For Ballston Spa Life
Overlooked Building Once Powered A Trolley Railroad
To the uninitiated, the brick building located on the corner of Maple Avenue and Northline Road in Factory Village could have been built a short time ago to house a contractor and a few apartments. But local history fans know that the building is much older than it looks and has an interesting story to tell.
Factory Village, once known as Merrick’s Mills, was home to industrial activity since the early 1800s. The site on which the brick building stands has hosted manufacturing concerns since at least 1813. Henry Chapman established the first enterprise for carding wool and dressing cloths. During its 15 years of operation under Chapman it was known as the Milton Factory. Later it would be called the Stone Mill, and then called the Premium Mill when it was used to manufacture cloths.
George Ingalls remodeled the mill for making straw board just before a destructive fire burned his business to the ground in July 1856, “together with a number of dwellings and a hoe factory,” according to a newspaper account. Both of the fire companies from Ballston Spa responded quickly but were unable to get there in time to prevent a total loss. The building, 200 cords of wood, and 500 tons of straw were destroyed at a cost of $20,000. Insurance covered $12,000.
The property was sold soon after the fire to Chauncey Cook, who built a new mill and leased it to Mann & Laflin for making paper collars. The Ballston Paper Company, as it was called, shipped 438 rolls of wall paper and 933 bundles of card and bag paper in 1867, all purchased by W. H. Ames & Company of New York City.
The mill burned down again in 1870 but was rebuilt by the partnership of Frank Jones and Chauncey Cook with updated machinery and engines. The mill was run successfully for about five years by Jones and Frank Settle producing collars and card paper. Its output of 2˝ tons per day was shipped to New York City, although some was sold to the Glen Paper Collar Company in Ballston Spa. The firm Beach & Leach was the last known operator of the mill. In 1882 it burned down for the last time, putting 30 men out of work.
About a decade later, the property was sold to a new company that had received a franchise to build an electric-powered railroad from Ballston Spa to Middle Grove. Although the purpose of the railroad was mainly to serve the industries along the Kayaderosseras Creek, it was decided to power the railroad with electricity rather than by the more popular method of using steam engines. This made the most sense for several reasons. As passenger cars were to travel through the streets of Ballston Spa, electric service was much cleaner and quieter than steam engines. The founders had also undoubtedly heard of the massive forest fires that were started by errant cinders flying out of smokestacks during the dry summer months. The paper mills would be especially vulnerable to this danger with their huge stacks of wood and other flammable materials.
Economics played a part as well, since electric cars could travel on lighter track, up steeper grades, and around tighter corners than any steam locomotive except the specialized gear locomotives used by logging railroads. Using a combination trolley car also precluded the need to have both a locomotive and separate passenger car.
In April 1898 the New York State Railroad Commission gave the Ballston Terminal Railroad the authorization to begin operating the railroad using electricity. The former Cook property, then owned by Irving Wiswall, was chosen to be the site of the powerhouse, repair shed, and car barn.
The cost to build and equip a suitable power plant was $76,500. The powerhouse contained a 580-volt Westinghouse generator, Babcock & Wilcox boilers, and Hamilton-Corliss steam engines. The equipment required three tons of buckwheat anthracite coal per day to run, which was delivered on a spur that ran near the powerhouse. The two-stall wooden car barn measured 50 by 100 feet.
With electricity becoming more prevalent and utility companies becoming more efficient, it was soon made more sense for private companies to buy electricity rather than to manufacture it. In 1907 the railroad reported total expenses for generating electricity of $6,101. After that they began buying electricity from the Ballston Spa Light & Power Company. By 1910 electricity expenses were only $3,311, a savings of about $3,000 per year. However, the powerhouse continued to provide auxiliary electric power until the railroad went bankrupt in 1929.
The wooden car barn did not last too many years beyond the life of the railroad, but the substantial brick powerhouse has survived to the present day in excellent condition with an historical marker standing close by.
Parts of this article were excerpted from Timothy Starr’s book “The Ballston Terminal Railroad and its Successors.”