Swirling Around in Fish’s Eddy – Part I
by John Canfield
Fish’s Eddy in the good times – courtesy Bill Phelps
A couple months back I was looking at a photo of the O&W Fish’s Eddy station on the East Branch of the Delaware River and thought it would be neat to model it in 1:87 and besides, it had been some time since I had fed my Northeastern board-and-batten siding fix. I had a couple pictures of it and the old color postcard of the North end with the locomotive out front had gained some degree of notoriety, turning up fairly regularly as in this Business Directory from Delaware County in 2003.
I put a note on the OWRHS Yahoo Group site looking for further information on the station. The responses I got and the information I subsequently discovered just proved to me that an effort to find out about a prototype frequently leads you down some pretty interesting paths.
First things first – I’d like to thank Walt Kierzkowski, Mal Houck, Dan Myers, Jeff Otto, Steve Swirsky, Rich Cobb, the Observer Tourguide, and M.B.Wakefield’s “To the Mountains by Rail” for photos, maps, and background info on the station. And just as important, my appreciation to Marj Capach Gould who shared with me her memories of years and years ago living in the station and her days around the O&W and to Bill Phelps who through some dogged detective work turned up a delightful scratchbuilt model of the station that dates back about, oh, 50 years or so.
And one more thing before I continue: DISCLAIMER: THE FOLLOWING NARRATIVE IS NOT INTENDED TO BE AN EXACT HISTORY OF THE TOWN OF FISH’S EDDY OR THE DEPOT. SOME DATES MAY BE UNCLEAR OR NOT EXACTLY CORRECT AND SEVERAL OTHER NITS MAY STAND READY TO BE PICKED, ESPECIALLY BECAUSE SOME OF THE FOLLOWING IS BASED ON PEOPLE’S MEMORIES OF EVENTS THAT OCCURRED OVER 60 YEARS AGO. ANY DISPUTES, REFUTATIONS, ARGUMENTS, OR SPECULATION AS TO THE VERACITY OF THE FOLLOWING WILL BE PATENTLY IGNORED BY THE AUTHOR. JUST ENJOY.
Postcard of Fish’s Eddy bridges, early 1900s – courtesy Steve Swirsky
I recall as a kid (with a father who loved to take long boring Sunday “rides” with no apparent destination) running across the name “Fish’s Eddy” and conjuring up images of helpless fish being whizzed around in a maelstrom somewhere in the Catskills. Others apparently liked the name too. A couple of antique collectors who traveled Route 17 were so fascinated with the name that they opened funky dish and kitchenware stores named “Fish’s Eddy” in Manhattan and Brooklyn, still in business. A punk rock band from Buffalo also chose the name “Fish’s Eddy” for their band because one of the members camped near there when he was a kid. They apparently thought that “Fish’s Eddy” was a lot funkier than their previous name, “Toast” (go figure), and whether this austere group is still pounding away I know not.
As for the town’s name, “eddy” simply means a small whirlpool, common in the Delaware with other similarly named nearby locations, Pea’s Eddy and Long Eddy. You may think that the name “Fish” in Fish’s Eddy could have two potential origins. Bill Phelps, an O&W retiree, opines that perhaps a cigar is just a cigar and the “fish” name simply referred to the ones in the river. And John Fish, an O&W retiree, can’t trace any of his family to Fish’s Eddy. But as it turns out, Fish’s Eddy was named after some other two-legged Fish. Jehu Fish was one of the first settlers in the area and nearby Jehu Mountain is named after him. And in addition to John, other Fishes toiled for the O&W as well. Marj Capach Gould’s uncle Sidney Fish worked at Wurtsboro and at the tower at Hawk Mountain and one time he was quite seriously injured when he slipped and fell from the tower steps to the flagstone below.
