o&w station Up in the forests and brambles of upstate New York, there’s a tangle of bike pathways, nature trails and ecological areas that mask an interesting historical secret. Where suburbanites bike and jog today used to be working railroads back in the 19th and first half of the 20th century. You wouldn’t know it even by seeing abandoned relics like the antique railroad stop at Port Ben that you see at the top of this page, but these overgrown and reclaimed pieces were once the guts of a full-blown railway system, the New York, Ontario & Western (known mostly as O&W), which to date remains the only railroad totally abandoned in United States history.

The final abandonment happened 57 years ago today, on March 29, 1957, when a federal bankruptcy order closing down the last of the O&W’s operations took effect. But the decline of the O&W began long before that. It was a troubled railroad from the start. When its first branch opened in 1869–the year the transcontinental rail system was first opened–the O&W, which sought to link the forested, mountainous upper reaches of New York State to the commercial centers on the Hudson River, anticipated demand. That’s a fancy way of saying that they built an expensive railroad but there weren’t enough passengers or commercial customers who needed to use it to make it profitable. Indeed, chicanery by the O&W in acquiring land for the rights-of-way alienated residents of some of the small towns in this region, and in the 1870s a few sections of track were even torn up to prevent the railroad from operating. The railroad’s financial backers forged ahead, confident that the demand would eventually catch up.

This sort of thing was a constant problem in the 1870s and 1880s. Far from being a robust industrial infrastructure that “built the West,” as is commonly believed by most Americans, the railroad system expanded too fast, cost too much and was terribly unprofitable. Railroad companies continually required massive bailouts from the federal government to stay afloat, and mismanagement of railroads basically caused the Panic of 1873, the most severe depression in U.S. history up until that time, in much the same way that banking and mortgage incompetence caused the recent financial crash of 2008. The O&W finally did manage to get some paying customers when it expanded its lines to reach coal fields. But it was always teetering on the brink.

o&w coach

This is what an O&W passenger coach looked like probably in the 1920s or early 1930s.

In the early part of the 20th century, the Catskill Mountain resorts began to boom, packed with wealthy middle class New Yorkers (especially Jews). Thus the O&W had its heyday of sorts in this period. The Great Depression, though, emptied the Catskill resorts. The O&W couldn’t afford to keep pace with technology. It replaced its old steam locomotives with diesel engines in 1941 but aside from that it remained a throwback to the 19th century. An attempt to reinvent itself as a luxury passenger railroad in the 1940s failed. After World War II its lines and service shrank to the point where it was operating only one small passenger line, and only in the summer. In the 1950s it finally went under–its lines and infrastructure so useless with the passage of time that they weren’t valuable to other railroads. Thus, everything was abandoned.

Today rusty bits of track and old abandoned stations line the routes where the O&W once operated. The human race has probably built and abandoned far more infrastructure in its history than is operational at the present time, and the quiet remains of the O&W are a testament to a bygone age.

The photo of the old O&W station at Port Ben, NY is by Daniel Case and is used under GNU Free Documentation License. The picture of the passenger coach is in the public domain, but provided by Cornell University Archives.