The New York, Ontario and Western Railway


(A big thanks goes out to the O&W Historical Society for allowing these photos to be featured here.)

The New York, Ontario and Western Railway is a sometimes forgotten classic fallen flag railroad system because it exited the railroad business in the latter 1950s. The NYO&W railroad, or O&W as it was also known, was an upstate New York railroad that served the New York City metropolitan area predominantly hauling anthracite coal and dairy products. The O&W was never a financially strong carrier and after these two primary sources of traffic began to disappear by the 1930s so too did the railroad. It remained in operation until 1957 when a bankruptcy court finally ordered the tired railroad to be shutdown and its assets sold off.


The NYO&W began life as the New York & Oswego Midland Railroad, a railroad envisioned by Dewitt C. Littlejohn as a powerful transportation artery serving north and western New York state with New York City and its surrounding urban centers. The railroad was incorporated in 1868 and began construction from Middletown, New York. However, the railroad quickly ran into money troubles within a month when it proved to be much more costly to build than anticipated as the lower Catskill Mountains were simply too difficult to circumvent reasonably requiring many tunnels, bridges and fills.

Still, the NY&OM survived until 1880 when it was reorganized as the New York, Ontario and Western Railway. By this time the railroad had completed its main line between its headquarters of Middletown and Oswego, on the banks of Lake Ontario. In addition to its main line the O&W also inherited branches to Delhi, New Berlin and Ellenville, New York from its predecessor.  Perhaps, though, the most important railroad lines the O&W would come to operate was through its association with the New York, West Shore & Buffalo Railway.

The NYWS&B operated between Cornwall, New York and Weehawken, New Jersey (just north of Jersey City) and once the railroad completed its line between Cornwall and Middletown the O&W had a direct route to New York City. Unfortunately, the O&W lost controlling interest in the NYWS&B when it fell into bankruptcy in 1884 and was then purchased by the then New York Central & Hudson River Railroad (predecessor to the New York Central Railroad). Still, the NYC&HR allowed the O&W to continue operating over the NYWS&B between Cornwall and Weehawken.

The O&W became a modestly successful operation with its transportation of milk and dairy products along with very popular passenger and tourism operations since the railroad served resorts and hotels in the lower Catskill Mountains (located along the railroad's line through Orange, Delaware and Sullivan counties). However, perhaps the O&W most important traffic source was anthracite coal.  In 1890 it completed its 55-mile Scranton Division which connected Scranton, Pennsylvania via a branch from its main line at Cadosia, New York.

This route would move significant amounts of coal (a commodity at that time which was used heavily by the residential and commercial sector for heating purposes) and also included connections with other important systems in the region such as the Lehigh Valley; Delaware, Lackawanna & Western; and Delaware & Hudson Railway.  Unfortunately, the 20th century proved to be a disaster for the O&W. While the O&W was somewhat successful in the late 19th century multiple factors would lead to its eventual liquidation in the 1950s. First, the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad gained control of the system and wanted nothing more of it than to use it as a bargaining tool with the NYC. This proved unsuccessful but resulted in the railroad being left poorly maintained and in need of updated equipment.


The next setback was the result of better roads and highways being built into interior and upstate New York. This, along with improved and cheaper vehicles, allowed folks much more independence thus severely eroding the O&W's lucrative passenger traffic to and from the Catskills. Finally, as the 1920s dawned anthracite coal began losing its appeal as a primary heating source. While it still remained in demand for another 10 years or so, anthracite was simply no longer profitable by the 1930s. This in itself was the major blow that caused the New York, Ontario and Western Railway to fall into bankruptcy in 1937.

Diesel Locomotive Roster

Electro-Motive Corporation/Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
NW2111-131194821
F3A501-503, 821-82219485
FTA601, 801-80819459
FTB601B, 801B-808B19459
F3B821B-822B19482

General Electric

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
44-Tonner101-10519425

Steam Locomotive Roster

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
AAmerican4-4-0
E, I-1, U-1Ten-Wheeler4-6-0
I, U, VMogul2-6-0
LSwitcher0-6-0
P, S, W, W-2Consolidation2-8-0
XSanta Fe2-10-2
Y Through Y-2Mountain4-8-2

The railroad's bankruptcy in 1937 would ultimately be the beginning of the end. The ailing O&W was unable to ebb the flowing red ink; with its loss of passenger, coal and diary traffic along with a system that simply did not serve many large population centers the railroad was in a hopeless situation. By the late 1950s the writing was on the wall and the railroad also known as the "Old & Weary" due to its antiquated equipment and physical plant which was still partially stuck in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a bankruptcy court ordered the O&W liquidated and assets sold on March 29, 1957.  For more information about the O&W in general please click here to visit the New York, Ontario and Western Railway Historical Society. 



For more reading on the NYO&W you might want to consider the book O. & W.: The Long Life And Slow Death Of The New York, Ontario And Western Railway by author William F. Helmer. This book is the preeminent read on the history of the O&W and is highly recommended by the O&W Historical Society.    Also, another good book on the railroad is Ontario and Western Railway Northern Division by author John Taibi from Arcadia Publishing's "Images of Rail" series. The book includes over 128 pages of information and pictures covering the railroad from its earliest beginnings to final days, but with particular interest paid to the system's northern lines. If you have any interest in the O&W or are interested in learning more about this often overlooked classic American railroad you will very much enjoy Mr. Taibi's book. If you're interested in perhaps purchasing one, or both of these books please visit the links below which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com, the trusted online shopping network.

Share Your Thoughts

Have your say about what you just read! Leave me a comment in the box below. Please note that while I strive to present the information as accurately as possible I am aware that there may be errors. If you have potential corrections the help is greatly appreciated.

Check out the website's digital book (E-book), An Atlas To Classic Short Lines, which features system maps and a brief background of 46 different historic railroads.



Related Reading

Other Eastern Railroads



Baltimore & Ohio




Delaware, Lackawanna & Western




Chesapeake & Ohio




Reading Lines




Chessie System




Boston & Maine




Erie Railroad




Lehigh & New England




Lehigh Valley




Bessemer & Lake Erie




Pennsylvania




Penn Central




Lehigh & Hudson River




Conrail




Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines




New York Central




Rutland




Bangor & Aroostook




Maine Central




Central Railroad Of New Jersey




Central Vermont




Delaware & Hudson




Long Island Rail Road




Erie Lackawanna




New York Central




Monongahela Railway