In any event, at one point in time, the hamlet of Fish’s Eddy was a pretty busy little place. Located at almost the midway point of the O&W (171 miles from Oswego, 154 from New York), the town and the surrounding area produced railroad ties, lumber, blue stone, and tan bark with several acid factories nearby. Two big hotels did a good business, buoyed by the O&W passenger trade, but the bustling level of commerce didn’t forestall some true calamities. The railroad crossed the East Branch of the Delaware River here on two bridges and in 1886, the perhaps poorly-built north span simply dropped into the river taking a train and the lives of four trainmen with it. Eleven years later, a derailment caused a car to knock out the end post of the middle span and down she went again, this time fortunately with no fatalities. Today, one of these hopefully-sturdier spans still stands and serves as a one-way bridge connecting the Eddy to Route 17 on the other side of the river.
The Second Bridge Collapse – courtesy Walt Kierzkowski
Another disaster that knocked a hole in the place was a huge fire in May of 1929 that destroyed nine buildings in the town including a hotel, general store, post office, and Maccabee Hall. 9 others were severely damaged and the total loss was estimated to be $75,000, just a staggering sum for the time. Poor Fish’s Eddy never recovered.
The Fish’s Eddy depot of postcard fame was not the Eddy’s first station. An earlier building apparently was too cramped and was replaced by the Oswego Midland, predecessor to the O&W, with the more well-known two story structure at some point in time.
According to O&W history, the station was “closed” in April of 1934. However, although “closed” may be the technically correct term, it perhaps only meant that a full-time operator or agent was no longer assigned to the station because, as we shall see, some activity still went on there for many years after that. In fact as late as 1947 and perhaps beyond, maybe until the trains stopped running past Roscoe in the early 50’s, Fish’s Eddy was designated as a “flag stop” with at least some intermittent passenger traffic.
The 2nd station – courtesy Walt Kierzkowski
The station had a full second floor and various O&W employees and their families would reside there. One of these was Bill Capach who after marrying the station agent’s daughter moved upstairs in the depot in 1936. Just prior to that, the family of Fred McMorris, another O&W employee, had just moved out. Bill’s daughter, Marjorie Capach Gould, lives near Ithaca and clearly remembers the days of living in the station.
Marj says that it wasn’t until just about the time they moved in that the station had indoor plumbing or electricity. She recalls that upstairs there was a large bedroom at one end, a small living/sitting room and kitchen in the center, and next to the new bathroom at the other end was a small room where her grandfather, John Lakin, frequently stayed.
John Lakin – courtesy Marj Gould
Marj’s grandfather John Lakin could also trace his roots to the early settlers of Fish’s Eddy. Four Lakin brothers made their way up the Delaware River in the 1700’s, settling around Hancock and Fish’s Eddy, and one brother, Joel, fought in the Revolutionary War. Not too far from Fish’s Eddy on the O&W was also a location called “Lakin’s Switch”. John Lakin started working for the O&W before World War I and during the first “Great War” worked as a “track walker” between Fish’s Eddy and East Branch to check for any potential mudslides or washouts.
Marj’s dad Bill began working for the O&W in 1920 as a freight handler at Burnside and then learned telegraphy from his dad, also an O&W telegrapher. In fact about 1922 Bill began courting Marj’s mother and would send her telegrams from Burnside to the Fish’s Eddy station where the station agent would kindly pass them along to her. Bill never worked at the Fish’s Eddy station but for years was a relief telegrapher up and down the line as well as working as a relief station agent/operator mostly at Cadosia and Roscoe.
Although the station may have officially “closed” in 1934, Marj remembers it being a very busy place long after that. Her grandfather John was around the Fish’s Eddy station a good deal of the time, serving as a “caretaker” and as Marj remembers, putting out and collecting the mail bags for the trains to pick up. She also recalls passenger trains stopping regularly and the daily morning milk train which also brought the mail. Marj and her brother would wait for the morning train because it brought the New York Daily News and, egged on by the good-natured teasing of Barney Britt on the mail car, they would fight over who got the paper first to see how their beloved Brooklyn Dodgers had done the day before.
