September 14, 2019

History of the Leatherstocking Railway Historical Society

The LRHS was organized in the summer of 1982 by Oneonta residents Jim Loudon, Russ Hawkins, Dave Jones and Bruce Hodges with two primary objectives in mind. The first objective was to preserve the Little Red Caboose and prevent its removal from Oneonta. This small four-wheel caboose, one of the most historic railroad cars in America, was the site of a meeting on September 23, 1883 at which time eight Oneonta railroad workers organized the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. This tiny group developed into the first national union for railway workers and brought about many of the reforms that made railroad work a less hazardous area of employment. The BRT went on to become the largest transportation union in the world. In 1924 the Little Red Caboose was restored, placed on display in Oneonta’s Neahwa Park, and dedicated as a shrine by the national union. The caboose sat safely at its new home until the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, during which time it was repeatedly the victim of attacks by vandals.

It was also during this time that the Smithsonian Institution cast its eyes on the caboose and, in cooperation with the national railroad union, proposed removing it from Oneonta to Washington, DC. Many Oneontans, including the original members of the LRHS, felt that if this were to happen it would be a tragic loss for the city and the railroaders who worked for the Delaware and Hudson.

After weighing several options, the LRHS decided that the best way to protect the caboose and prevent its removal would be to erect a protective enclosure around the car, utilizing the existing canopy as a part of the structure. The LRHS designed the enclosure and, after receiving approval from the City of Oneonta, generated $10,000 for its construction through individual donations and radiothons. Work was completed by a local contractor and a formal dedication of the enclosure was held on September 5, 1983 to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. The LRHS has been the official caretaker of the caboose since that date and opens it to the public on special occasions. It is also available throughout the year upon request.

The second objective of the Leatherstocking Railway Historical Society was the development of a regional railroad museum, which would enable the group to preserve and disseminate the tremendous wealth of railroad history that exists in the Central Leatherstocking Region. The first step toward this objective was taken on September 10, 1983 when the Society obtained an option to purchase a piece of property in Cooperstown Junction from the New York State Department of Transportation that consisted of 1.5 acres of land and a two- story Victorian wood frame dwelling. The LRHS purchased the property from the Department of Transportation on February 6, 1987. The Cooperstown Junction property is ideally situated for use as a railroad museum, in that the land abuts the southern terminus of the Cooperstown and Charlotte Valley Railroad, and sits directly across NYS Route 7 from the Delaware and Hudson Mainline. Work on developing this site has continued since it was purchased, and has included brush and tree clearing, removal of decaying out buildings, bringing in fill, replacing the foundation of the Victorian style house, and reestablishing electric and phone service to the property. The house currently serves as the organization’s corporate headquarters.

The Society gained firsthand knowledge in operating train excursions during the fall of 1983, when it took part in the Little Red Caboose Festival, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. The LRHS was responsible for all contract negotiations between Delaware Otsego Corporation, who supplied the equipment, and the Delaware and Hudson Railroad, over which the equipment ran. The Society successfully carried 1300 passengers over a three day period, handling all marketing, concession and administrative responsibilities.

In November 1992 the Society moved its office from 140 Main Street in downtown Oneonta, where it had been located for 5 years, to the museum site. A wide- vision Delaware and Hudson Caboose was converted into an office facility which allowed the administration of the museum project to be located on-site. In November 1993 the Delaware Otsego Corporation petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission for abandonment of the former Cooperstown and Charlotte Valley Railroad (CACV), a 16 mile shortline running from Cooperstown Junction to the Village of Cooperstown.

The Leatherstocking Railway Historical Society was formally offered an opportunity to purchase the rail line from the owner, Delaware Otsego Corporation, on December 27, 1993. The Society immediately undertook a fund- raising campaign for the purpose of purchasing, renovating and placing the line in operation as a tourist rail ride. Several programs were initiated to generate funds, including the Leatherstocking Partners Program, the Leatherstocking Associates Program and the Leatherstocking Loan Program. These programs, along with ordinary donation solicitations, raised almost $20,000.

Major funding became available starting in May, 1995 with the receipt of a $225,000 Member Item in the Department of Transportation portion of the New York State Budget acquired through the efforts of NYS Senator James Seward, a Milford, NY resident. These funds were used as a required 20% match for an Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) Grant in the amount of $900,000 which was announced in June, 1996. These funds were designated to allow Leatherstocking Railway to purchase the rail line from Delaware Otsego Corporation and to renovated the northern 8 miles of the railroad for passenger service. Two subsequent NYSDOT Multi-Modal Grants totaling $310,000 allowed the purchase of rolling stock and locomotives for train operations.

