Long Island Forest Fires and the Railroad Wars of 1845
Forest fires, which result in destruction of property and even loss of life, are no new thing on the south side and the middle sections of Long Island, and, though this season’s fires have swept more of the north, that may be accounted for from the dryness of northerly winds and the fact that until within a few years no railroad, with its consequent fires, was built on that side of the island. The fires from the railroads, driven by north winds, had long before practically exterminated the forests of the south side.
In May, 1862, a fire started near Smithtown and swept the middle and south side to the east and south, burning not only wood, but numbers of dwellings and barns. In that year the wind blew with hurricane force from the northwest and within six hours from the time the fire started it reached Seatuck, now Eastport, where a fire had burned a few days previously, and was there stayed only for lack of material. There was no such thing as fighting it in the woods, as the force of the wind made that utterly impossible. The loss from that fire was estimated at various sums ranging between $100,000 and $250,000.
Suffolk County at present has many sources of revenue, but in olden times its main support was cordwood and eels. The farmers raised a little stock. And grew a little corn and rye, and perhaps they sold a few chickens and occasionally a beef for the city markets. But eels and cordwood were all year round products, and if a man was to receive any money it must be from one of these sources, and it was the almost entire loss of cordwood as a source of revenue and its consequent distress that caused the only real mob law rule and riot that ever occurred on Long Island within the memory of the oldest residents.
Previous to 1845, if a man was a landowner his most valuable property was woodland. The annual growth of the standing wood was valued at 50 cents per 1,000 acres. Many a Long Island landowner was in this class, and his teams carted wood in the winter season and he used his cheaper class of laborers to cut the wood or hired it cut by the cord. From the opening of navigation in the spring until winter set in a fleet of schooners and sloops was engaged in conveying it to the city for fuel. There was then no coal, no natural gas, no fuel except wood, and the man who owned wood, the man who freighted wood, was the man who had money. He did not have to go eeling, but all others who did one of these things. Such was “a condition not a theory,” on Long Island in 1845.
The Long Island Railroad had been extended through to Greenport the preceding year, and the locomotives burned wood and hauled wood to the markets. Wood was as much king at the time on Long Island as cotton became king in the South previous to the Civil War. During the winter of 1844-45, thousands of cords were cut in anticipation of a big market by the landowners, and they included the Ludlows and the Nicolls of Islip, the Roes and Robinsons of Patchogue, the Howells and Osborns of Bellport, the Millers and Carmans of Fireplace, the Smiths and Floyds of Mastic, the Terrys and Osborns of Moriches, the Tuttles and Rogers of Speonk and the Jessups and Howells of Ketchabonoc.
With the dry day of April and May, fires started from the sparks of the locomotives almost daily and ravaged the woods. Often times the fires were subdued before great damage had been done. But just as often the fires, driven before northwest gales, spread desolation for miles.
Standing wood and cut cord wood. Even barns and dwellings, were fast disappearing and Long Island’s best men saw their main support, cord wood, wiped from the face of the earth. Men, women and children were called out daily to fight fire, and when not fighting fire were praying for rain day and night. In the latter part of April and the earlier part of May, 1845, the whole south side was fire swept from Farmingdale and Deer Park to Westhampton. There was no time to spare to plant corn or other corps each trip of the locomotives, as they were then called, left fires in their track. The conditions were desperate and the people became just as desperate in their determination to stop the further loss and to get some remuneration for that already caused by the fires.
The people of Suffolk County saw ruin staring them in the face and finding that the railroad company’s officials would grant them no redress, threats took the place of appeals and action followed fast on the threats. The people, excepting only some of those employed by the railroad company, were united in devising some means to the desired end-lawful if possible, but unlawful if need be and this was written all over Suffolk County. Her best men were the people’s leaders and a present admiral of the United States Navy and a popular general of the Regular Army can with absolute truth, either of them say: “My father was a leader in the Suffolk County railroad war of 1845.” No better men existed and no more determined men ever faced serious trouble.
The following communication written for the Evening Post and published in that paper May 21, 1845, under the caption. “Suffolk County Fires and Troubles,” aptly explains the situation at that time.
“Woodland in this county to the extent of one hundred thousand acres has been burnt over within one month, by fires communicated by the locomotives of the Long Island Railroad Company. As the wealth and ready means of this immense loss of at least five hundred thousand dollars, must now, and for many years to come, be most severely felt by every citizen of it. The scenes of ruin and devastation everywhere presented in the county cannot but awaken feelings of the strongest indignation in the breast of the passing stranger toward a railroad company so regardless of the lives and property of the citizens. Though whose lands the road is located. Can it be a matter of surprise that the people themselves to a man are untied and determined upon redress for past losses and upon means of protection for the future? Despairing of any action upon the part of the railroad company, tired of having a deaf ear turned to their entreaties and remonstrances; disgusted and insulted by the absurd reply to them, that the fires did not proceed from the locomotives. But were set by themselves; with all farming operations and business suspended by reason of watching daily the passage of the locomotives through their lands and extinguishing immediately thereafter, sometimes within the short of space of two miles, as many a twenty-four fires in a single day; in a state of constant and fearful alarm and excitement, frequently fighting against fires for days and nights together: with rain staring them in the face and land rendered entirely valueless; the people of Suffolk County have indicted this railroad as a public nuisance, and in accordance with the common law in such cases if is in the power of any citizen of the county to abate the nuisance by taking up the rails of the road, or in any other effective way.