Bill Capach kept journals and in them are some funny little vignettes about what went on around the O&W. For example, just after New Years’ in 1948 the station operator at Cadosia laid off sick because he had either broken or cracked a rib on New Year’s Eve. He didn’t remember exactly how or where he did it but the O&W scuttlebutt was that this was understandable because on the Eve he was having a high old time and fell down in every place in town. The Cadosia operator’s mishap sent Bill to fill in as the operator in Cadosia and for that pay period, he earned his highest pay ever while working on the O&W – for 15 days with overtime, he grossed the princely sum of $193.44.
At the end of 1940, with Marj ready to go to high school in Hancock, Bill decided it was time they had a “real house” and they moved out of the station. This didn’t end Marj’s adventures on the railroad, however. After Pearl Harbor, when she was about 16 she worked as a waitress at “The Beanery”, a restaurant in Cadosia popular with O&W trainmen. With gas both hard to come by and expensive, she remembers sometimes walking back and forth or hitchhiking the five or six miles because her father barely had enough gas for him to get to work and back up and down the O&W line. Sometimes Marj would luck out and she could hitch a ride on a slow-moving caboose as it passed through Fish’s Eddy and hop off at Cadosia. Her grandfather thought this very dangerous (imagine!) and told her father who made her swear never to do it again (until the next time, anyway). Marj also remembers one time being all excited because a conductor let her up on a stopped train to look in the end door at German POWs being transported on the O&W. She feared they might be dangerous but instead they were all just asleep.
However, It’s pretty obvious that after being “closed” in ’34, the station wasn’t fully utilized a good part of the time. During the war in 1942, the railroad was asked by Mr. Elwood, the postmaster at Hancock, if he could rent part of the station as a post office. However, E.J. DeWitt, Office Engineer for the O&W, put the kibash on the idea because of “the added hazard to the Railway in having patrons of the post office cross the tracks at a point where the visibility was none too good”.
Request and denial for using the station as a post office – courtesy Walt Kierzkowski
Blueprint from 1947 showing track close to station torn up – courtesy Dan Myers
Even though he had long since moved out, Bill Capach never lost his affection for the station. In September of 1951, he made an arrangement with the O&W whereby he would lease the station for $1 a year with the lease renewable on an annual basis and he would also be responsible for paying the utilities, etc. It is most likely that by this point with little or no railroad business being conducted at Fish’s Eddy Bill feared that the station might fall into further disrepair or be torn down completely if somebody didn’t keep an eye on it. Because by then the track closest to the station had already been taken up, the O&W probably also had little concern about anyone being injured on the property. Marj remembers after she got married her father asking her and her husband if they would like to “vacation” at the station but Marj by then apparently thought that the Fish’s Eddy station was not such a garden spot for a great holiday.
Bill Capach’s idea of a lovely vacation spot for Marj and her new husband – courtesy Walt Kierzowski
Letter granting Bill Capach $1/year station lease – courtesy Marj Gould
Marj found that in her father’s journals that in the last days of the O&W he was working the 3rd trick at Cadosia and noted on March 2, 1957 that the “O&W ran the last train No. 10 through here. Conductor Leon Tompkins, Engineer Hank Kortright.” Marj says that her father never believed that the O&W was truly dead and even after the tracks were torn up he thought the railroad would come back. But the reality was that he needed to work so in October of ’57 he took a job as a timekeeper for MacLean Grove Brewster at Shaft #4 at Rockland. He said in his journal that he was paid $2.00 per hour and “liked his job very much”.
