While working on “Rivers, Roads and Rails” (an exhibit for the Bethlehem Historical Association’s Cedar Hill Schoolhouse Museum) I’ve been delving into the history of the West Shore Railroad and keep coming across the story of the Commodore’s White Elephant.
I have questions. Like who is this Commodore? And why do we use the phrase “white elephant” anyway? And is there a Bethlehem connection in there somewhere?
Here’s the story:
The Commodore is Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), shipping magnet, railroad tycoon, wily businessman, self-made billionaire. Husband of Sophia for 55years, and then Frank for 8. Father of 12 (including William, who met cute with his future wife Maria Louisa Kissam near her home in Bethlehem in 1841). The Commodore made his initial millions with water transportation. By the 1840s, his fleet of steamships served routes in the waterways around and between New York City, Long Island, and Albany, including areas of New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island. During the gold rush of 1849, he expanded his steamship service to San Francisco.
In the 1860s, sensing that the future of transportation was on land, he began buying up controlling interests in existing railroads like the Long Island Railroad, the New York and Harlen Railroad, and the Hudson River Railroad, eventually merging his holdings into the New York Central. It’s said that he made $25 million in the first five years of his railroad ventures.
Of note for our story is the Hudson River Railroad. In the early 1860s, the Hudson River Railroad did not have a bridge connection to Albany from its terminal across the river in Rensselaer. In 1864, the Commodore and investor Daniel Drew conceived the Saratoga and Hudson River Railroad, a 27-mile line that bypassed Albany. Westbound passengers and freight disembarked at the City of Hudson and then crossed the river via ferry and barge to arrive at Athens where they connected with the new line. The line connected with the New York Central near Schenectady passing through South Bethlehem and Feura Bush.
In 1867, the Saratoga and Hudson was leased by the New York Central and merged into their system as the Athens Branch. The busy junction at Athens met a spectacular end in June 1876 when it was destroyed by a huge fire. The steamboat John Taylor, the barge Hercules, the canal boat Stephen Van Warren, the entire depot with its sheds and office buildings, hundreds of cars in the yard, and all the freight (sugar, corn, oats, tobacco) in these various stages of transport, went up in flames.
Not too long after the fire, the Athens Branch became known as a white elephant because it had outlived its usefulness, plus it was never very profitable. It didn’t help that a RR bridge across the Hudson at Albany was opened in 1866. In 1881, the line was purchased by the New York, West Shore and Buffalo, and the section from Coxsackie to Schenectady became part of the mainline. The part between Coxsackie and Athens limped along for a few years before the rails were completely removed in 1888.
The Commodore’s white elephant was really only a white elephant for a short time. Then it passed into legend. Several secondary sources say Vanderbilt long regretted the investment and said it was “the most foolish thing of my life.”
And what exactly is a white elephant? Dictionary.com says it is a “possession entailing great expense out of proportion to its usefulness or value to its owner” and that the phrase was first recorded in the early 1850s. The story is said to go back to Siam (modern day Thailand) where a literal white elephant was a highly prized, sacred animal. Let me just quote historyextra.com – they tell it so well:
“The term “white elephant” denotes any burdensome, expensive and useless possession that is much more trouble than it is worth. White or very pale elephants were so highly prized that when one was discovered, it immediately became the possession of the King. White elephants, however, were practically useless. As they were deemed to be sacred, they weren’t allowed to be worked and required special, expensive food and housing – making them particularly pricey pachyderms.
So the cunning kings of Siam, as the story goes, used to give white elephants away to anyone who displeased them or had fallen out of favour so that they would be forced to spend a fortune keeping the precious animals. The unfortunate recipient of a white elephant would be unable to get rid of it so the upkeep could ruin them financially.”
There you have it, the white elephant line that used to run through Bethlehem. The section in Bethlehem merged with the West Shore and provided passenger and freight service in the hamlet of South Bethlehem until about 1959.
Flashes and Dashes
CORRECTION: In June’s article, Cemetery Walks and Veterans Stories, I mistakenly referred to the Piers as a Gold Star Family. That is incorrect. Gold Star families are those who have had a family member die in service to our country. All of the Pier children survived their service.
If you haven’t heard already, the Bethlehem Public Library is collecting your stories about the current pandemic. Please visit their website for more info: http://www.bethlehempubliclibrary.org/quarantine-memories-archive/
The Bethlehem Historical Association hopes to open their museum as soon as it is safe to do so. Visit their website for details: https://bethlehemhistorical.org/
And finally, visit my blog for the Kissam-Vanderbilt meet cute story:
Both of the above pictures are the South Bethlehem station during the West Shore Railroad era. I was unable to determine whether there was a station here on the White Elephant line. (Town of Bethlehem)
The Commodore, Cornelius Vanderbilt, in an image taken by Mathew Brady sometime between 1844 and 1860. (Library of Congress)