City Historian Don Rittner has finally found what he says is the country’s first rudimentary railroad tunnel, buried in the center of the historic Stockade district.
The 15-foot-deep tunnel snakes its way across what are now a dozen or more private backyards. But in 1832, that land was a major thoroughfare — the foundation of the city’s prosperity and growth for the next century.
Hundreds of business owners and daring families rode through the tunnel on trains so experimental that they were considered too dangerous to be allowed on city streets. They could travel so fast and their engines could produce so many wild sparks that city leaders feared pedestrians would be run over and buildings burned down.
So horses dragged the trains from the Erie Canal to the Scotia bridge along a safe, deep tunnel. It was an experiment that lasted just six years, but in that time it was guaranteed a place in the history books. Not only was the tunnel the first ever constructed for a locomotive, but the entrance was the first junction of two railroad companies, according to Rittner.
“There’s a lot of firsts here,” Rittner said Wednesday as he surveyed his discovery near the Stockade Inn on Union Street. “This is where early American railroading began.”
Rittner spent a year and a half researching the tunnel’s location. Once he was certain he had the right spot, Prize Construction volunteered to dig it up for him.
It took two hours to uncover the top of the 15-foot-tall wall at one edge of the tunnel. As workers carefully maneuvered a backhoe over the growing pile of dirt, Rittner hovered, pacing back and forth, peering in the hole from one side and then another. He measured again and again, referencing old maps and checking his own calculations. He was sure the wall should be there, maybe buried under a few feet of fill.
But five feet down, all they found was dirt.
Six feet. Still nothing.
“Another foot, maybe,” Rittner said. “Do you think it could be deeper?”
The backhoe wrenched a seventh foot of dirt out of the hole and came back for more. The claw struck rock.
For the first time in 170 years, the wall that once protected the first train passengers in the world was exposed to the open air.
Rittner beamed as he examined the gray, interlocking stones.
“I came out looking for the tunnel and I found it. It doesn’t get any better than that,” he said. “This was a really great day.”
Prize Construction dug down far enough to uncover several feet of the wall on both sides of the tracks. Then, after carefully marking the exact location, they filled their hole up again.
“We have to go a lot deeper. The original tracks are still down there,” Rittner said. “But we can’t just do that — there’s OSHA regulations. We have to go down 20 feet. That’s deep. It could cave in. We have to do an excavation plan.”
He also needs to raise about $10,000 to rent the equipment needed for the project. But, he said, he’s finished the hardest part.
“I wanted to prove it was there,” he said. “Putting together the plan is not the problem. The problem is getting permission and getting the money.”
He’s hoping the McDonald family, which owns the Stockade Inn, would allow him to dig up a portion of the tunnel nearby and display it forever under a see-through cover.
“The Stockade Inn, they would benefit greatly. People would see it and then stop in to eat,” Rittner said hopefully.
He figures train buffs and historians would travel to see the nation’s first train tunnel, and average history lovers who already choose to visit the historic Stockade Inn would be interested in the tunnel too.
The discovery also gives Schenectady a chance to steal a historic crown from Cleveland, which claims that it had the first railroad tunnel. Its tunnel was built two years after Schenectady’s but is already on display.
Rittner said he doesn’t plan to fight Cleveland for the title.
“No, that’d be mean,” he said. “And they may argue this wasn’t a tunnel, it was a trench with a canopy on it. But this was the beginning.”