At one time, Pine Plains was a very busy place, with 18 trains going in and out of the town daily. The railroads transformed what had been an isolated farming community. In the days before cars and trucks, it was the railroads that brought businesses and people, some of them tourists, to Pine Plains. They made it possible for country folk to commute daily to jobs in the city. They transported bulk goods. Pine Plains on the threshold of the 20th century was a very different place than it had been 40 years before, all because of the railroads. And although they are long gone, the romance of the railroads and trains lives on.
[This page will attempt to give an introductory, high-level overview of the development of the railroads in Pine Plains, since there is already so much information available on this subject which goes into far greater depth and does it very well. See sources and suggested further reading at bottom.]
Before the Railroads
What was it like before the railroads came? Well, for long distance passenger travel on land there was the stagecoach. People tend to associate stagecoaches mostly with the American West, but they were how people got around all over before railroads. In 1830, the first stagecoach route, with a team of four horses, was established in Pine Plains, carrying both mail and passengers twice a week from Pine Plains to Poughkeepsie, returning the next day. This was along what is State Route 82 and Route 44 today. Later, it ran three times a week. It was slow (the average speed 5 miles per hour), the roads were not very good, and there was limited space. Goods were transported by horse and wagon, which was even slower. Roads gradually improved after the first macadam road in the United States was built in 1823.
Waterways were also used to transport people and goods before railroads. Packet boats which operated by sail, and then steamboats after 1807, plied the Hudson River between New York City and Albany. For communities inland such as Pine Plains, access to waterway transport meant first making the journey over land to the river.
The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 had a profound impact on the migration of peoples west and on commerce in early America, even for far away communities like Pine Plains. The canal gradually brought about a major changeover in New York farming from the production of wheat to dairy. Prior to the Erie Canal, most farmers in New York, including Pine Plains, grew wheat. But once the Erie Canal opened up, these farmers found themselves in competition with western wheat markets and many switched over to dairy farming as a result. New York soon became the heart of America's dairy industry (until Wisconsin supplanted it in the early 20th century).
Then the railroad came along. Land would have to be acquired and financial backers found. However, the safety of rail travel to both body and soul was questioned: some physicians were concerned about its effects on the human body, while some clergymen saw railroads as something akin to the devil.
Getting the Land
All forms of public transportation require the acquisition of land to support them. If homes and farms were in the proposed path of the road, canal, or train tracks, most of the time the landowner could be swayed to donate or sell his land for the "greater public good". In cases where the landowner could not be convinced to give up his land, the state had the legal right to take it without his consent, as long as the landowner received "just compensation". This is called eminent domain, and the power to exercise it is granted to the federal government in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and to New York in the state constitution. It has been challenged in court multiple times.
In many cases, however, instead of buying the land outright, the railroads acquired a right-of-way to use the land.
[This page does not address the massive federal and state land grants to railroads with the purpose of building the transcontinental railroad and settling the American West.]
Connecting the Great Lakes to New York City
The first two railroads in Dutchess County were long-distance north-south lines that originated in New York City and terminated in Albany, making several stops as they traversed through the county. They were built to take advantage of the western trade from the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal. The New York & Harlem Railroad went from Manhattan to Albany through the Harlem Valley of Dutchess County, and the Hudson River Railroad hugged the Hudson River shoreline from Manhattan to Albany. Both lines were completed by 1852.
Steamboat travel couldn't compete with the Hudson River RR. A trip by train from New York City to Poughkeepsie took 2½ hours. This was the final stop at the outset, and passengers would disembark and if going on to Albany would either take a steamboat, or in winter a stagecoach. The distance from Poughkeepsie to Albany was shorter than from New York to Poughkeepsie, yet it would take another 4½ hours by steamboat for this leg of the journey.
Getting the Money
There would be no "short lines" (that is, lines that originated and terminated within Dutchess County) for another two decades, even though there were proposals on the table. Lack of funds was a factor.
Railroads were partly financed by the local towns that would be serviced by them, and Dutchess County had been hit hard by the financial panics of 1837 and 1857. Also, the public was still in love with the idea of building canals. In 1833, an attempt to construct a railroad from Poughkeepsie through Pine Plains to the Connecticut state line failed, followed by another failed attempt in 1836. Both failed because most people wanted a canal instead. The end result was that they got neither.
The railroads had several advantages over canals. For one thing, in northern climates the waterways froze in winter, making this mode of transportation largely seasonal. Another advantage was that the railroads could go everywhere; eventually, most major cities and even small towns were serviced by a railroad.
Dutchess County was uniquely positioned to take advantage of east-west rail traffic. An intensive PR campaign was waged to convince people that investing in railroads was the right way to go. While politicking over routes led to further delay, more and more people began to support the idea of railroads.
Industry boomed after the Civil War, ushering in a new Industrial Age and creating new opportunities for growth. Soon, railroad development in Dutchess County would take off, catching up to other areas of the state. The county would ultimately have so many miles of track that they reached each of its 20 townships at least once.
Connecting Pennsylvania to New England
The pressing demand for a quicker route from the eastern Pennsylvania anthracite coal fields to New England, which needed the coal for its manufacturing and heating, was the motivation (and vision of its first president, Millbrook tycoon George H. Brown) behind the formation of the Dutchess & Columbia Railroad (D&C), completed in 1871. Connecting to the Erie Railroad in Newburgh by ferry across the Hudson River (ferrying the railroad cars) from its western terminus at Dutchess Junction south of Beacon (Fishkill Landing at the time), this line traveled northeast to Pine Plains then directly over to Millerton and the Connecticut state line where it connected to the Connecticut & Western Railroad.
Meanwhile, there was an effort underway to build another east-west railroad through Dutchess County, this one starting in Poughkeepsie. This was called the Poughkeepsie & Eastern Railroad (P&E). There was a not-so-friendly competition between this railroad and the D&C to see who would finish first, prompted by the concern that one line would take away business from the other because they were going along similar routes. In fact, some of the investors asked to invest in one were already committed to the other.
In Pine Plains, exaggerated sales pitches were used to entice wary residents to buy into the P&E, such as, "at the end of ten years the village of Pine Plains will contain five thousand inhabitants" (the population was only around 1500 by the 1880s and is around 2500 today), and the prediction that farms in Pine Plains would increase 25% in value within three years of the railroad's completion.
The P&E was finally completed in 1872, running from Poughkeepsie northeast to Pine Plains, then into Columbia County a short distance before coming back down to State Line east of Millerton, where it made its connections with Connecticut lines.
What Happened Next?
Now that Dutchess County had two short-line railroads which it had worked so hard and long to secure, what happened next?
Unfortunately, the history of these short-lines in Dutchess County is a chronicle of financial failures and reorganizations.
Sources and Suggested Further Reading:
History of the Little Nine Partners, by Isaac Huntting, Chas. Walsh & Co., Amenia, NY, 1897
Pine Plains and the Railroads, by Lyndon A. Haight, a LNPHS publication, 1976
Associated of American Railroads: "Chronology of Railroading in America"
New York State Dept. of Transportation: "History of Railroads in New York"
"Dutchess County Railroads", by William P. McDermott
Rich's PedalPoint: "Retracing Abandoned Railroads in Dutchess County"
"The Lost Railroads of Pine Plains", a talk by Bernie Rudberg
"History of Dutchess County", edited by Frank Hasbrouck, published by S.A. Matthieu, Poughkeepsie, NY, 1909
Parks and Trails New York: "Getting on Track: Working with Railroads to Build Trails in New York"
Railroads and Clearcuts: "Taking Back Our Land: A History of Land Grant Reform"
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal: "Canal Discovery: Eminent Domain"