A Biography of John Magee
The first suggestion that a railroad should and could be built through
the Southern Tier of New York was made by William Redfield in a pamphlet
that came to be called the Redfield Pamphlet. It was a bold proposal,
since at the time of the suggestion there were only nine miles of track
in the entire United States.143 Citizens of the Southern Tier counties
were supportive of the suggestion. The Erie Canal performed miracles for
the growth of the central region of New York State, and anticipation grew
that a railroad could be equally beneficial to the southern portion of
Some of the far-western counties of New York, such as Allegany and Cattaraugus,
actually began to lose population after the Erie Canal was completed in
1825. Bath, once a thriving center of Western New York, because of its
location on the Conhocton River that connected with the Susquehanna River
and the ports of Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Baltimore, stagnated as
the Erie Canal diverted the commerce of Genesee County away from the Susquehanna
route.144 Communities isolated from the booming canal
region were plagued by its success.
On July 29, 1831, a meeting of citizens of Monticello, New York, endorsed
the building of a railroad through the counties of Rockland, Orange, Sullivan,
Delaware, Broome, and Tioga.145 They also announced
their determination to succeed. Similar meetings soon followed in the
towns of Jamestown, Angelica, Owego, and Binghamton.146
The climax of these small town meetings was a large convention held in
Owego on December 20, 1831, with representatives from thirteen counties.147
Committees were formed to write endorsements of a railroad. On the committee
to draft such a memorial to the New York State Legislature was Constant
Cook, a representative of Steuben County.148 The Owego
Convention asked the New York State Legislature "for the incorporation
of a company with the necessary privileges to construct a railroad from
Lake Erie, commencing at some point between the mouth of the Cattaraugus
Creek and the line of Pennsylvania, and to run thence from the southwestern
tier of counties by way of the village of Owego to the Hudson River."
In 1832, the New York and Erie Railroad Company was granted a charter.
Listed among the seventy-five incorporators was John Magee.150
One of the original projectors of the railroad, he would play an important
part in its final completion.
As one of the incorporators, Magee had the duty of selling the stock
of the company. The capital stock was set at two million dollars by the
charter, each share selling for one hundred dollars.151
Appearing in the Steuben Farmers' Advocate under a letter in
which James G. King, then President of the New York and Erie Railroad
Company, lamented the lack of aid to the undertaking by the Legislature
and the need to sell 750,000 shares of stock, was a notice from John Magee,
cashier of the Steuben County Bank:
in pursuance of the above notice, the subscriber being duly
authorized by the Company, will receive subscriptions at the Steuben County
Bank daily, until further notice, for share of the capital stock of the
New York and Erie Railroad Company, and the first instalment thereon of
Five Dollars per share, and will issue certificates duly executed and
counter signed by him.
Dated Steuben County Bank,
14th May 1835,
John Magee, Cashier 152
Construction of the New York and Erie Railroad (known as the Erie) began
at sunrise on November 7, 1835, when ground was broken on the east side
of the Delaware River near Deposit, New York. It was estimated originally
the railroad would cost six million dollars to complete, it actually cost
twenty million dollars.153 The railroad progressed
slowly due to lack of funds and constant opposition from the politicians
representing the canal counties. They opposed every move meant to sustain
the undertaking and fought against requests to the New York Legislature
for financial aid. Even though the completion of the New York and Erie
Railroad would surely benefit New York City, "the political influence
of the Erie Canal was so great that the people of the City, the power
of Wall Street, and the many metropolitan newspapers opposed the work
and discredited the Company and its efforts at every turn."154
Although planned to be completed by October, 1842, the railroad did not
reach Binghamton until December 27, 1848.155 At that
point, the railroad was not yet half-finished, had only three more years
to run on its charter, and the treasury was empty.156
Plans to build the railroad beyond Binghamton, using piles to elevate
the track above the ground, had already begun by May, 1840.157
Plans called for using a hundred miles of pile-road on the Susquehanna
Division of the railroad (from Binghamton to Hornell).158
The reasoning was that piles could be used to make a level track more
inexpensively than the laborious task of grading the landscape. The pile
roadway actually was quite hazardous and was abandoned when the coffers
of the company were drained upon reaching Binghamton. The cost of installing
a hundred miles of the piles had been $6000 to $1 million.159
By 1848, The New York and Erie Railroad was facing failure. Unless some
way to raise the needed resources could be found, the plans for the New
York and Erie Railroad seemed doomed.
