hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires

 

News September 2019

 

Riding the rails: a dog’s ticket to celebrity

Maury Thompson

 

Newspaper reporters in the early 1890s closely followed the travels of Railroad Jack, a train-riding canine who consistently found his way home to Albany.


“Railroad Jack arrived in this city on Friday,” The Columbia Republican of Hudson reported on Nov. 10, 1892. “He took a ride over the Electric Railway and attracted much attention.”

 

The medium-sized Scottish terrier had made two trips to San Francisco and traveled south to New Orleans when he arrived in Cohoes at 7:28 a.m. on July 10, 1890.


“He is entirely at home on a railroad train and keeps pretty much on the go all the time, returning to Albany, his headquarters, every few days,” the Cohoes Dispatch reported, in an article reprinted July 10, 1890, in The Lansingburgh Courier.


Railroad Jack most commonly traveled along the Hudson Valley and into the Adirondacks, following the Delaware & Hudson Railroad’s routes north from Albany.


“Among the notable visitors to Lake George recently was Railroad Jack,” the Lake George Mirror reported July 18, 1891. “Jack is growing old, decrepit and hoary, and yet he sticks to the railways. He arrived in the baggage car on the afternoon boat train.”


Jack was a stray dog who showed up at Union Depot in Albany in the 1880s and stuck around when railroad workers fed him.


One day, Jack spontaneously hopped on a departing train, and that whetted his appetite for travel.


“Railroad Jack … spent Sunday with conductor Gillespie,” The Enterprise of Altamont reported on Sept. 8, 1888. “He boarded Mr. Gillespie’s train Saturday night and refused to be ejected, having evidently determined to spend the Sabbath in the country.”


Kind railroad workers looked out for Jack during his travels.
“Jack received a cut from some unknown source about two weeks ago, but it was tenderly seen to by trainmen, and the wound is healing nicely, although the bandages on the same have not yet been removed,” the Cohoes Dispatch reported.


At an overnight stop at Middletown, in Orange County, conductor George Geer took Jack to a clambake, The Port Jervis Union reported on Aug. 21, 1891.


Railroad workers at Dover, N.J., took up a collection to free Jack when he was mistakenly impounded, The Port Jervis Union reported on Sept. 26, 1892.


In the first couple of years of his travels, Jack wore a collar with a note instructing that he be returned to Union Depot in Albany. But it wasn’t long before Jack was so well known that the identification was no longer necessary.


An artist “friend of Railroad Jack” in Oneonta painted a portrait of Jack, framed it, and sent it to the Albany station for display.


“It is a splendid likeness of the little canine traveler,” The Lansingburgh Courier reported on Feb. 4, 1892.


Jack was one of two dogs in Albany that became legendary through their association with the railroads of the late 19th century.


The other was Post Office Owney, the mascot of the Albany post office, who in the 1890s became a regular rider on railway post office cars, traveling from upstate New York to destinations across the nation and, eventually, around the world. Owney’s stuffed remains now are on display at the National Postal Museum of The Smithsonian Institution.


Other railroad facilities in the region also had mascots. Salem, in Washington County, had a railroad yard dog named Stay.


“This dog has not yet taken to traveling, as did the lamented ‘Jack,’ but Stay(s) right at home,” The Granville Sentinel reported on Aug. 17, 1894. “No train arrives, however, which he does not board and call on the employees. … He has nothing to do with anyone but railroad men, and takes great interest in Conductor Frost’s style of pants.”


Coxsackie, in Greene County, had a railroad cat that lived at the freight yard.
“Railroad Jack, the dog that has acquired a worldwide reputation by his trips from one line of railroads to another now has a rival. This time it is a cat that is tramping around the country,” The Columbia Republican reported on Nov. 10, 1892. “A few weeks ago he disappeared and was gone three weeks. Last week he got off the 8 o’clock train from New York. He had the air of an experienced traveler.”


Jack died at Albany in 1893, at the age of 13, the equivalent of 74 in human years.
“Of late he has been unable to get off and on the cars, owing to his infirmities, and contented himself with watching the trains pull out of the depot from the door of the baggage room,” The Catskill Recorder reported on June 16, 1893.


A taxidermist stuffed Jack’s carcass for display at the Union Depot in Albany. It is unclear what became of the trophy, although it was moved to the new Albany Union Station when that building (more recently known as Kiernan Plaza) was built in 1900.


In the years immediately after his death, though, Jack remained a legendary local character.
A passenger from Schoharie County, boarding the train at Union Depot, spotted two dogs at the station and asked a guard which was Railroad Jack and which was Owney, The Concordiensis of Schenectady reported on May 15, 1895.


The guard replied, “Railroad Jack has been dead two years, and Post Office Owney is on the Pacific Coast.”

 

Maury Thompson retired in 2017 after 21 years as a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls. He now is a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.