By Richard Palmer
Although the rail lines north of Syracuse, both abandoned and existing, have passed ownership from Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg to New York Central, to Penn Central, to Conrail and finally CSX. This railroad has from time immemorial, been known as the "Hojack." The origin of this title seems to be lost in the mists of antiquity. Attempts have been made to determine the origin of this nickname, but without much success - until recently. The term applied to the entire system, stretching from Massena to Lewiston, Rome to Cape Vincent via Watertown, Sackets Harbor to Utica via Carthage; and from Richland to Syracuse. The portion of the line from Oswego to Lewiston, running parallel to the shore of Lake Ontario, was always known as the "West Hojack." Joseph Hughes, an oldtime New York Central conductor on the St. Lawrence Division of the New York Central, said he was told the term "Hojack" originated when one man standing on the main track for some eason waved his hand to the another man on a siding and hollered-- in derision--"Ho, Jack."
Still another story was that men on the division were in the habit of saying "Hello, Jack" to each other. One often quoted story is that the term Hojack originated from the engineer of the first train in 1851 between Rome and Cape Vincent, who was named Jack Welch (often called "Big Jack"). Welch used to be a farmer and was more familiar with horses than steam locomotives. When he stopped the trains he would shout "Whoa Jack!". This supposedly evolved into "Hojack" over time. Even more unbelievable is this quotation taken from a history of the R., W. & O. written by Dick Batzing, Town of Webster (N.Y.) Historian:
Many people fondly called the R.W.& 0. by its nickname, "Hojack." It seems that in the early days of the railroad, a farmer in his buckboard drawn by a bulky mule was caught on a crossing at train time. When the mule was halfway across the tracks, he simply stopped. The train was fast approaching and the farmer naturally got excited and began shouting, "Ho-Jack, Ho-Jack." Amused by the incident, the trainmen began calling their line the "Ho-Jack."
The Syracuse Post-Standard of Jan. 12, 1906 carried this brief article:
EDICT AGAINST HOJACK Central Employees Ordered to Drop the Nickname.
Henceforth in the lexicon of the New York Central Railroad there is to be no such word as "hojack" if the authorities of that road can render the use of the word obsolete. An order, it was said last night, has been privately issued to the employees of the R.,W.&O. division prohibiting them from using the objectionable nickname.
The question then arose as to why the term would be objectionable. Obvious the edict did not work as "Hojack" has continued to prevail right to this day. It soon became obvious that the term meant something completely different than people have concocted over the years, which tend to be unsubstantiated folklore.
An article was finally discovered in the Syracuse Herald of May 11, 1926 that sheds more light on this subject. This was a feature article about the work of the New York Central police force in Syracuse. Of course this was during Prohibition, and vagrants were riding the rails. The article states these people were classified by railroad men into three categories - the hobo, the hojack and the tramp. "The hobo," according to Inspector F.E. Welch of he Second Railroad Police District, "is a person who will not work, but will steal. It is custom to pillage and rob stores in small towns and hop a freight to the next town or village, there to repeat the procedure. A hojack works now and then, dresses fairly well and although always with some funds, will not pay for railroad transportation. The tramp is a harmless sort of a person who, through laziness alone, will not work. However, he is honest and generally carefree and happy. He spends most of the winters in jail and in the summers roaming the country."
It was also discovered that the term Hojack applied to the RW&O division at least as far back as the early 1900s and probably before, as n newspaper articles refer to trains being late late due to bad weather on the Hojack.
Still further evidence shows that the term "Hojack" was by no means confined to the RW&O. Even the Erie used the term. The Port Jervis Evening Gazette of Feb. 5, 1880 claimed it assigned this name to the way freight.