Article From the Winter 2005 Issue of


The Journal of the New York Museum of Transportation


There was a time in our part of the country when "travel" and "winter" used in the same sentence wouldn’t necessarily give one pause, as is often the case today. To early settlers, rivers and even lakes which presented barriers to travel in the warmer months could freeze over and become a handy shortcut. Roads that were often impassably muddy bogs in a wet spring or summer not only firmed up in cold weather, but also benefited from a layer of snow to smooth out the bumps. Col. Nathaniel Rochester, in his elder years, personally took the new city’s charter to Albany to be blessed by the State Legislature, but he waited until winter so he could make the trip by horse-drawn sleigh. It seems the roads at that time had been blazed through the woods with tree stumps left in the right of way. Wagons and carriages with large-diameter wheels had enough clearance to navigate such roads, but it was pretty bumpy going. But in winter, the surface of deep snow was well above the stumps and speed could be achieved comfortably.

Despite today’s technology, snowstorms can bring airlines to their knees and their passengers to near tears; trains may run but they’ll be hours late and the retention toilets will have frozen up; and all-wheel-drive doesn’t do much for the motorist trapped on an interstate highway after someone’s momentary lapse of judgment has blocked all lanes of the icy road. In fact, despite the occasional benefits, like the colonel’s faster travel times to Albany, staying home is often the preferred option when the temperature drops and the snowflakes fly, and it’s been true down through the ages.

To wit, the 1885 Report of the New York Railroad Commissioners, Volume I, provides a glimpse through a frosty window pane of winter train travel in upstate New York. In the case of D. D. S. Brown et al versus the New York Central Sleeping Car Company, March 12, 1885, "The complainants were passengers on the sleeping car "Arctic" of the New York Central Sleeping Car Company, running on the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern, and alleged that the car was unfit for use; that it was impossible to properly heat the car; that the windows were so loose that the snow drifted in on the berths; that the doors could not be kept closed; and that finally the car was appropriately named the "Arctic"." Keeping one’s sense of humor always helps when the snow is piling up on the blankets in one’s berth, we suppose.

The report continues, "The answer of the company was that the "Arctic" was lying in Buffalo, having been ordered into the repair shop for a thorough overhauling. The snow blockades west and east of Buffalo had delayed trains and left the company without cars necessary for the travel, and in this extremity the company had put the "Arctic" in use again, rather than put none on at all to accommodate the travel. It acknowledged the condition of the car, and while stating that before long there would be none in a similar condition, said the use of the "Arctic" was due to a desire to make their passengers as comfortable as it could, under the circumstances of most unusually severe weather, which had placed its ordinary complement of good cars out of its reach."

Mr. Brown and company were apparently mollified by these assurances that the railroad had only their best interests at heart, for the report closes with "This explanation was satisfactory to the complainants, as letters now on file in this office show". No thought given, apparently, to renaming the car.