A savior was found in Alexander Diven. Diven organized a construction
syndicate to complete the building of the railroad. For their work, the
men of the syndicate would receive income certificates from the railroad
entitling the holder to a share of its profits once in operation. Originally
a member of the company he proposed, Diven sold out his interest in it
to John H. Chedell of Auburn. The other members of the company were Constant
Cook, John Magee, John Arnot, Charles Cook (cousin to Constant Cook),
and James S. T. Stranahan.160 The company was called
Constant Cook and Company, and Constant Cook managed most of the affairs
of the construction company. Under the terms of the agreement that Cook
made with the others, the company was set up as a mini-corporation. The
interests of the company were divided into twenty equal shares. Each party
would pay the Treasurer, John Arnot, five hundred dollars for each of
their shares.161 Any losses or profits were agreed
to be pro-rated according to the number of shares each person held. The
income certificates from the railroad were kept by the Treasurer to be
dispensed as needed to defray the expenses of the company. Constant Cook
was empowered to make contracts in the names of others in order to acquire
the materials needed to do the work and pay on any contracts made with
others. Only he could receive money from the Treasurer to pay expenses.162
Constant Cook received $4,000 annually from the income certificates to
pay for expenses such as traveling costs and other personal expenses incurred
in carrying out the business of the company.163
Under the terms of the May 18, 1848, contract with New York and Erie
Railroad, Cook and Company agreed: "…to furnish all materials except as
hereinafter specified, and perform all the work and in every respect complete
all that part of the New York and Erie Railroad as the same is now or
shall hereafter be located between the west bank of the Chenango River
in the village of Binghamton, and the Depot Ground in the Village of Corning,
being about seventy-seven miles,…" 164
The work to be done included:
…the clearing of Grubbing, Grading, Masonry, Piling, Ditches,
Culverts, Bridge Abutments and Piers, Bridge Superstructure, Slope and
Retaining Walls, and all other things requisite to complete the Road Bed
and prepare it for the Superstructure of wood and iron for a single track
Railroad, including the necessary turnouts, branches, and switches:…165
The New York and Erie Railroad would supply Cook and company with all
iron rails, chains, spikes, castings, and all other iron materials required
for the superstructure or tracks.166 It was up to
Cook and Company to locate and buy the other materials needed to perform
the work. The railroad company also clearly specified in the agreement
that all work was to be performed "without the use of ardent spirits."
The contract was also specific concerning a timetable for work. It stated:
The work shall be commenced on the first day of July next or
as soon as the Company shall have acquired a title to the roadway and
shall be completed from Binghamton aforesaid to the Village of Owego,
on or before the first day of June one thousand eight hundred and forty
nine, and to Elmira on or before the first day of October thereafter,
and the remainder to the Corning Depot Ground or on before the first day
of December of the same year.168
The New York and Erie Railroad agreed to pay to the contractor predetermined
amounts for certain work or materials supplied:
For excavation of Earth (sand, gravel, loam, quicksand) 20¢/ cubic
For excavating rocks90¢/ cubic yd.
For all masonry work $7/ cubic yd.
For all iron found by Cook & Co. 12½¢/ lb.
For laying superstructure $650 for each mile of single track
For clearing and grubbing $275 / mile for the entire distance from Binghamton
For switches $50/ switch
For crossties supplied 44¢ each 169
Originally, the members of Cook and Company received the railroad income
certificates as agreed. However, it was later agreed, by both parties,
that the contractors turn in their income certificates in exchange for
four million dollars in mortgage bonds to run for ten years at seven percent
The option of converting the bonds into New York and Erie Railroad stock,
at any time before maturation of the bonds, was also extended to the contractors.170
Much of the work from Binghamton to Corning was done by sub-contractors,
with Cook and Company and the New York and Erie Railroad supplying the
necessary materials. James S. T. Stranahan, a member of Cook and Company,
Joseph White, and Horace G. Phelps served as sub-contractors from Elmira
to Corning and did much of that work.171 The arrangement
worked well, and the timetable agreed to was kept. Owego was reached right
on schedule on June first, 1849. Elmira saw the arrival of the railroad
on October second, 1849, and Corning was achieved on January first 1850.172
Actually, the Binghamton to Corning stretch of the railroad was the easiest
to build since the route was flat and well settled.173
The success of Cook and Company encouraged renewed interest in the New
York and Erie Railroad, and there was no further interruption in the construction
of the railway.174 Although the work of Cook and Company
was completed when the railroad reached Corning, John Magee and Constant
Cook were also significant in seeing the railroad's extension beyond Corning.
