The following is taken from "Ilion 1852-1952." We thank the Mayor and other officials of Ilion for granting us permission to provide this information to our visitors.
In the 1850's the little settlement on the Mohawk River was ideally located, from the standpoint of transportation. The Erie Canal provided cheap water conveyance and the Utica-Schenectedy Railroad (now the New York Central), a more rapid method by land. There was an epidemic of plank road-laying in 1850. The Utica-Frankfort Company extended through Ilion. John Rasbach, that illustrious village forefather, was the instigator of the laying of a road to the railroad and with Lawrence L. Merry, the establishment of passenger and freight depots. Thirteen trains a day stopped at the New York Central station in 1871.
With the laying of the West Shore in 1881, and the building of its depot and freight house on River Street, an increase in business resulted.
The first records of a "bus" of any kind connected with Ilion may be found in an 1859 issue of the Herkimer Democrat. To quote: "The diver of the stage running from Winfield to Ilion had a narrow escape on Monday. When the stage reached Ilion, he was frozen stiff upon the box, and unable to move at all. He was removed inside, and efforts were made to revive and restore him. After half an hour's hard work, the man was brought back to the consistence of elasticity and life."
There was an omnibus line from Ilion to the depot as early as 1865. The depot bus was a round-top canvass covered vehicle, with seven windows on each side. The seat for the driver was outside the covering, above the travelers, who entered by steps at the rear. The buses, of course, were put on runners in the winter. Frank Reese conducted a line of omnibuses to the depot for more than thirty years. A coach drawn by four horses which escorted guests and trunks to the U. S. Hotel, was replaced in 1893 by a "bus" which ran every evening. There was a free bus, compliments of the Central Hotel, from their establishment to trains on the New York Central.
Stock had all been taken in 1874 for a proposed horse railway covering John and Otsego Streets, terminating at the depot. The dream of such a route, often strived for, remained unfulfilled because of lack of finances. The horse railroads provided transportation to and from our neighboring villages of Frankfort, Mohawk and Herkimer for twenty-five years. The opening of the roads, Mohawk-Ilion in 1870 and the Frankfort-Ilion in 1871, were celebrated in the grand style which befitted such memorable events. Bands played, speeches were made and wildly cheered at an open air meeting as the last spike of the Mohawk-Ilion railroad was driven home. A basket picnic, music by the cornet bands of Frankfort and Ilion, and, of course, speeches by dignitaries were part of the holiday celebration at Palmer's Grove, when operations were completed on the Frankfort-Ilion railroad. Before the first year was over, 375 passengers a day with receipts averaging $113 a week, guaranteed that the Mohawk-Ilion railroad, with its two cars, would soon pay for itself. The car barns were on Main St., Mohawk, where the Episcopal Church now stands. In 1874 improvements and repairs amounted to $9,000 but by then travel increased to 250,000 passengers a year, reflecting increased activity at the Works and Armory. A new car was added, bringing the total to four, and the car house was enlarged. Six years later a "live" conductor took the place of fare boxes with a consequent daily increase of receipts of $40. "Deadbeats" and crowded cars had made box collections unprofitable.
The fare on the Frankfort-Ilion road was increased from 10 cents to 15 cents, the directors claiming that it was necessary; the public that it was exorbitant. Over one hundred employees of the Armory, residing in Frankfort, walked to and from work in protest. A week later the workers hired a packet boat, which charged 3 cents for employees, 5 cents for others. The horse railroad bowed to necessity and lowered its fares.
The Baxter Steam-car, a revolutionary experiment in 1872, and another steam car, "Ilion" in 1877, had great merit but never replaced the horse drawn cars. An act was passed by the legislature giving permission to use steam on the Mohawk-Ilion and Frankfort-Ilion lines, but Governor Dix vetoed the bill on the grounds that there were "insuperable" objections to use of the berme bank of the canal for purposes contemplated.
New walks had to be laid from time to time to overcome the inches of mud between the sidewalks and the street cars.
The Frankfort-Ilion railroad performed an obstacle course every time it went over the Frankfort bridge. Its cars were dubbed "Lovers Leap" because they jumped the track here so frequently.
