Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Old Time Toll Gate Keeper Remembered

By Dave Dorpfeld,
Greene County Historian
Recently Tommy Hobart of Coxsackie passed on a 1955 obituary for William T. Haswell. Mr. Haswell owned the last major operating toll road in Greene County – the Coxsackie-Greenville Turnpike, formally incorporated as the Coxsackie Turnpike-Road.
What has always interested me is that portions of the turnpike continued to operate as a privately owned venture up until 1909, a time when some motorized vehicles were likely using the route.
Fortunately we know a lot about the old toll road thanks to Raymond Beecher’s book “Out to Greenville.” The first two chapters deal exclusively with the turnpike.
The early part of the 19th century was a period of great road building. Turnpikes were authorized by the New York Legislature and built throughout Greene County. The most famous was the Susquehanna Turnpike which started in Salisbury, Connecticut, ran through Catskill, out through the Durham Valley and ended in Unadilla on the Susquehanna River. The Coxsackie Turnpike was a smaller venture built with the intent of giving Coxsackie and adjoining areas access to the Susquehanna Turnpike in Durham.
The act establishing the Coxsackie Turnpike was signed into law by Governor Morgan Lewis on March 21, 1806. The charter required that the road lead out of the village of Coxsackie “…and running westwardly in the most direct and convenient route so as to intersect the Susquehanna Turnpike between the twenty-first and twenty-second milestones in the town of Freehold” (now Durham). Stock subscriptions totaling $25,000 were sold to pay for the road. The corporation was granted the right of eminent domain to acquire property it deemed necessary to complete the work. The turnpike was completed in slightly more than two years and the first tollhouse was eventually placed in Climax about where the Thruway intersects Route 81.
Tolls were authorized for the passage to every conceivable type of conveyance and animal. There were some exceptions. The company was forbidden to collect tolls from persons attending public worship, voting, or securing the services of a physician or midwife, while attending as a juror or witness legally summoned by any court, and particularly when participating in militia training. There were also certain exceptions for those people living near tollgates.
The Coxsackie Turnpike was never a big moneymaker for the stockholders and the expense to keep the road in good order was considerable. The corporation would usually contract in the spring of each year with someone or some group of men to get the road in shape for another season. There were often complaints that the road was not in good shape and in his book Beecher says there were often cries of “fix the road or leave the gates open.” In 1872, William’s father, David Haswell bought the controlling interest in the road and moved his family to the Climax tollhouse. In his book Beecher also says that Hattie Thorne (niece of David Haswell) of Coxsackie could remember visiting at the tollhouse and a family member rushing to the window to collect a traveler’s toll.
Under William’s ownership the turnpike ceased to collect tolls in 1909 – over 100 years after its opening. In 1910 it was sold to the towns of Coxsackie and New Baltimore. The age of the toll road had ended in Greene County.
William Haswell was born in Berne, New York in 1869 and he had an interesting life. Besides spending many years working on the turnpike, he was a Mason for over 50 years, a volunteer fireman for over 50 years, a trustee of the Village of Coxsackie, Supervisor for the town of Coxsackie and Justice of the Peace.
What impressed me was the report that he served three years in the Sixth United States Cavalry, the traditional rival to the famed Seventh Cavalry commanded by General George Armstrong Custer of the Battle of Little Big Horn fame.
The Sixth Cavalry was formed during the Civil War. After the war, the cavalry moved west spending more than thirty years policing the frontier and participating in 10 Indian war campaigns facing many hostile tribes including the Comanches and Apaches. This led to many cavalry troopers receiving Medals of Honor – the nation’s highest award for bravery.
According to his obituary, Haswell at age 20 “was active in the last Sioux uprising in North Dakota in 1889, serving at Fort Mead and Rapids City. He served an entire winter at the later encampment, where the Cavalry scouting corps consisted of 25 Cheyenne Indians under William “Buffalo Bill” Cody.” It could be argued that the Indian Wars that followed the Civil War were not our nation’s finest honor. I agree that it was not, but at the same time, I would have liked to have heard some of the stories Haswell had to tell about that and all his other experiences.

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