They had the contract to carry the railroad from Hornellsville to Friendship,
a distance of forty miles.175 Of that, twelve miles
was sub-contracted to a Horace R. Riddle. The contractors took from one-third
to three-eights of the contract price in stock.176
As the railroad construction pushed near Corning, alarm broke out in
the Canisteo Valley. Although the route of the railroad had been surveyed
to pass through that valley, the citizens there feared the influence of
Magee and Cook in Bath, situated in the Conhocton Valley, which the railroad
had bypassed.177 Many landowners in the Canisteo Valley
had hoped to sell land needed for the railroad and realize a large profit.
A rumor circulated that the railroad expected the route through the valley
to be donated and an alternate route was being considered.178
A large meeting was held in Cameron at Mrs. Jones' Tavern to discuss a
solution. The Canisteo Valley inhabitants finally donated the right of
way, saving the railroad a considerable sum of money, however, as was
later disclosed, a change in the route had never been planned!179
Magee and Cook had once again helped the railroad progress.
The railroad finally reached completion and the route was opened all
the way to Dunkirk on Lake Erie on May 14, 1851. To celebrate, a train
carrying the President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, and other
prominent statesmen, one of whom was Daniel Webster, rode over the line.180
It was partly through the efforts of Diven, Cook, Magee and others that
the distinguished party's trip was possible. The men who had taken the
railroad seventy-seven miles from Binghamton reaped a fortune from the
bonds they accepted as payment.181
The New York and Erie Railroad helped the Southern Tier grow, Hornellsville
saw its population rise from about 500 in 1850 to 4,230 in 1860.182
When Elmira was reached by the railroad, its population numbered 3,000.
By 1898, it was 45,000.183 During the same time
span, Corning jumped from 1,200 to 10,000, and by 1898, Hornell had reached
The fact that Bath had been bypassed by the Erie Railroad concerned Magee
and Constant Cook, who went to work to cure the problem, even before the
Erie was fully completed. With others, they began a drive to organize
a railroad that would connect with the Erie, run through the Conhocton
Valley and finally connect with Rochester and Buffalo. The news was warmly
received in Buffalo, as that city had hoped to be the terminus of the
Erie Railroad. On January 10, 1850, a meeting was held at the Eagle Tavern
in Bath to organize the effort to construct the proposed railroad.185
One of the speakers at that meeting was John Magee.186
The meeting set up a committee whose purpose was to arouse favorable public
sentiment to the project. Chosen to serve on that committee were John
Magee, Constant Cook, and eleven others.187
On Thursday, January 24, 1850, a large convention gathered at Geneseo.
Representatives from the counties of Erie, Genesee, Wyoming, Livingston,
Ontario, and Steuben were in attendance.
The Steuben delegation numbered as many as one hundred.188
The purpose of the convention was to organize the effort to get a charter
for the Buffalo and Conhocton Valley Railroad (as they decided to name
it) from the New York Legislature, and stimulate local interest and investment
in the railway. At the opening of the proceedings, The President, Charles
H. Carroll of Livingston County, "…called upon Mr. Magee of Bath for a
statement of the preliminary proceeding of the citizens of Steuben County,
and of such information as had been collected in regard to the feasibility
of the [Conhocton] route, and the character and amount of traffic which
could be anticipated, and the probable subscription to the stock of the
proposed road." 189
Later, in the Thursday proceedings, Magee proposed that a committee of
three be established to "…report resolutions and a memorial for the consideration
of the Convention."190 Magee, E. S. Potter of Naples,
and Charles Shepard of Dansville were chosen. A committee of nine persons
was also created to draft a petition to the Legislature asserting the
need for the railroad. On Friday morning, January 25th, Magee reported
the memorial and resolutions drawn up by his committee.
