It passed quietly in 2012, but the Leatherstocking Railway Historical Society commemorated its 30th anniversary of formation, to preserve the area’s railroad heritage. It was a year of some adversity, what with their excursion train being idled for awhile, but as with every other setback or triumph in the past, the Society is back to full strength and has no plans to call it quits anytime soon. Its ups and downs have been the norm since 1982.
Bruce Hodges, president of the LRHS since 1985, recalled when his father, Norbert Hodges, had been the superintendent of Oneonta’s parks before passing away. James Catella was the superintendent of public works, and was a family friend of the Hodges, as well as the city’s liaison with the Delaware & Hudson Railroad Co. They spoke often and Hodges recalled one Saturday how Catella had called to talk with his mother. By coincidence that same day, Bruce and his mother had been talking about how odd it was that Oneonta didn’t have a railroad museum, given its glorious history dating back to 1865.
Catella told Mrs. Hodges how he was going to meet with some railroad enthusiasts, Jim Loudon, Russ Hawkins and Dave Jones about such a museum, and suggested that Bruce attend this meeting.
The group met, with the initial objective to save the BRT Caboose in Neahwa Park, with other goals in the future. At the time the Smithsonian Institution was looking to remove the historic caboose to Washington, D.C. The caboose had been a repeated target of vandalism, and while the Smithsonian offered a safe place, many Oneontans vigorously fought the removal.
The result of that first meeting was to build a protective enclosure for the caboose. Loudon and Hodges wanted to take this project a step further, and start a railroad museum. Hodges credits Jim Loudon for getting this group together in the first place.
Through fundraising and a few Caboose Festivals in the early 1980s, the red caboose was enclosed, and the group looked to establish a museum. The first aim was for Oneonta, but plans never materialized.
“My biggest disappointment,” Hodges said, “is that we couldn’t get together the coalition that would be necessary to save the remains of the old roundhouse,” which was in the D&H railyards, and at one time the biggest repair shop for locomotives in the world. That was once the most hopeful site for this museum, despite its deteriorated condition. It was quietly razed in December 1993.
In hindsight, Hodges said, if the same attitudes today toward state and local historic preservation and tourism had been around in 1983, the remains of that roundhouse would be standing as a railroad museum.
With this and other sites in the city not working out, Catella informed the group that a piece of property was available in Cooperstown Junction, as part the proposed project for the state Route 7 connector with Interstate 88. It showed potential, being along the main line of the D&H. With help from then-state Sen. L. Stephen Riford, the group purchased the land for a museum.
Hodges said there were thoughts of buying or leasing some of the track owned by the Delaware-Otsego Corp. for a short excursion train from that point northbound, to add to this possible tourist draw. Walter Rich, D-O president, presented them with the idea of buying the entire line to Cooperstown. Another owner of the property where the Milford railroad depot is, also came up with an offer for the group. Various funding sources and fundraising made both possible. LRHS decided to make Milford the site of the museum and use the Cooperstown Junction site as a business office.
All these transactions took place between 1983-1996. The museum in Milford opened to the public on Saturday, June 8, 1996. The goal of establishing a passenger excursion train continued, and a first public run was made Sunday, June 6, 1999.
Hodges recalled as all these plans evolved there were setbacks, and both the funding and volunteer sources were lean, at best.
“But we always seemed to squeak by,” Hodges said. If this had been a for-profit entity, Hodges said the LRHS would have closed down several years ago.
“We have a really dedicated group of people who’ve gone out of their way, financially or with man power, to keep going because we just don’t want to see this go. We’ve put so much hard work into this, we just couldn’t walk away from it.”
“I don’t know how many times each year,” Hodges continued, “that people say this is their first time ever on a train. They’re introduced to a part of their heritage, most of whom have no clue how important it was to the development of this country.”
The LRHS has a few more weekends of Christmas-themed rail excursions. Visit www.lrhs.com for details.
This weekend, a triumph grows from tragedy in Walton in December 1912.
City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark @stny.rr.com.