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North Creek Railroad Man: Thomas C. Durant

Johnsburg Historical Society has installed a new exhibit featuring North Creek’s notorious figure from the nineteenth century, Thomas C. Durant. The display can be viewed in the Reading Room of the Town of Johnsburg Library.

 

Durant’s convoluted career of stock manipulation, profiteering, railroad ownership, land acquisition, and financial scheming is outlined in the exhibit, which includes historical photographs. From his degree at Albany Medical College to his success in bringing the railroad to North Creek in 1871, Dr. Durant was a master at amassing wealth and land. For a time.

 

After a brief career in surgical medicine, Durant entered the business world as director of the New York City grain exporting company, Durant, Lathrop and Company. This experience led him to discover the need for inland transportation, and also led to his interest in the railroad industry as a means of acquiring personal wealth.

 

He served as a broker for the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad, then was commissioned to manage construction for the new Mississippi and Missouri Railroad. Linking the M&M Railroad to the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad was a wooden railroad bridge, the first to cross the Mississippi River. After a steamboat hit the bridge, a lawsuit aimed at having the bridge removed. Private attorney Abraham Lincoln was hired to defend the bridge by Durant and the Rock Island line. This relationship with Lincoln aided Durant in 1864 when Durant’s new company, the Union Pacific, was granted land privileges to construct the first transcontinental railroad.

 

Eventually Durant’s Union Pacific Railroad, arriving from the East, met the Central Pacific Railroad, arriving from the West, and the country was joined by railroad on May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah.

 

One of the most famous financial scandals of the time was orchestrated by Durant in 1864. The business venture was named Credit Mobilier, a company that was riddled with swindling, corruption, stock manipulation, and secrecy. As the money-grabbing scheme became exposed, Durant was fired from his position at Credit Mobilier in 1867, and soon after was fired from his position at Union Pacific by President Ulysses S. Grant.

 

Meanwhile the indefatigable Durant had been lured to the Adirondack region of New York State by hopes of wealth from iron ore, minerals and logs, which could be transported by railroad out of the mountains. In 1863 he received a charter to establish the Adirondack Railroad Company. Durant had bought up property along the proposed route to Ogdensburgh, and eventually acquired over one million acres, about one-fifth of the entire Adirondacks.

 

The line to Ogdensburgh was never completed, but the 60 mile line from Saratoga to North Creek was finished in 1871. In that year Durant purchased the elegant North Creek mansion known as “The Gables,” with its view of the railroad and the Hudson River.

 

Financial woes continued to haunt Durant, and intensified with the Panic of 1873. Funding for his railroad disappeared, and the railroad stopped just beyond North Creek. Much of the schemer’s wealth was lost in the aftermath of the 1873 financial panic.

 

As Durant’s transcontinental railroad had transformed the country, Durant’s Adirondack Railroad transformed North Creek. At first the Adirondack Railroad transported natural resources from the mountains and supplies to labor camps, and later led to the establishment of Great Camps owned by wealthy industrialists, and still later brought the ski trains from Schenectady and New York City. During World War II the railroad shipped titanium, essential in airplane production, and magnetite for the production of iron and steel. Today the Saratoga and North Creek Railroad has established North Creek as a tourist destination.

 

On October 6, 1885 Durant died at his North Creek home, “The Gables.” 74 years later the landmark structure burned to the ground, on March 22, 1959. One North Creek resident, 6 years old at the time, remembers the scene vividly. His parents had taken him to watch the excitement. Fire hoses were trained on the building, and still the house was being consumed by flames. But even in the midst of the all-consuming roaring fire, icicles were forming on the building’s exterior. “How can there be ice?” he wondered.

 

The exhibit was created by Sally Heidrich of Johnsburg Historical Society.
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