The resolution said in part:
Resolved, that in the opinion of this convention, the construction
of a railroad from the city of Buffalo through the counties of Erie, Genesee
or Wyoming, Livingston, and Steuben to the New York and Erie Railroad,
by the valley of Conhocton, is imperatively demanded by the wants of the
country through which the road is proposed to be built…Resolved, that
to secure such right, we ask no aid from the State, but the simple declaration
of the public utility of the said road;…191
The Buffalo and Conhocton Valley Railroad was not without competition,
particularly the Attica and Hornellsville Railroad, which intended to
connect Hornellsville and Buffalo. Initial plans for the Attica and Hornellsville
Railroad had stalled, but proponents of the Buffalo and Conhocton were
concerned, since Buffalo would support only one railroad. Then, Attica
and Hornellsville Railroad was abandoned, clearing the way for the Buffalo
and Conhocton railway and a promise from Buffalo to raise one-third of
the money needed.192
On July 25, 1850, the Buffalo and Conhocton Valley Railroad was incorporated
with capital of $1,400,000.193 John Magee was elected
President; Orson Philips, Vice-President; Edward Howell, Jr., Secretary,
and A. D. Patchin, Treasurer.194 Things seemed to
be moving smoothly. "Every day seems but to add to the certainty that
the Buffalo and Conhocton Valley Railroad is destined to go ahead…and
we have not the least doubt that the subscriptions will overrun 300,000
and may reach $400,000;…"195 However, in September,
1850, plans were suddenly revived for the Attica and Hornellsville Railroad.196
This disenchanted some supporters of the Buffalo and Conhocton Valley
Railroad, but the people of Livingston and Genesee Counties proposed that
the railroad be built at least from Painted Post (where it joined the
Erie) to Batavia, without the help of Buffalo.197
People along the route went so far as to mortgage their homes and farms
to raise money to buy stock in the company.198 By
February 19, 1851, it was announced, "the work on the Buffalo and Conhocton
Valley Railroad has commenced. Mr. Bixby, who has the work through this
village [Bath], broke ground this day;…" 199
The work progressed. By October, 1851, forty-five miles of the railroad
was completed from the northern edge of Steuben County to the Erie Railroad
at Painted Post.200 The laying of the track through
the Conhocton Valley was delayed due to a late arrival of iron rails,
difficulty in acquiring the right of way, and poor weather.201
There was an urgent need for more money and calls went out for stockholders
to make the payments on their subscriptions on time (stock was sold by
installments). One plea said: "Another call of ten per cent, being the
fourth installment, has been made upon the stockholders, payable on the
15th installment and the vigorous prosecution of the work [during] this
fall and winter will very much depend on the prompt payment of this call,
together with the arrears of other calls…." 202
Since "The Directors have no other source to which they can look for means
to meet their engagements, and if this fails them and the calls are not
willingly and promptly paid, a vigorous and rapid prosecution of the work
cannot be expected." 203
On March 3, 1852, the name of the company was changed to the Buffalo,
Corning, and New York Railroad Company.204 The cost
of the railroad was projected at $1,706,000 without equipment, or $1,950,000
with equipment.205 To raise the money for equipment,
in April, 1852, "the directors of the railroad mortgaged its property
and franchises for $1,000,000 to secure the payment of bonds for that
amount to be issued by the company." 206 A second
mortgage occurred to cover another bond issue of $600,000.207
Batavia was reached in 1854 and work was stopped. On October 1st, 1855,
the company defaulted on the interest of the first bond issue, followed
by the default on the interest of the second bond issue on December 1st,
1855.208 Many stockholders felt that the second
default was uncalled for, and was merely a plot by the bondholders (who
were mainly the directors of the railroad) to make a profit by selling
the railroad.209 An investigation was begun on August
13, 1856, by the Board of Railroad Commissioners. But a finding was never
made, since a bill was pushed through the Legislature repealing the Railroad
Commission Act and the board.210 Also, Dean Richmond,
head of the New York Central Railroad, bribed the commissioners with $25,000
not to oppose the repeal.211 There was a foreclosure
on the Buffalo, Corning, and New York Railroad Company, and it was sold
for three million dollars. The money went to the bondholders and the major
stockholders, who were conveniently given the opportunity to convert their
stocks into bonds, allowing them to make money on the deal.212
Small stockholders lost all of their investments, and many of those who
had mortgaged property to invest in the railroad lost their homes. Some
of the mortgage holders had been officers or directors (who owned bonds)
of the company.213 The railroad route was later
used as a connection by the Erie's Corning branch to Rochester.214
Since no investigation was ever accomplished, guilt or innocence on the
part of the directors of the Buffalo, Corning, and New York Railroad can
only be conjecture. Although Magee probably was the target of anger and
suspicion, along with others heavily involved in organizing and endorsing
the railroad, it was not the end of his association with railroads. He
was already involved with another railroad that would serve a new interest
he had acquired—coal.