The Mohawk-Herkimer horse railroad was built in 1871, the year after the Mohawk-Ilion railroad was in operation, but the three separate systems were loosely connected. It seemed as if the drivers deliberately waited until the drivers of an approaching car hove into sight then took off before a connection could be made. There were many factors controlling the failure of the three lines to become consolidated. The panic of the times and terms of purchase discouraged valley townsmen. The Herkimer-Mohawk and the Mohawk-Ilion roads with a capital stock of $15,000 each paid fair dividends but the Frankfort-Ilion with a capital stock of a little less, was not a profitable investment. But, at last, in 1895 the three lines were combined and called "The Herkimer-Mohawk-Ilion-Frankfort Electric Railway Company." The first electric car in Herkimer county began running that year with three open and three closed cars. As soon as the excursion, duly celebrated was over, the old horse-drawn cars were housed and the horses turned out to grass. The electric road meant a closer relation between the villages, a further development in their resources, and a union of interests. The next year, 1896, there were 877,128 passengers using ten motor cars. Known gradually as the "trolley", the inter-urban railroad or "people's automobile" was a great convenience. The West Shore railroad was laid in 1881. The New York Central acquired it in 1885. The West Shore railroad was electrified in 1904, with the Mohawk-Ilion tracks connecting it at the Herkimer dyke. The through cars, Little Falls to Utica, traveled the West Shore, cutting Ilion partially out of service. Ilion passengers could either cross the canal and travel on it or depend upon the local line which the Utica and Mohawk Valley railroad company ran, with one track, through Ilion. The junction of the lines was at the western village limits. For ten years the village would not authorize the placement of two tracks, although there was great pressure. In spite of no double track, 131,000 fares were collected July 4, 1904. That year New York Central purchased the lines. When a compromise was reached with the railroad company in 1912, the principal conditions which the Village had insisted upon were granted. The Village saved about $7,000 inasmuch as the company paid for the laying of bitulithic pavement from one village limit to the other.
The trolley service, both from Utica to Little Falls, and from Frankfort to Herkimer, was replaced in 1933 by New York State Railway bus. The garages for the vehicles are located in Mohawk. The trolley tracks were covered in 1934, thus ending well over a half century of transportation by rail through our Main Street.
The era of the canal boats has gone forever but its proud memory has been recorded indelibly, not only in history books but in the minds of old times, lest we forget a way of life that was a vivid part of the 19th century.
Navigation on the Erie was opened between Utica and Little Falls in 1821. 40,000 people passed Utica in 1825 in freight and passenger boats, reflecting the immediate success of this new means of transportation. Few serious engineering difficulties were encountered during its construction through Ilion. State Comptroller's reports for 1821 to 1826 contain long lists of claims by local people for damage to their property and amounts for labor. Compensation was sought for destruction of broom corn fields; contamination of well water from leakage from the canal; the moving of houses, barns and district school house from the path of destruction.
To keep pace with added traffic on the canal, the depth was increased from the original 4' to 7', the width from 40' to 70'. Barges of 240 tons replaced the 30' to 70' ones formerly in general use.
The packet boats that plied the waterway between Mohawk and Utica left the dock near the lift bridge in Ilion once a day, reaching Utica three hours later. On the return trip some passengers preferred to take the train to North Ilion from whence an omnibus returned them to the Village. A jaunt by packet boat to Palmer's Grove in Frankfort was an occasion happily remembered. A Baxter steam packet launched in 1874 and christened "Ilion" could make the run form Utica to New York City in fourteen days!
Many "canallers" from Ilion owned, captained and lived on their boats. Some boats, especially the freighters, carried their own mule or horses to use on the tow path. Others changed their animals at stations along the canal, one such being on what is now Central Avenue.
The Remingtons moved from their first location because the Erie offered a cheap and convenient mode of transportation for raw materials and finished products. For the same reason, Morgan's Coal Yard, the Ilion Lumber Company and other businesses thrived. The bank on the south side, for most of its length through Ilion, was built of square-cut stones so that boats could moor alongside for easy loading of freight and passengers. In winter the canal was drained by tilting the planks in the bottom of the aqueduct over Steele's Creek and allowing the water to run out except between the lift and typewriter bridges. As the ice froze, it provided an excellent skating rink. Occasionally, with an early freezing, boats were trapped in the ice necessitating a tie-up through the winter. In summer boys, "void of self-respect or shame", swam in the none-too-antiseptic water between Weisbecker Hill and the Lift Bridge, helped along by the current which was quite strong after the locks at East Frankfort were opened for the passage of a boat. A ride back upstream was assured by some westbound vessel.
In Ilion, over the canal, were the London, Railroad St., Rasbach or Typewriter and Gas House bridges. The Lift Bridge was the last erected in 1897 at a cost of $13,000. Wagon traffic was routed over Rasbach Bridge while pedestrians crossed on a floating bridge. None of the other bridges evoked the pride of Ilionites as did the Lift Bridge. "London Bridge" (opposite 257 W. Main) DID fall down in the twenties, when a team of horses in crossing proved too heavy for the old landmark.
When the can, or "ditch", was abandoned in 1921, another mode of travel became obsolete. Canal authorities removed the stairs of the lift bridge in 1920 at the request of the village and the bridge itself in 1924. The channel where the Erie once flowed was filled in gradually. In 1922, $50,000 was appropriated for the purchase from the State of the two-mile strip. Subsequently about 3000 feet was bought from local industries for their use. 460 feet of the remaining property was reclaimed for the Memorial Park and playground site. The restoration of the canal lands in its entirety has been a challenge to every village board from that time. Landscaping on the western end has provided Ilion with an attractive boulevard.
Copyright © 2001 Paul McLaughlin/ Judy Breedlove/ Martha S. Magill