Ballston Spa's Bicentennial (1807-2007)
for the bicentennial edition of the Ballston Journal
Ballston Spa residents may be hard-pressed to convince visitors that the quiet village once had a thriving industrial economy that required its very own railroad. While evidence of the village’s industrial past is plentiful in the buildings around town and ruins along the Kayaderosseras Creek, evidence for the electric railroad is harder to come by.
A determined history detective may find remnants of the old railroad bed deep in the woods, or may even perceive the significance of a brick building still standing in Factory Village that once served as the powerhouse. A few may even stumble upon the old railroad bridge that still stands near the end of Heisler Road in Rock City Falls. But the vast majority of visitors and even many local residents would not guess that they are at times driving over the same route that the electric railroad trolley did some hundred years ago.
The nineteenth century was a period of dramatic industrial growth for Ballston Spa and other villages “up the creek” in the Town of Milton. By 1890 this growth had reached its peak. The waters of the Kayaderosseras Creek were powering the mills of Isaiah Blood’s Scythe & Axe Works, Samuel Haight’s mammoth tannery, and George West’s celebrated paper bag operations, among others. These enterprises were driven by an educated workforce, favorable climate, and steam railroad access to worldwide markets. The only ingredient the mills were lacking was a safe and cost-effective method for delivering raw materials and finished goods to and from the Delaware & Hudson Railroad interchange in Ballston Spa.
The idea for an electric-powered railroad was proposed in the 1880s, but various franchises expired due to lack of funding. However, in 1896 a Philadelphia-based investment house represented by Arthur B. Paine not only filed the proper paperwork, but secured the necessary funding as well. Construction commenced soon after, and two years later the Ballston Terminal Railroad was ready for its inaugural run.
The trade magazine Electrical World called the little railroad a “novelty,” and with good reason. It was one of the shortest terminal railroads in the country, spanning just 12 miles once the line was extended to Middle Grove in 1902. It was also one of the few electric railroads whose primary purpose was to haul freight rather than passengers.
Most trolley lines were built in large cities and transported thousands of people every day. Conversely, the Ballston Terminal Railroad would earn most of its income by serving almost two dozen mills that were situated along the Kayaderosseras Creek. George West alone owned ten paper mills which produced millions of his unique line of paper bags. These mills, plus Blood’s hard-edge tool factories, the tannery, lumber from Middle Grove, and almost a dozen other enterprises, required the shipment of 35,000 tons of raw materials and finished goods per month. Additional revenues would come from transporting students from the country to the high school in Ballston Spa, workers to their jobs at the mills, tourists to Middle Grove, milk and supplies to the stores, and mail to the Rock City Falls post office.
When the Ballston Journal announced the railroad’s inaugural run in August, 1898, optimism for its future was high. “A new era dawned for Ballston Spa,” ran the article. “As a rule, new railroads have to build up their business after the road is constructed; in this case, the business is anxiously waiting for the completion of the road.”
Unfortunately, the railroad suffered from bad luck and poor timing. Just two years after it commenced operations, both the Scythe Factory and the Axe Works burned down in separate fires. George West retired, and the national company that purchased his paper mills sold off those of Middle Grove, Rock City Falls, and West Milton. The mills of Middle Grove closed down soon after, while the others saw only sporadic operation under various owners.
The railroad also suffered from high overhead. Although trolley cars require much less maintenance and lower track standards than steam engines, the powerhouse which generated its electricity required three tons of coal per day. Even more of a burden was meeting the interest payments on the bonds issued to construct the line, which often added up to half its income. Litigation from bondholders forced the Ballston Terminal Railroad to declare bankruptcy in 1904.
The railroad received a new lease on life when it was purchased at auction and renamed the Eastern New York Railroad. Operations continued much as they did before, using the same track as the previous railroad. Some of the debt was forgiven, and there was some cause for optimism once again that the railroad could generate a profit. “We congratulate the Eastern New York Railroad company for the splendid start it gets,” said the Journal, “and our village for being the starting point.” There was even talk of expanding the line to Amsterdam and Johnstown.
It was soon apparent, however, that the little railroad could not overcome the tide of progress that threatened to pass it by, along with the mills it served. Automobiles began to make their appearance, as well as trucks that would very soon provide cheaper transportation than the railroad could offer. Mills and factories were springing up in urban centers using steam or electricity, making those of the Kayaderosseras Valley inefficient and obsolete by comparison.
By 1920, most of the paper mills had shut down. Although other industry moved in to provide new jobs, such as Bischoff’s Chocolates and the textile mills, these were all located inside of Ballston Spa and did not require the railroad’s services. Losses continued unabated, and the Eastern New York Railroad declared bankruptcy in 1918. The future of the line was much in doubt.
However, the few mills that remained in operation still depended upon the railroad to keep their costs down, and banded together to purchase the railroad and operate it under the name Kaydeross Railroad Corporation. At one point it came under the direct ownership of Ballston Spa National Bank when several businesses went bankrupt owning the railroad’s stock, which was then “inherited” by the bank.
The new corporation had no debt and access to cheap electricity from the power station in Ballston Spa. But by that time only three paper mills remained in operation, and income declined accordingly. The railroad continued to run for another ten years, but finally closed down for good in 1929, along with two of the remaining three mills (Cottrell Paper continued to run, and does so to this day).
Although the little railroad never made a profit, it served a valuable purpose by keeping the mills in operation until the age of the automobile allowed residents to commute to work in nearby cities. For years it also helped many local residents travel around the area easily and inexpensively. Students in the “country” may not have attended high school without it. These young people affectionately dubbed it the “PP&J,” short for the “Push, Pull & Jerk.”
If you are ever walking in the woods near the creek and stumble upon a raised bed of earth stretching into the distance, you’ve probably found the old electric railroad line. If you squint your eyes, you may be able to see a small, dark-green trolley gliding by with several freight cars in tow, the smiling conductor at the controls, and young faces peering out of the windows.
For those who would like to learn more about the Ballston Terminal Railroad and its successors, my book titled “Lost Railroads of the Kaydeross Valley,” released in honor of the village’s bicentennial, can be viewed at the Brookside Museum or the Ballston Spa Public Library. The days of the trolley are long over, but publications, pictures, and the first-hand experiences of a few hardy residents still keep its memory alive.