Notes for Chapter Four
143 Edward H. Mott, Between the
Ocean and the Lakes: The Story of Erie, (NY: John S. Collins, 1899),
144 Ulysses P. Hendrick, A History
of Agriculture in New York State, (NY: Hill and Wang, 1933), pp.
145 & 146 Edward H. Mott, , p. 10.
147 Ibid., p. 11.
148 Ibid., p. 12.
149 Thomas Dimitroff and Lois S. Janes,
History of the Corning, Painted Post Country: 200 Years in the Painted
Post Country, (Corning Area Bi-Centennial Committee, 1977), p. 39.
150 Edward Hungerford, Men of Erie,
(NY: Random House, 1946), p. 20.
151 Edward Mott, Between the Ocean
and the Lakes, p. 296.
152 Steuben Farmers' Advocate,
May 20, 1835.
153 Chemung Historical Society, Erie
Railroad folder, "Erie Railroad—Its Beginnings and Today."
154 Edward Mott, Between the Ocean
and the Lakes, p. 50.
155 Ibid., p. 91
156 Ibid., pp. 91-92.
158 Ibid., p. 49.
159 Thomas Dimitroff and Lois S. Janes,
History of the Corning, Painted Post Area, p. 39.
160 Cornell University, Department
of Manuscripts and University Archives, Folder 1373. Original copy of
the contract between Cook and Company and the Erie Railroad.
161 - 163 Ibid., the original
contract between the members of Cook and Company.
164 - 169 Ibid.,contract
between Cook and Company and Erie Railroad.
170 Edward Mott, Between the
Ocean and the Lakes, p.92.
171 Ibid., 354.
172 Chemung County Historical Society,
Erie Railroad folder, old typed article giving railroad opening dates.
173 Edward Mott, Between the Ocean
and the Lakes, p. 353.
174 Ibid., p. 92.
175 & 176 Ibid., p. 327.
177 Ibid., p. 354.
178 & 179 William Stuart, Stories
of the Kanisteo Valley, p. 81.
180 Ausburn Towner, History of
the Valley and County of Chemung, p. 141.
181 Edward Mott, Between the Ocean
and the Lakes, p. 92.
182 William Stuart, Stories of
the Kanisteo Valley, p. 81.
183 & 184 Edward Mott, Between
the Ocean and the Lakes, p. 102.
185 - 187 Steuben Farmers' Advocate,
"Railroad Meeting," Jan. 16, 1850, p. 2.
188 Steuben Farmers' Advocate,
"Buffalo and Conhocton Valley Railroad," Jan. 30, 1850, p. 2.
189 - 191 Steuben Farmers' Advocate,
" Meeting at Geneseo," Feb. 6, 1850.
192 - 194 Edward Mott, Between the Ocean and the
Lakes, p. 361.
195 Steuben Farmers' Advocate,
July 14, 1850.
196 - 198 Edward Mott, Between
the Ocean and the Lakes, p. 361.
199 Steuben Farmers' Advocate,
Feb. 19, 1851, p. 2.
200 -203 Steuben Farmers' Advocate,
Oct. 8, 1851, p. 2.
204,- 210 Edward Mott, Between
the Ocean and the Lakes, p. 361.
211 - 213 Edward Mott, Between
the Ocean and the Lakes p. 362.
214 Uri Mulford, Pioneer Days and
Later Times in Corning and Vicinity, 1789 - 1920. (Corning: published
by the author, 1920), p. 185.