Railroad Museums Bring Life Back to Railway History of Long Island

taBy Maggie Cai

The Long Island Rail Road offered the first Holiday Express on Dec. 3, a non-stop holiday themed ride from the LIRR’s Ronkonkoma Station direct to The Theater at Madison Square Garden.

The Holiday Express joins the MTA New York City Transit’s annual tradition of offering festive rides to customers. In partnership with the New York Transit Museum, customers in the city can take rides on vintage trains on four consecutive Sundays from Thanksgiving weekend to the week before Christmas between Lower Manhattan and Queens.

A special eight-car subway train that is typically displayed in the Transit Museum is put into service for the special Sunday rides, according to a press release from the MTA. “It makes for an interesting day, but the real purpose behind the whole thing is that we’re getting our trains running,” Robert Delbagno, manager of exhibitions at the NY Transit Museum, said.

Although the Holiday Express is not a restored train from the LIRR, the Island’s two railroad museums continue to work on preserving the history of the Long Island Railroad. “Long Island wouldn’t be Long Island without the LIRR,” Gary Farkash, a Board member and volunteer at the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum, said.

Various railfan clubs and organizations sprang up between the 1930s and 50s. There were 65 groups in 1934 and 96 by 1959, Adam Burns, founder of American-Rails.com, said. The oldest organization in the country which preserves railroad history is the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, Inc. founded in 1921.

“The modern movement of museums and tourist railroads sprang up in postwar times as diesels replaced steam locomotives and railroads disappeared through mergers,” Burns said.

The LIRR is the oldest operating railroad in the United States still operating under its original charter from 1834, Farkash said.

Historically, the LIRR grew to prominence during the late 19th century as an important transportation artery for the island, Burns said. It reached its peak following ownership by the Pennsylvania Railroad and completion of the Pennsylvania Station in downtown Manhattan during 1910. Today, there are a total of 324 Rail Museums in North America.

“The idea of rail preservation/restoration has been around since the post-World War II period but has really grown since steam locomotives were largely retired after the 1950s,” Burns said.

In October of this year, the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum began the restoration of the historic Oyster Bay Train Station, the home station of President Theodore Roosevelt. It will be fully restored to its original condition.

“The industrial development of the steam engine and the locomotive and the following proliferation of railroads opened the country for great and rapid expansion and for close to one hundred years, the railroad industry employed the greatest number of people in America, directly or through associated industries,” Donald G. Fisher, President of the Railroad Museum of Long Island, said.

Trains that become a part of a museum’s collection are usually retired trains that are no longer in service. The trains are either donated or bought from local railroads.

“There are two types of restoration museums perform on old rail equipment,” Fisher said. Cosmetic restoration is when the artifact is cleaned and repaired to look good for the visitors. It is meant to stabilize the artifact from further deterioration. Restoration to operation is when the artifact will be restored to be used by the museum staff to demonstrate its use in working order. It includes all the elements of a cosmetic restoration in addition to the renewal of all mechanical, electrical and structural systems to current government and safety standards, Fisher said.

“Restorations are a costly endeavor but allows the artifact to be a living, breathing part and demonstration of history,” Fisher said. The NY Transit Museum recently completed a project re-caning 22 seats in a train car that cost about $5,000. “It’s not cheap because there’s not a lot of people who do that anymore,” Delbagno said.

There is no formal training or schooling required in basic restorations for train equipment. The Railroad Museum of Long Island and the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum allow volunteers who are interested in helping preserve a part of history of the railroad to participate. “All you need to be successful is a desire to learn from the people who are experienced,” Fisher said. “Some entry level positions include assistant, painter, scraper and cleaner. If you do have skills like a welder, sheet metal worker, carpenter, electrician or plumber, you will rapidly advance into the restoration work.”

Ed Hertling, Bill Doyle and Lester Orlick are volunteers at the Railroad Musuem of Long Island and are responsible for different restorations that are currently underway. The three worked in different professions like insurance and teaching before deciding to volunteer at the museum after they retired.

“I have been a volunteer at the museum since April of this year and the Railroad Museum of Long Island seemed like a perfect match for me and I never left,” Orlick said. “I enjoy the challenge of setting up a functioning machine shop for restoring artifacts that we own as well as maintaining our facility.”

Restorations that require specialized machinery or expertise are sent to companies who specialize in restoring the trains. Often times museums will perform the cleaning and paint removal of parts during the restoration process and then turn the parts over to experts to save money on the overall cost of the restoration. “The work that we truly need to perform is work that we cannot legally do because very special certification is required, such as high pressure vessel certification
for the boilers,” Farkash said.

Although restoration of these old trains and equipment is costly, it is satisfying for those who believe in supporting the preservation of railroad history. “A lot of the people who work for the subways or railroads really care about the history of the agencies they work for so it’s more a labor of love than anything,” Delbagno said.

“You can have a really nice piece of metal and paint it up and it’s really nice and shiny, but if you can’t connect that piece of metal to the people who are coming to see it, it’s going to be worthless in their eyes,” Elliot Courtney, a member of the Long Island Sunrise Trail Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, said. The Chapter donates money to the Railroad museum’s efforts to allow them to continue to restore and preserve parts of the railroad’s history.

Unlike the Transit Museum, the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum and Railroad Museum of Long Island are privately funded, which makes it more difficult to obtain artifacts for preservation, Farkash said. “The Transit Museum has some financial backing from the MTA and because of their ties, they have more access to items  for preservation where we don’t, so it’s always a hard time for us to obtain artifacts to preserve.” Both Railroad museums work to help each other so that artifacts are preserved where possible.

Preservation of railway artifacts is difficult because there are many things to consider. “It’s much easier to collect oil paintings or photographs that you find in most museum collections, but when you’re talking about a train, you’re talking about a thing that weighs tons,” Delbagno said. “You need people who know how to operate them to operate them otherwise it’s not a safe situation and trains run on tracks so when railroads cease to exist, it’s very difficult to preserve them.”

However, Fisher is hopeful that museums and the relevance to the history will never die out. “There will always be a thirst for historical knowledge, simply through personal discovery all the way to the most sophisticated, learned research,” Fisher said.

Train restorations can take a long time to complete dependent on the money available for it. A well-funded restoration can usually be completed in an average of three to five years. “We have a very large steam locomotive that at one time was on static display at the Long Island Museum of American Art, History, and Carriages in Stony Brook that started in 1980 and continues today, thirty-six years later.”

When resources and funding are limited, consideration for priority restorations are given to the artifact’s importance to the museum and its visitors, it’s relevance to a storyline or focus that the museum is developing and whether the artifact is indeed a relic that can be restored.

“It is important to understand our past to prepare for our future and there is nothing quite like the excitement and joy of witnessing an operational steam locomotive with its many moving parts. These living, breathing machines are fascinating to see for all ages,” Burns said.