Voice of the People: Daily Life in the Antebellum Rural Delaware County New York Area
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by Nancy S. Cannon
"...For seventeen mortal hours you are rolled over a mountain road, crooked, hilly, and just irregular enough in its surface to guarantee the traveler a shaking he will not forget in a month. I have heard of being rolled in a barrel, but I do not think it a more turbulent mode of locomotion than traveling by the Catskill Stage. But for one thing I would not be bribed to repeat the journey, with its dust, the heat of the weather, the risk of the rapid and perilous down hill gallop, and the shaking aforesaid noticed. And what is the one thing that would atone for so many inconveniences? The scenery, sir! The scenery!"
Observation by a reporter from the New York Herald who was sent to cover the Anti-rent Crisis in 1845 (Monroe, p. 109.)
A series of transportation improvements facilitated the movement of goods and people in antebellum America. New technologies spurred the development of turnpikes, stagecoach routes, canals, steamboats, and railroads. Although the most dramatic developments occurred elsewhere, these changes had consequences for the Delaware County area. Waterways acted as superhighways in the early antebellum period. The earliest settlers of the area utilized the Delaware River to float rafts of logs from the land they cleared to markets in Philadelphia. The Delaware River route, however, seems to have been a one-way ticket--the early rafters usually either walked or rode home on horseback after delivering their cargo. Later letters mention a more circuitous route: people would ride on a raft to Philadelphia, go to New York City, travel by steamboat up the Hudson River, and finally board a stagecoach which would carry them over the Catskill Mountains to the Delaware County area. One of the greatest internal improvements of the antebellum period--the canal system--is mentioned very little in the primary sources presented on this website. When it is mentioned, it is usually in the context of people using it as a superhighway to the West. (Two enterprising young men, implicated in being present at the shooting of Osman Steele in 1845 during the Anti-Rent conflict, escaped the Sheriff's posse by catching a horse-powered stage to Kingston, a steamboat from Kingston to to Albany, a canal boat from Albany to Buffalo and finally a boat from Buffalo to Chicago via the Great Lakes. (Raitt, p.1))
The main means of transportation in the area was foot power: man or horse. The first settlers to the area often came over the ancient trails of the Native Americans. Construction of turnpikes (by modern standards slightly improved dirt roads) followed. Three turnpikes connected the area to the Hudson River below Albany: The Susquehanna (Catskill) Turnpike went from Catskill to Wattles' Ferry (Unadilla) on the Susquehanna River; the Ulster and Delaware Turnpike Road ("Sopus" Turnpike) ran from Kingston to Bainbridge; the Newburgh and Cochecton Turnpike Road (the "Appian Way") went from Newburgh to Cochecton to Deposit to Oxford. Horse drawn stage coaches carried passengers over the mountains to the Hudson River where travelers could proceed by steamboat to New York City. Livestock were driven to the Hudson River by way of the turnpikes by men (drovers) who slowly walked with the animals, covering only a few miles a day. Taverns with pastures strategically located along the way provided food and liquid refreshment to both man and animal. Dirt roads often made travel difficult. Rain and melting snow turned the roads into muddy, deeply rutted paths. Dry summer heat meant dust. The snows of winter sometimes actually improved the situation--letters and diaries often mention "good sleighing". Unlike the cocoons of heated/air-conditioned vehicles which envelop people today, travelers were exposed to whatever Mother Nature produced, from balmy spring days to summer thunderstorms to the cold piercing winds of winter.
The first railroad, the New York & Erie, came to the Delaware County area in 1848. It brushed the southern part of Delaware County with stops at Hancock and Deposit. The railroad did not immediately bring an end to the turnpikes: farmers, retailers, and travelers continued to use both for transportation and travel to New York City. Due to the mountainous geography and lack of local waterways that could be navigated by large vessels, railroads became very important to the development of the area. For example, at first glance there seems to be an error on an 1833 map of the State of New York: places listed include Delhi, Kortright, Unadilla, and Laurens, but Oneonta is missing. The reason: Oneonta didn't become a prominent place until the railroad came to town in the 1860's.
The 1823 travel journal of Laura Sherwood provides an account of an extended tour of upstate New York. In 1846, the Catskill Steam Transportation service advertised in the Delhi, NY Delaware Gazette newspaper. Guerdon Edgerton, a Delhi entrepreneur of the mid-nineteenth century, ran the stage line from Delhi to Catskill. Included here is a letter which tells of an overturned stage accident in 1850. Later Guerdon's son George Edgerton ran into trouble with the law: he wrote a letter home telling of his 1853 escape from Delhi lawmen by traveling to Pennsylvania to Illinois to Missouri to Iowa to St. Paul, Minnesota Territory.
For further examples, proceed to Letters, Diaries, etc
For Further Reading
Larkin, F. Daniel. New York canals: a short history. Fleishmanns, N. Y.: Purple Mountain Press. 1998.
Illustration adapted from an ad in the Delaware Gazette, May 30, 1855. Courtesy of the Delaware County Historical Association Archives, 46549 State Hwy 10, Delhi, NY, 13753.
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