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Birth of an Adirondack Railroad

That was the message of the Johnsburg Historical Societys annual Presidents Day presentation held Monday, Feb. 19 at Wevertown Hall. Several JHS members served as speakers and actors offering insight into Thomas Clark Durants life and the impact of his Adirondack Railroad. JHS President Lyle Dye opened the 2 p.m. session with a welcome to the 50 in attendance. In keeping with the theme of the days presentation, Dye and several other JHS members sported blue-and white striped railroad hats and bright red neckerchiefs. Dye turned over the floor to Milda Burns of North River, who offered introductory remarks on Durant and noted that she would be focusing on how he built the railroad from Saratoga to North Creek. I want people to know about that, Burns commented. Dr. Durant Pays a Visit First, however, to assist her in the storytelling, Burns called on Dr. Durant himself (aka Johnsburg resident and JHS member Glenn Pearsall) for insight into Durants national railroad schemes. Pearsall offered an overview of Durants life. Born Feb. 6, 1820 in Lee, Mass., Durant graduated from Albany Medical College at age 20. He went on to lead a life focused not on medicine, but on the railroad business. In the 1850s, Durant was involved in establishing the Michigan Southern and Chicago and Rock Island railroads, and in 1854, started the Missouri and Mississippi Railroad. Little track of that railroad was ever laid, but this enterprise enabled me to make a fortune smuggling contraband cotton from the Confederate states during the Civil War, said speaker Pearsall in character as Dr. Durant. These profits I was able to parlay into a scheme to control the Union Pacific Railroad. Though the government heavily subsidized installation of track laid for the U.S. transcontinental railroad, Durant moved to further ensure his profits by setting up a construction company, the infamous Credit Mobilier, and hired it to build the railroad. As that companys president and the largest shareholder, Durant charged and received inflated construction rates, allowing his company to earn huge profits and distribute major dividends. Some directors of the Union Pacific then tried to depose me from leadership of the company, but I blackmailed these individuals, threatening to disclose what I knew about some of their private dealings. These excesses have been described as the greatest financial and political scandal of the 19th century, related Pearsall, speaking as Dr. Durant. Back to Durants work in bringing the railroad to the Adirondacks in the 1860s, Burns explained that Durant bought a right-of-way from Saratoga Springs to North Creek, originally intending to take the line all the way to Sacketts Harbor in the northwest part of the state. The track was constructed from Saratoga to Corinth, on to Hadley and northward to Riparius, and then the steam engine finally arrived in North Creek in 1871. He built a station and opened it up, said Burns. Durant had a home known as The Gables near the North Creek station. He was a stickler for efficient operations, said Burns: He insisted everything be on time. A tremendous amount of things were shipped in and out of North Creek, from garnet to lumber and maple syrup, said Burns. There were two trains a day, in and out. Durant also ran the stagecoaches used to transport visitors from North Creek to Indian Lake and Blue Mt. Lake. Soon, famous names such as the Vanderbilts and Morgans came to visit and summer here and build homes in the region. William West Durant, Thomas Durants son, constructed many of these Great Camps in the late 1800s. From artist Winslow Homer to inventor Thomas Edison and auto magnate Henry Ford, the Adirondacks drew numerous notable figures, thanks to the access provided by Durants railroad to North Creek. Railroads Economic Impact The influx of visitors and new residents had a significant impact on the region, noted another speaker, Sue Rawson of North Creek. That railroad gave us the opportunity to keep up with the changing economy, she said. Construction of the Great Camps called for local laborers to fill such positions as stonemasons, carpenters, camp caretakers, and cooks. Sawmills were in demand, and lumbermen had plenty of work. Local families ran hotels and dining rooms. Rawson discussed the life of the prominent Waddell family in Johnsburg, focusing on William R. Waddell, a contemporary of William West Durant. William Waddell was elected Johnsburg town supervisor at age 24 and chaired the Warren County Board of Supervisors. In 1901, he bought property near the train depot for barns to house horses and mules, and to stock and sell hay and grain. He also bought cattle and lamb, Rawson explained. A slaughterhouse was established in North Creek with meat provided to the hotels in North River. And Waddell, with the Durants, also ran the stagecoach line out of North Creek. He not only provided transportation, he was also providing the meals, Rawson pointed out. He had a lot of things going on. Waddell also served as a state assemblyman, and later made the transition from the stagecoach to the motorcar business in Johnsburg. There were many dynamic people living in this area, Rawson noted. Thank goodness the railroad came! she said about the many jobs that came along with it. Rawson credited several local women, from her mother-in-law, Norma Rawson, and Milda Burns to Johnsburg historian Doris Patton, Joan Reynolds, and Helen Hutchins in assisting with her local genealogy research. Durants Final Scheme Back for one final appearance, Glenn Pearsall, as Dr. Durant, wrapped up the summary of his local railroading efforts. Black Friday of 1873 triggered a six-year national depression and devastated many businesses, including my railroad. In February of 1875, the railroad was declared insolvent and I was able to get myself appointed receiverthe railroad had originally been bonded for $6 million, but was sold at foreclosure proceedings at Saratoga Springs to William West Durant (my son), and William Sutphen, for $350,000, exclusive of a half million dollar mortgage, continued Pearsall. The mortgage was from the Judge Rosekrans and Cheney Estates, interestingly enough controlled by me. By having the railroad declared bankrupt, I was able to cleverly get rid of all shareholders equity and bond debt, yet still retain, for all intents and purposes, personal control of the Adirondack Railroad, concluded Pearsall. Summing up the presentation, Burns commented, Dr. Durant must be judged in the light of his time, noting that he was one of Americas outstanding builders.

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