Early Railroad in Cairo a Failure

By Grace Story Webber, Cairo Township Historian
Published in the Catskill Daily Mail October 1, 1952


Newspaper article courtesy of Linda Larsen. Transcribed by Arlene Goodwin


(Editor’s Note: This is the 11th in a series of article on the history of the Town of Cairo, prepared by Mrs. Webber.)

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In the seventh article, we learned that James Baker of Woodstock was the only Patroon who settled on his patent and the first religious service, the Episcopal, was the first conducted in the township and this was in his house by the Patroon and his wife, Elizabeth.

If records had only been preserved so that we could know what happened in these early times, how interesting history would be!

James Barker and his 23 tenant-families with his white and black slaves settled in Woodstock between 1764 and 1767. There was a saw-mill, a grist mill, a tannery and many other crafts, including spinning of wool and flax. This was a happy hamlet.

Let us build a word picture of what might have happened in these 25 years. We know that Mr. Barker had two sons and five daughters that grew up, married and had families. He had 40 grandchildren and he gave each 200 acres of land, and as far as is known, they all had large families.

"In 1791, Elizabeth Barker, the Patroon’s wife, acquired a grant of 400 acres of land on the plains of Taghkight, and Magquamsick above Potick between the two creeks" in the township of Cairo today known as Indian Ridge. In May 18, 1796, Mrs. Barker died and was buried in the Barker Cemetery at Woodstock. The water of The Light and Power Company’s Dam now covers the cemetery and the stones have been moved to the west side of that lake. We can assume that the Barker family lived here at their home in Woodstock, these 30 years.

Many Changes Noted

Around the turn of the century, there were many changes. On March 25, 1800, the county of Greene was formed from the counties of Albany and Ulster. The King’s Highway, which was built in 1703, had made a great change in the lives of the people but the Woodstock, and Durham Turnpike and the Susquehanna Turnpike which were built in 1801 made even greater changes. As early as 1800, the Canton Bridge Co., erected a bridge across the creek at Woodstock at public expense, which in 1810 broke down with a drove of cattle, 30 of which were killed. The bridge was rebuilt the same year.

In 1806, Montgomery Stevens acquired and operated a distillery for 15 years at Woodstock as well as carrying on businesses in other places. Before 1816, the old grist and saw mill was destroyed by fire.

This was a great blow to the settlement, as they supplied sawed lumber to the people of Cairo and surrounding country as well as grinding the grain of the many outlying farmers.

Moses Austin who was a prosperous business man of Durham, formerly of Wallington, Conn., built a woolen mill here, for the manufacture of woolen cloth in 1816. The property changed ownership several times, Hon. Lyman Treman being among the number of owners. Mr. Austin was engaged in various business enterprises and became very wealthy. He was, at one time Judge of the Court of Common Pleas and in 1819-22 was one of the members of the New York State Senate. He had a large family. Two of his daughters and one son lived in Cairo and Mr. Austin spent the evening of his life here. He died on the 2nd day of May, 1846, aged 80 years.

James Barker died in 1820 but previous to that time he had lived on The Patroon Place in East Durham owned by Stephen S. Hedges. The place today is owned and occupied by one of his descendants, Clarence H. Jennings. From The Patroon Place, Mr. Barker went to live with Obadiah Every, then living at Durham, who was one of the first tenants and settlers to come to Woodstock. Mr. Barker was buried in the Hedges Cemetery, a rich man but with no stone to mark his last resting place. One of the stories told of the Patroon was that the property he owned in America was a garden spot to that he owned in England, some of it being in the heart of London. Another was that he had many things sent over from his home in England and when one of the consignments was on its way one of the ships on which was the gold plate went down during a great storm.

The next definite knowledge we have of Woodstock is that a scheme to construct a railroad from Catskill to the West was "incorporated April 21st, 1828 for the purpose to transport, take and carry property and person, by power, and force of steam, of animals, or any mechanical or other power, or of any combination of them."

Project Failed

The capital stock was fixed at $50 a share. This seems to have failed for April 19, 1830, The Canajoharie and Catskill Rail Road was incorporated with the capital stock the same as The Catskill and Ithaca Rail Road had been.

The company was organized and ready for business early in the summer of 1835, but nothing was done on the road except the surveying. One of these surveyors was a young man by the name of Charles McWilliams. We will hear about him later.

The road was completed from Catskill to Cooksburgh, a distance of 26 miles. The stringers which rested on the cross-ties were of Norway pine, five by six inches in size. An iron strap about five-eights of an inch in thickness and two or three inches wide nailed upon each stringer formed the rail. Lester Story has a souvener of these rails.

In 1882, The Catskill Mountain Railroad followed the old road-bed of The Canajoharie and Catskill Rail Road as far as South Cario. In Cairo, The Canajoharie and Catskill Railroad ran through the property of William Dyce on Bross St., and the house of Charles Fisher on the Freehold Road was the old Railroad Station. There the road turned, following the bluff to Woodstock and then ran north through Patroon Barker’s property to the township of Durham and so on to Cooksburgh, where it ended.

In the hamlet of Woodstock, the legend runs, the women would run out with an armful of wood as the train went through to help replenish the fuel supply.

The railroad was not a success.

In an old letter which was written by one of the McWilliam’s family we read "Grandpa (Charles McWilliams) came into it" (the property at Woodstock) because he became identified with the Tannery Business plus Surveying for Vanderbilt and surveying for the R. R. to Buffalo." The property is still owned by a descendant of the McWilliams, C. F. McQuaid of Chicago, Ill.

On Jan. 2nd, 1840, Charles McWilliams married Mary O’Hara, daughter of Levi O’Hara of Greenville, and they settled at Woodstock in the previous home of Patroon Barker. Mr. O’Hara was a very ardent Catholic and initiated the first priests visiting this locality and the holding of services in the home of his daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. McWilliams, at Woodstock.

The next article will be on the history of Catholic Church of Cairo.


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