Images of railroads have permeated the American cultural psyche for hundreds of years. From the moment the “Stourbridge Lion,” the first locomotive to run on rails in the U.S., rocketed onto the scene in 1829, Americans of all ages have been captured by the undeniable magic of the railroad. Whether by tales of train-hopping vagabonds, early films like The Great Train Robbery, or even childhood memories of flattening pennies on railroad tracks, the folklore of the railroad remains central to an American cultural identity.
“The romance of the railroad is kind of incredible,” said John Marcham ’50, of the Cornell Railroad Historical Society (CRHS).
The CRHS is an independent organization affiliated with the Cornell campus, and comprised of Cornell students, grad students, faculty, and staff, as well as members of the Ithaca community, all who share a passion for the railroad.
It is the romance of the railroad that the CRHS, the local chapter of the National Railroad Historical Society (NRHS), tries to capture through its programs and events in the Ithaca area and beyond.
Most recently, the CRHS reached out to the Ithaca community through the Finger Lakes Railfair, held March 25. The annual Railfair is the CRHS’s largest and most visible project. Sunday’s event drew about 2,000 visitors and roughly 100 volunteers to the New York State Armory located northeast of Ithaca.
The Railfair was “great for families,” said Tom Trencansky, Administrative Manager, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and one of the founding members of the CRHS.
“One of our members built a Lionel [model train] layout [that] youngsters can operate,” said Marcham.
Other attractions at the Railfair included displays of members’ photography, displays from other rail groups and vendors, and a video booth, a popular new addition to this year’s event, where visitors could relax and learn about railway history.
The CRHS was founded at Cornell in 1977 and in 1981 became a chapter of the NRHS. In 1998, the Regents of New York State granted CRHS a charter as a non-profit educational organization.
With about 100 members, the CRHS is a “combination of everyone in the community,” said Trencansky. “The group is a lot of people … with an affection for railroads. We try to combine a wide range of interests,” he said.
The CRHS truly is a community organization. In addition to a diverse membership, a number of the CRHS’s activities are centered around Ithaca railroading history.
“This was a big railroading town for a long time … the Lehigh Valley [Railroad] particularly had a Cornell connection,” said Marcham.
The Lehigh Valley Railroad provided passenger service to Ithaca for many years, bringing students to and from the area colleges in cars that were often painted Cornell red.
The CRHS maintains a collection of books and articles on the Lehigh Valley Railroad, as well as other lines, at the Tompkins County Museum, 401 E. State St.
Through the museum collection and other projects, the CRHS seeks to preserve the memories of a lost era of passenger railroad lines.
“Automobiles have done railroads in,” said Marcham. “For passenger service, railroads had their last surge during World War II, but after the war people went back to cars,” he said.
The CRHS has participated in a number of historical preservation projects. Although it does not currently own or maintain any equipment, the CRHS once owned a vintage WWII era diesel engine that is now in the care of the Anthracite Railroad Historical Society and is in operation in a museum in Pennsylvania.
Additional projects have included monetary donations to the Utica chapter of the NRHS for the conservation of a locomotive and to a restoration project of an Ohio organization.
The CRHS will be participating in a number of upcoming events, including next weekend’s Maple Festival in Marathon, New York, where passengers can ride vintage trains from Cortland to Marathon.
The CRHS meets every second Tuesday from seven to nine p.m. at the Ithaca Library.
Archived article by Jennifer Gardner