Article From the Winter 2004 Issue of


The Journal of the New York Museum of Transportation


Any regular reader of HEADEND knows we like anniversaries. Points in time such as the centennial of the start of service on the Rochester and Eastern, highlighted elsewhere in this issue, give us a chance to reflect on history and focus on a particular era. The way the winter of 2004 is treating us, it’s appropriate to dig into our archives and take note of the 125th anniversary of a big storm in upstate New York that really messed things up. Here’s what the January 25, 1879 Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper had to say about it:


The snow-storm of the first week in January, in whatever part of the country it prevailed, was the severest that had occurred in many years. New York State suffered particularly, and it is a remarkable fact that while Watertown, Oswego, Rochester and Syracuse, with their suburbs, were being snowed under, snow was falling to an unusual depth in various parts of England, Scotland and Switzerland, Berne and Geneva experiencing the most noticeable paralysis of business. In Central New York the storm began on January 2d, and ceased on the evening of the 6th, a heavy wind prevailing during its continuance. The Western Division of the New York Central Railroad, extending from Buffalo to Syracuse, was absolutely closed to travel for four days. Between Syracuse and New York the track was comparatively open, and trains from the metropolis reached the center of the State on time. As the snow presented an insurmountable obstacle to progress westward, all the trains were laid up at the depot at Syracuse.

On Friday, 3d, the Atlantic Express attempted to leave Rochester for New York. A snow-plow was sent ahead to clear the track, and the train moved out of the depot drawn by nine locomotives. When it arrived at the Sand Cut, near Fairport, and ten miles east of Rochester, the snow-plow jumped the track, and the express train, which was following close behind, ran into it. At that point the passenger tracks are on an embankment several feet above the old tracks. Five of the engines drawing the express were thrown down this embankment, and the cars were wrecked. The engineer of the first engine, who resides in Buffalo, was buried under the wreck of his engine and instantly killed. (Continued) Conductor John Holmes was seriously injured. Mr. Clough, road-master, had his leg broken, and two firemen and five passengers were seriously injured. When the news of the disaster reached Rochester, a wrecking-train, drawn by six engines, was dispatched to the scene of the wreck, but all six of the engines jumped the track before reaching Fairport. All Friday night and Saturday the snow fell thick and fast, and the wind blew a terrific gale. Both the wrecks were in a short time almost completely buried in the huge drifts of snow. All attempts on Saturday to reach the wrecks from Rochester proving futile, on Sunday morning a train was made up in Syracuse, consisting of eight engines, a wrecking car, and a derrick-car, with a large force of men, and started for the wreck. On board were Henry Watkeys, Master Mechanic; Mr. Palmer, Assistant Superintendent, and other officers of the road. At Jordan the train ran off the track, but was soon got on again. It reached the wreck at Fairport about five o’clock on Sunday night, and the work of clearing the tracks and removing the wreck was at once begun.

      Leslie’s artist T. Aiken depicts the wreckage at Sand Cut, near
      Fairport, New York on the New York Central, January 3, 1879.

This experience was the most severe of any that has been made public, although, in a smaller degree, the blockade of passenger and freight trains was quite common throughout the State. On Monday, 6th, traffic was partially resumed, and by Tuesday night the schedule time was made.

     This illustration, captioned "Cooking Steak in a Baggage-Car",
     suggests the experience might have had its compensations.

Where trains were laid up in the rural districts, provisions were obtained from neighboring farmhouses, whose owners, it must be said, drove very hard bargains. In the passenger-coach of a train stalled some ten or twelve miles from Syracuse for several days were a number of ladies. The snow had drifted over the car, and the passengers found it impossible to get out in search of provisions. Curtains were improvised, and one end of the car was used for a sleeping-room for the ladies. When relief came, in the form of an extortionate farmer, they procured an extra amount of food and fuel. On Sunday divine service was held in the car.

In some instances the male passengers left the cars on a forage for wood and food, and in others the stoves were utilized for cooking purposes. When the first anxieties had passed away, the snowbound travelers, whether in the cars from which they could not escape, or in the depots and farmhouses in which they had taken refuge, set about devising plans of amusement with which to while away the long hours, and amateur magicians, comedians, tragedians, and operatic singers were greeted with an amount of applause they would not receive elsewhere. Card-playing was the rule, and the man with the latest joke or the best story out was welcomed to the social amenities of every set.

Although none of the detained passengers would knowingly put themselves in the way of a repetition of their experiences during these eventful four days, they will retain in pleasant memory many of the jollities that were developed during the siege.

         Keeping warm was a priority for the stranded passengers.