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"CHURCH, Frank, of Norwich, killed at Lyon Brook bridge Jan. 1, 1878."
During the year 1869 the actual construction of the New York & Oswego Midland Rail Road (two words, railroads were new back then!) began in earnest. Men worked at excavating the needed cuts while others filled in low areas where the grading crews would soon arrive. Wooden trestles were erected where needed, and finally track laying gangs laid iron rails end to end, on rough hewed ties, gauged and spiked the rails in place, and continued their dance until an almost continuous iron road was put down. There were, however, several areas that required more engineering ingenuity, consequently more time was needed to complete these portions of the right-of-way. Tunneling through the Shawangunk ridge, conquering the elevation of Northfield Mountain, traversing the valley at Sidney Center by several curved trestles, and bridging the Lyon Brook ravine were the difficult engineering feats that had to be completed to begin through train operations of the Midland.
By the middle of 1869 workmen began arriving to commence work on what would become the engineering landmark of the Oswego Midland's Northern Division, the bridge over the Lyon Brook. This bridge, located between Norwich and Oxford, was planned to be 830 feet long, and its center 100 foot span was to be located 155 feet above the its namesake brook. During July and August the abutments needed to hold the iron superstructure were put up, utilizing in part flagstones from the nearby John Shattuck farm. In short order, caps were put on top of the abutments and everything was in order to begin erecting the ironwork. Contractors Smith, Latrobe, & Co. began receiving the bridge iron members from the Phoenix Iron Works in Philadelphia, and with Mr. Latrobe personally supervising the placing of the iron members, the lofty crossing of the ravine began. It was during this period of construction that a crowd of onlookers seemed always to be present. These curiosity seekers marveled at how the workmen were able to work so high in the air, and while they wished for the safety of the men, they wanted to be there to witness a tragedy should that occur.
On October 15th, with the ever present onlookers in attendance, the 100 foot Fink truss section was put in place directly over the ravine. With this section in place the onlookers, and certainly Mr. Latrobe himself, were satisfied that the bridge could be completed. Through November and on into December the work continued to complete the bridge. By this time the Midland was operating a regular schedule of trains from Oswego to Norwich and was only awaiting the completion of the Lyon Brook Bridge to extend the operation of trains to a connection with the Albany & Susquehanna Rail Road at Sidney Plains. Finally, just two days before the Christmas of 1869, with the track work installed atop the iron bridge, the first train was sent out onto to the completed bridge to test the span. Though there were nearly 2000 people in attendance to witness the trial of the bridge, not a sound was uttered until the train (consisting of a locomotive, 6 flat cars, and 2 passenger coaches) reached terra firma after crossing the span. At that time the crowd cheered, the locomotive whistle was blown, all done to announce that man had overcome a natural barrier.
Even before regular train operations began to Sidney Plains (on June 15, 1870) passenger excursion trains were regularly run to the bridge for people from far and near to view the completed wonder for themselves. It appears that the first excursion to the completed bridge was run on New Years Day of 1870. As reported in the Norwich Chenango Union newspaper, "upon arriving at the north end of the bridge, the train stopped, and most of those onboard walked out onto the bridge which was fitted up with substantial railings and a plank walk on both sides. Looking down from the dizzy height, at the seemingly frail supports, one can hardly believe it possible that the bridge can bear the heavy burdens which must cross it. After viewing the structure, the company repaired to the train which then slowly ran onto the bridge as far as the center where it halted a few minutes before starting back to Norwich". On a subsequent trip run on May 5, 1870, some passengers were not content to view the bridge from just the top. "We clamored down the banks of the Lyon Brook and into the chasm over which the celebrated structure stood, its iron network resembling more a horizontal cobweb than the firm and substantial work it is. Its height cannot be appreciated by riding over it. One must go down and then look up to be conscious of its altitude. We advise everyone not to miss a sight of it from the level of the water". Whether viewed from above or below, the Lyon Brook Bridge was an impressive structure that by itself alone brought much needed revenue to the fledgling Midland Rail Road. One such early excursion is shown in photo three just getting fully onto the bridge from the north end. The locomotive is #4, the "Delaware" with three early coaches coupled to its tender.
With the opening of the railroad to Sidney Plains the Lyon Brook Bridge was put to the test on numerous occasions daily and served the Midland well despite the railroad's financial difficulties. When the railroad was sold to a group of investors and became the New York, Ontario & Western Railway the bridge would continue to serve its new owner faithfully. But, winds of change were in the air. Ten years after the O&W took over the operation of the old Midland, President Fowler officially opened the railroads new Scranton Branch, on June 30, 1890. This new line, which tapped the locative coal fields of the Lackawanna Valley, brought about the O&W's entrance as a coal hauler. While it is true that the O&W(and the Midland before) had contracts to haul coal for the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company, the opening of this new branch meant an increase in the tonnage to be moved to tidewater and to the lake. To more efficiently handle this increased tonnage, the O&W set about improving its up and down profile, especially north of the junction with the mainline at Cadosia, while at the same time increasing the capacity of its many bridges. Towards this end, the railroad completed its Zig Zag Tunnel (June 25, 1891) which lowered the summit of Northfield Mountain, and before completing the Pecksport Loop (Sept. 13, 1896) which reduced the grade from Randallsville to Oneida it also completely rebuilt the Lyon Brook Bridge.
Contracts for the rebuilding of the bridge were made during February of 1894. The masonry for the new piers was begun in May, and during June the erection of the new steelwork commenced. The new structure contained eight plate girder tower spans of 30 feet each, three spans of 80 feet, four spans of 60 feet, and two spans of 50 feet, a total length of 820 feet. On August 15, 1894 the "new" bridge #282 was completed at a cost of 35,342.51. And, surprisingly, all the work was done without an interruption of train service! Now, heavily loaded coal trains, powered by more modern locomotives, were able to speed towards their destination of either Utica, Rome, or Oswego untethered to the light weight restrictions of the original bridge. Pictured here on the newly rebuilt bridge is a northbound accommodation train obviously stopped on the bridge for its portrait. Notice the more substantial steelwork as compared to the original ironwork.
As expected, this structure was a Very important location on the railroad. So important that during the years of World War II the bridge was guarded 24 hours a day to protect it from any form of espionage. An observation post was established on the south side of the bridge, and a small gable roofed shanty put in place to house the watchmen. Whether any "Nazi" or "Jap" sympathizers ever had any designs on sabotaging the Lyon Brook Bridge is questionable, nevertheless you could say that the guards were certainly successful in protecting the bridge and performing their duties.
The rebuilt Lyon Brook bridge served the O&W well until the railroad was abandoned on March 29, 1957. The last weight it had to shoulder was that of the scrap train that removed the rails from the bridge the following year. For another eight years the structure stood over the Lyon Brook but, during March of 1966, Price Demolition Co. of Appalachin, N.Y. began the dismantling of the structure. The following month, what had been a landmark of a once prosperous railroad was completely removed from its longtime setting, leaving nothing but the supporting piers and memories of a once cheering crowd when the first train inched out onto the structure in 1869. Whether any curiosity seekers were in attendance during March and April of 1966 is not known. Maybe it would be better if there weren't any. The demise of wonders of the railroad engineering world is not pleasant, their souls would rather we remember their majesty, their impressiveness, and their job well done! Remember their being, not their passing. Towards that end, an historical marker has been placed along East River Road (just south of Polkville, N.Y.) where the Lyon Brook chasm can be seen in the distance.....Once upon a time there was a great bridge there!