Station, 1946 – courtesy Jeff Otto
During the late 40’s, Marj’s parents had become good friends with Neal Coddington who lived “across the tracks” in Fish’s Eddy. Neal was a sales executive with a heavy equipment firm in Albany and Marj says they would frequently visit his house because he had a “bar in the basement”. Marj remembers that about the time she got married in ’49, in his basement Neal also had a model of the Fish’s Eddy station that he had made. It was mounted on a base and everyone marveled at how he had detailed the interior and that it was such a perfect replica of the depot which was still standing. By that time, however, the depot itself had started to get a little long in the tooth and as this photo from ’46 shows, the platforms had been removed and it was looking pretty forlorn.
Now let’s fast forward about 57 years and enter Bill Phelps, O&W retiree and a resident of Hancock just 7 miles from Fish’s Eddy. I had talked to Bill in tracking down information on the station and we agreed it wasn’t easy. Most existing pictures showed the same view from the North End and the only picture that showed the South End clearly showed a “door to nowhere” on the second floor about the freight end. Sadly, there were no clear pictures anyplace of the back of the station except for one fuzzy faraway shot that Bill found which is at the beginning of this article.
Bill started nosing around in an effort to help me find out whether there were ever stairs up to that “phantom” door and what did the back (east) wall look like. He journeyed up to Fish’s Eddy and spoke with a Mr. Appley whose father had been an engineer running the pushers behind trains going over Young’s Gap out of Cadosia and later after the diesels came piloting the 44-Tonner at Sidney. Mr. Appley remembered as a kid there being an outside staircase up to that door but that it was later removed to make more room on the freight platform. The staircase was later “moved” to the back of the station but whether ever actually reinstalled there or just thrown on the ground for “storage” is not clear.
Bill then got wind of the fact that the Coddington model of the depot from so many years before might still be around which led him to the home of Mrs. Harold Ostrander in Fish’s Eddy. Although she didn’t have the model, she knew who did and led Bill to the home of George Mays where lo and behold the model resided and was still in excellent shape. A picture is worth a thousand words and here are several pictures that Bill took of this model. Suffice it to say it’s a beauty, and one marvels at the fact that it was built in the late 40’s well before the availability of all the window and door castings and other scratchbuilding items that we so take for granted today. Whether Neal built all these windows by hand or there was some obscure source for them is not known but for the day, the fidelity is incredible.
All photos courtesy Bill Phelps
The model also clears up some other mysteries. Upstairs, the south end’s phantom” door has its own little porch so it’s obvious the staircase was never replaced. There was also an upstairs door with a porch in the center of the back of the station and just below it, a downstairs door which presumably at one time led out to the outhouse. Marj Capach clearly remembers the two small upstairs porches and that during the time she lived there and from what she can remember after that there were no stairs on the south end of the building. The model also shows platforms running entirely around the station, but Marj’s remembrance was that other than the freight platform, there were no others around the station but just big flagstones in front of the two downstairs doors. This is certainly true because in the ’46 photo, all the platforms are gone and there sit the flagstones.
So my little search for info to build a model has been most enriching. I had a bunch of great folks send me information. I reconnected with Bill Phelps who went well out of his way for me and turned up a truly great O&W “archeological” find. I met Marj Capach Gould whose memories are a living piece of O&W history. (In fact, I have titled this article Part I because Marj tells me there are many other O&W mementos and journals from her dad that she would like to share with me.) I also got some insight into the sadness of lifelong O&W employees like Marj’s dad Bill who even after the Railway folded still couldn’t believe that it might not come back.
As if fires and bridge collapses weren’t enough, here in December of ’03 the Delaware flooded and inundated the area where the O&W came into Fish’s Eddy. The low structure in the center is the foundation for the town’s new jail which, after this, the town fathers judiciously decided should be located elsewhere – Bill Capach collection
Yup, digging all this up has been lots of fun but what of my station model? Well, now that the summer’s done and I’m getting the resin in my blood again, I’ve decided to veer away from making kits of the great wooden fleet and giving producing a kit of the Fish’s Eddy depot a shot. Here are some pics of some my initial mold master pieces with more to follow. So if you’re interested, watch this space!!