“There is not a single man throughout the length and breadth of the county but has an inflexible determination to abate the nuisance. Unless the railroad company comes immediately to terms. Should it not do, due notice will be given to the traveling public, throughout the Eastern States, the island and the City of New York, cautioning them form traveling on said road, after a certain date, as the rails will be taken up. If after such notice any accident should happen, the people of Suffolk County are absolved from its consequences. The above resolution and intended action are not the result of excitement, but of a deep and stern feeling which prompts every one of us to self defense, in the absence of a legal remedy, and to the protection of our property against the unfeeling and reckless acts of an irresponsible railroad company. This company contends that it is not liable for damages for fires from their engines, even if fully proved, and publishes exultingly to the people of the county that it has money enough to litigate with, and wear out our already diminished fortunes. Even if, with this in review, suits be commenced, fires still would be daily communicated and before a decision could finally be obtained every landholder would be ruined. The consequences of the passage of this railroad though Suffolk County have been unequaled in all the annals of railroads. During the tree years previous to the present one this railroad had burned over in the western section of the county about fifty thousand acres at a damage of a least $300,000. Thus it will be perceived that within the short space of three years and a half, taking into account the first of the spring, this county has lost $800,000 by the direct means of this railroad. The little woodland that is now left unburnt is diminished in value from risks of fires from locomotives by 200 per cent. Efforts have been made by the construction of fire roads to ward off fires, but experience has shown them to be ineffective.”
The city papers of both New York and Brooklyn were teeming with reports of the trouble, and while admitting great provocation did not justify the threatened destruction of the railroad by the Suffolk County people, but no other course seemed open to the enraged and impoverished populace and the threats in the above communication to tear up his tracks was put in operation.
Determined bodies of middle aged men harnessed their teams. Loaded their farm wagons with men, tools and guns every two or three weeks, and, choosing pleasant moonlight nights when possible, proceeded to move sections of the rails. They practiced felling a big pine tree with its bushy, heavy foliage across the track at a distance, one tree each side of where the rails had been removed. This was repeatedly done and not a passenger was endangered, as the obstruction on the track served to warn the trainmen.
After this course had been pursued for a month or two, the railroad company, armed with fowling pieces, a company of railroad laborers and placed a guard on the track, with a reserve at the stations. One of these guard port stations was St. George’s Manor- the St. George has since been dropped from the name. One mile west from the station a lonely guard patrolling saw two men approaching him, each carrying a gun. He stopped, hesitated and turned to go back to the guard post when he observed two men with guns approaching from that direction. As he stopped again more men approached on each side of the track until fully a hundred armed men surrounded him. One man, unarmed stepped up to him and said:
“Please hand me that gun; you might get nervous and have it go off in your hands and that would make it a little unpleasant for you, I fear.”
When the guardsman had surrendered the gun the spokesman said to him: “All right; now you please run right down to the guard in reserve and tell them there is a pleasant party here which will welcome them if they choose to come up and see how easily Long Islanders handle crowbars, sledge hammers and shotguns.”
That was the last armed patrolman that appeared that, or any other night, when one of these pleasant parties assembled. It was soon thought advisable, by the company, to withdraw the patrolmen and run an engine over exposed part of the road, making trips as often as necessary to find breaks in the track. One of the company’s employees, a resident of Manorville, was the lookout on the pilot of the engine. Up to the time of his death, three years ago, he was a well known citizen and had a life pass over the road. He was picked out as somewhat of a traitor to the cause, by the populace, and a trap set for him and the guard engine, which it was learned always went under a low head of steam. A soft spot was selected in the swamp west of Hulse’s turnout, now Calverton, and the rails were turned just enough to throw the engine into the swamp. The wrecking plant got this engine out of the mud and within three days it was called upon to visit the next point of attack, which was Carmen’s River Bridge.
The railroad managers then, as now, were endeavoring to increase traffic and were running a New England express train, connecting for Boston by boat at Greenport. St. George’s Manor was a watering and wooding up station for that train and the passengers were surprised there one day to see five hundred able bodies men assembled there under the leadership of the Rev. Mr. Feltle, who announced that the train could not proceed until the service he was holding was over. The service was a formal notice to the company that the people of Suffolk County discountenanced all travel by the Long Island Railroad until a settlement was effected with those whose property and homes had been ruined. This provoked some talk of bringing a regiment of militia from some other section of the state to guard the road. But it was known that Suffolk County had always been noted for the thorough work of her minute men in the Revolution and again in 1812, and the experiment was not tried.
The company finally concluded to settle. In some cases they paid money. In others agreed to buy the burnt wood at a specified price per cord. One large wood owner was to receive $2.50 for all the wood delivered beside the company’s side tracks. He employed all the men he could possibly get to cut and cart wood. One chopper offered to cut at the regular price, if he was allowed to have the trimmings for firewood.
“Trimmings,” said the wood owner, “there is no trimmings in this deal, it all goes in as cord wood. If there is any huckleberry bushes that is not destroyed, put them in too, they’ll measure all right.”
Of the hundreds of hardly middle aged men who participated in the Long Island Railroad war of fifty-six years ago, not one is alive today. Of course, it is well enough known who they were, but it is not today, nor ever has been, susceptible of proof that any designated man had a hand in the work. All is inference or guesswork. A man would leave his house with his gun and crowbar and, if asked where he was going, would -or at least did in one case reply to the writer’s mother-”I am going where human beings will not stop me.” They carried each other’s confidence into their graves and were among the most respected of Suffolk’s citizens.
A few of them were brought before a court in Brooklyn at two different times, but no incriminating evidence could be found, and the cases were finally thrown out of court by the judge.
The old gun taken from the patrolmen, as related above, is now in the possession of a member of U.S. Grant Post, G.A.R. His father was a Suffolk County man and, perhaps, he found the gun handy in the railroad war in 1845.