Sometime this spring, a $91 million construction project will begin laying down a much-needed second set of railroad tracks between Schenectady and Albany.
The single track between the region’s two largest cities is a bottleneck in the rail system felt all the way to Cleveland, given the heavy freight traffic that moves through the Mohawk Valley.
But it wasn’t that long ago — within living memory — that there were four tracks. Two paired tracks ran all the way to Buffalo. The New York Central began taking them up in the 1950s, as its managers tried to cut costs and stave off competition from the trucking industry.
The four-track line was the brainchild of Cornelius Vanderbilt — the originator of the vast Vanderbilt family fortune, and possibly the richest American of his time, who in the 1870s foresaw the benefits of separating freight and passenger trains onto different tracks, mostly to move the freight, not the people, more efficiently.
“The Commodore” was also behind the construction of the rail bridge between Albany and Rensselaer during the Civil War, and the span’s basic structure stands to this day.
But Vanderbilt’s legacy as builder of railroads isn’t the only reason to remember him locally. The man spent 35 years summering in Saratoga Springs, striking business deals, playing cards and betting on horses.
It was at the resort that the unschooled son of a boatman from Staten Island began to receive social acceptance for his wealth, despite his crude manners and speech, according to biographer T.J. Stiles.
I recently finished Stiles’ very good — indeed, Pulitzer Prize-winning — biography of Vanderbilt, “The First Tycoon.” If you’re prepared for 600 pages, I recommend it.
Vanderbilt first came to Saratoga with his family around 1840, having started to make his first fortune as a steamship entrepreneur. (Railroads came later.)
The resort village at that time was about mineral springs and card games; organized horse-racing was still decades away.
In the summer, the village was full of “politicians and dandies; cabinet ministers and ministers of the gospel; officeholders and officeseekers; humbuggers and humbugged; fortune-hunters and hunters of woodcock; anxious mothers and lovely daughters,” in the words of Philip Hone, a former mayor of New York whose detailed diary has proven invaluable to those doing historic research.
When it town, Vanderbilt patronized the grand Congress Hall hotel, destroyed by fire in 1866 but then rebuilt.
His “friends” included the reformed ruffian and unrepentant gambling promoter John Morrissey, who organized the first public horse track with Vanderbilt among the investors. But the friendship didn’t last, perhaps because not enough of Vanderbilt’s money rubbed off.
“He died without making a bad debt or leaving a friend,” Morrissey would say upon Vanderbilt’s death in 1877, barely a year before his own.
Railroad deals were struck with other wealthy men on those August evenings, and a freight rate war with the Pennsylvania Central was settled for a while by what became known as the “Saratoga Compact.”
Another momentous event: Stiles writes that it was at Saratoga in July 1868 that Vanderbilt’s wife, Sophia, first felt ill; she left and he stayed on, though the railroad baron dashed by special train back to New York two weeks later, when it became clear Sophia had had a stroke and was dying. A year later, he would disappear from Saratoga, make a quick trip by private train to London, Ontario, and return with a new wife, a Southern belle named (yes, that’s right) Frank, who was 45 years younger.
Vanderbilt was by all accounts an overbearing man and father. His children and grandchildren would come to prefer the more refined atmosphere of Newport as their summer place to be, but the family connection to Saratoga never disappeared.
A great-great-grandson, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, spent summers and raced horses at Saratoga for 60 years, and is buried in Greenridge Cemetery.
His widow, Marylou Whit-
ney, remains pluckily and faithfully on the Saratoga social scene every summer.
Stephen Williams is a Gaz-
ette reporter. The opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. He can be reached at 885-6705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.