History of an Important Railroad Whose Antecedent Was a Canal Network to Transport Coal (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1997),169.

[7] Shaugnessy, Delaware & Hudson: The History of an Important Railroad Whose Antecedent Was a Canal Network to Transport Coal, 171.

[8] Shaugnessy, Delaware & Hudson: The History of an Important Railroad Whose Antecedent Was a Canal Network to Transport Coal, 172, 195.

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