The story of the New York and Erie Railroad begins like this, so we are told. In January 1831, Henry L. Pierson and his bride, Helen, were on their honeymoon in Charleston, South Carolina. Helen learned that a steam engine, the “Best Friend of Charleston,” was going to make its first commercial run pulling passenger carriages since being put on the tracks of the South Carolina Railroad a couple of months earlier. The railroad was one of the first in America designed for steam locomotives as well as for horse-drawn carriages, and had opened only four months after Stephenson’s Manchester and Liverpool line. Helen was keen to take the ride, and Henry indulged her. They were pulled by the “Friend” for six miles and returned without incident. Helen was thrilled, and when she returned to New York City, the experience was all she could talk about.
Helen’s husband had caught some of her excitement as well. Henry Pierson was the son of a prominent New York businessman, Jeremiah Pierson, who had left Massachusetts for greener pastures in 1790, and a considerable part of his activities after 1795 focused on the development of the waterpower available in the town of Ramapo, northwest of New York City on the west side of the Hudson River. For a decade and more, he and his son Henry and his Yankee son-in-law Eleazar Lord had been involved in building a turnpike from Ramapo southeast to the Hudson at a place called, appropriately, “Piermont” to improve transportation of their manufactured products, such as nails, to the river and then into the city.
Helen’s excitement came at a propitious time, as another railroad line was about to open from above Albany to the Erie Canal town of Schenectady. The success of this project released a torrent of enthusiasm for this new mode of “road” transport all across New York State, resulting in the presentation of forty-two bills in the State Legislature in 1832 alone to incorporate railroads. One bill derived from a petition that Eleazar Lord circulated to create what was proposed to be the longest trunk line in the world. It would stretch five hundred miles through the ridges and rolling country of New York’s “Southern Tier,” from the Hudson River at Pierson’s waterfront property, Piermont, to Dunkirk, just southwest of Buffalo. Throughout 1831, a series of town meetings had been held across the Southern Tier to pledge political and financial support for Lord’s project. On receiving its charter in 1832, however, the railroad was encumbered with obstacles, and the project was hampered by delays, as a result of opposition by the “Canal Ring”, businessmen who rightly feared that railways would ruin their canal investments.
It took many years of effort, and a bankruptcy or two, but the line was finally completed. On May 14, 1851, President Millard Fillmore and other guests were greeted at Piermont for the inaugural trip, and Helen Pierson and her husband were among the first passengers to travel the entire length of the line to the small Lake Erie port of Dunkirk NY. Soon thereafter, the Erie recognized reality and built a spur line to Buffalo. As well, in 1852, the company managed to convince the State to allow it to buy a local railroad leading from Ramapo southeast to a new southern terminus in Jersey City, directly across from New York City.
When it was opened along its full length, twenty years after it had been conceived, the Erie was the longest continuous line in the world. It was also the most expensive project financed up to that time — at $23.5 million, it cost three times as much as the Erie Canal and about equaled the federal budget for a year in the 1840s. Although most of the lines built in America to that time, except the Western, were local in character, the Erie was a trunk line, carrying not only local products but also those to and from from States farther west. The modern Helen had launched, not a thousand ships, but thousands of railcars.