Published by EH.NET (November 2004)

Robert E. Mohowski, The New York, Susquehanna & Western Railroad. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. xix + 205 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8018-7222-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by H. Roger Grant, Department of History, Clemson University.

Railroad enthusiast Robert E. Mohowski has written the first book-length account of a small regional carrier, the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railroad (NYS&W). This approximately 250-mile road stretched from Jersey City, New Jersey, to Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, and for a substantial portion of its corporate existence was an affiliate of the much larger Erie Railroad. Although the NYS&W tapped the once flourishing anthracite mining district of northeast Pennsylvania through a wholly-owned subsidiary, the sixty-four mile Wilkes-Barre & Eastern Railway, the company also served a variety of manufacturing concerns in northern New Jersey and provided terminal services on the Hudson River. It was, however, more than a mine-to-market railroad. As with virtually every American carrier, the NYS&W was the result of “system-building.” In fact, the modern NYS&W emerged in 1881 out of the consolidation of several small, separate companies, namely the Midland Connecting Railroad, Midland Railroad Company of New Jersey, North Jersey Railroad, Paterson Extension Railroad and the Pennsylvania Midland Railway. Additional corporate restructuring occurred, again reminiscent of any railroad genealogy.

With control by the Erie Railroad, which began in 1898, the NYS&W lost much of its identity. The parent corporation performed most of the business functions, ranging from train dispatching to car accounting. But this relationship eventually ended. The Great Depression of the 1930’s which forced a financially weakened Erie into bankruptcy, resulted in a separate receivership for the NYS&W and termination of the Erie’s forty-year domination. Yet, legal problems between the two railroads continued for years. Under the leadership of two talented business executives, Walter Kidde and Henry Norton, the NYS&W restructured and in 1954 emerged from federal court protection.

The “new” NYS&W hardly became a money machine. By the mid-1960’s deficits mounted, largely the result of a struggling commuter passenger operation. Regulators made it difficult for management to end this financial drain. Still, the railroad fought to remain alive, responding mostly by reducing the scope of operations and abandoning unnecessary trackage. These responses, however, did not restore financial health, and in 1976 the company entered another bankruptcy. The NYS&W, though, was not about to enter the corporate graveyard. Within several years remaining shippers witnessed a revival of sorts; in 1980 the Delaware Otsego Corporation acquired the property, and took advantage of the NYS&W’s strategic location in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region to forge a route for its signature container trains. In some ways then the NYS&W was the “Little Engine That Could.”

It is not unusual for small roads to show an innovative bent. Remarked a veteran employee of the Georgia & Florida Railroad, a firm that was in bankruptcy longer than any other Class 1 carrier: “When you are poor, you have to live by your wits.” The G&F repeatedly showed signs of creativity, including introducing flue-cured tobacco to its South Georgia service territory and installing primitive wind generators on its cabooses for electric lighting. This innovating tendency generally held true for the NYS&W. Mohowski demonstrates that the company was a national pioneer in operating internal passenger equipment. In part because the Erie embraced gas-mechanical and gas-electric passenger units, the NYS&W also used these different pieces of rolling stock. And in the process both carriers learned how to manage internal combustion power. As Mohowski suggests, “The transition provided by these rail cars would ease, to a degree, the great changes brought by dieselization.” (p. 78) On the eve of World War II the NYS&W gained notoriety for its acquisition from American Car & Foundry (ACF) of streamlined “Motorailers.” Generally, these modern diesel rail cars demonstrated the value of this equipment, especially on short commuter runs. It is understandable that later the NYS&W acquired from the Budd Company state-of-the-art Rail Diesel Cars (RDCs), true successor to the ACF experimental rolling stock.

Mohowski has studied extensively the little-known NYS&W. There is no question that he has made a contribution to railroad history. Yet, Mohowski missed the opportunity to examine the impact that Delaware Otsego Corporation and its dynamic leader, Walter Rich, recently has had on the property. For some readers, Mohowski offers probably too much detail, especially when describing operations and equipment. And, unfortunately, in places there is limited or poor transition between paragraphs and ideas. The narrative found on page 141 represents this shortcoming. Although some illustrations are spectacular, the book could have benefited from more maps, particularly in the post-Erie era. As suggested, this work on NYS&W fills a void in the literature of railroad history, and other authors, both enthusiasts and scholars, should continue to work on the more obscure carriers, whether urban terminal companies or shortlines in Dixie.

H. Roger Grant, Centennial Professor of History at Clemson University, is the author of “Follow the Flag”: A History of the Wabash Railroad Company published in 2004 by the Northern Illinois University Press.