In April 1995, the LRHS took another major step forward in establishing operation on the CACV by purchasing the Milford Train Station. This 20 x 70 foot wood frame building was erected in 1869 and served as a combination freight and passenger facility for the Cooperstown and Susquehanna Valley Railroad, predecessor of the CACV. The building underwent extensive alterations in 1903 when the line was taken over by the Delaware and Hudson Company, but the basic plan had been retained. The Society embarked on a total renovation of the structure, which was in poor condition at the time of acquisition, shortly after purchase. Roof repairs, reestablishment of utilities, painting and replacement of roof overhangs and brackets highlighted the renovations and a grand opening was held on June 6, 1996. The Depot has become the focal point of the CACV’s passenger operations, as well as a museum highlighting a small portion of the organization’s historical archives.

Also included in the Milford Depot property was a 35 x 85 foot steel Engine House, built in the early 1970’s, having its own run through track, in addition to an inspection pit. This building has allowed the Society to bring equipment inside for restoration and maintenance work.

One of the project’s main concerns early on involved the condition of the three 19th Century wrought iron bridges that cross the Susquehanna River between Portlandville and Cooperstown. All three bridges are of the Wagner Truss design and range in length from 94 to 183 feet. In August 1995, the LRHS contracted with Northwest Engineering out of Pennsylvania to perform the necessary inspection required to obtain certification for passenger operations. An engineer from Northwest spent over six hours inspecting the three bridges on August 18,1995 and determined that there were no major structural defects in any of the spans. Aside from installing new deck timbers, the bridges did not require any major investment of capital thus allowing the Society to concentrate its resources on restoring the rest of the line to service. In October, 1995, Northwest Engineering revisited the line and inspected the smaller bridges, track and right-of-way. The LRHS expended $11,100 of its own funds to have these reports completed.

In September, 1996 LRHS purchased the Milford Auction Barn Property adjacent to the Milford Depot. This 12 acre site contains a large barn which used to be used for cattle auctions. This building will be renovated for more display area, an archive center, and when renovated the auditorium where auctions used to be held will become an audio/visual presentation facility.

Also in September, 1996 local business man Gene Bettiol, Sr. donated the Lindee Park Railway, built by the late Donnell Sullivan of Otego, to the LRHS. Mr. Bettiol had purchased the train at an estate auction to make sure that it didn’t leave the area. Mr. Sullivan had spent 30 years building this foot and a half gauge railroad which used to run around his property. After working on the engine and the two coaches the repainted and renamed Milford Park Railway made its debut at the June 7, 1997 Second Annual Milford Railroad Days. Running on temporary track next to the Milford Depot the Milford Park Railway carried 543 paying passengers throughout the day. A permanent right-of-way around the wetlands behind the Milford Auction Barn was constructed in 1997, and the train has been operated for visitors throughout the summer months ever since.

Culminating over ten years of efforts, the Leatherstocking Railway Historical Society took ownership of the Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley Railroad on July 1, 1997. Work on clearing brush along the line was completed and engineers from Clough Harbour & Associates completed inspections in order to prepare bid packages for contractors. During the spring of 1999 contractors completed renovations on the northern 8 miles of the railroad between Milford and Cooperstown, and on June 6, 1999 the LRHS ran its first revenue passenger train. The LRHS has been running trains over the railroad ever since.

Over the years the LRHS has acquired, through donations and purchases, an extensive collection of railroad artifacts, including ephemera such as blueprints, photos, magazines and books; hardware items including lanterns, switch locks and oil cans in addition to railroad signal equipment and track components.

The Society has also acquired a varied assortment of railway equipment including box cars, passenger coaches, cabooses and several locomotives. Much of this equipment is in active service on the CACV.

In addition, the LRHS has been able to obtain historic railroad structures which have been dismantled and moved to the site for future erection. One such structure is the former Delaware and Hudson Railroad FA Interlocking Tower which at one time controlled all the D&H switches and signals from Oneonta south to Nineveh, NY. The LRHS dismantled this structure, which stood in the D&H’s Oneonta Yards at Fonda Avenue, and moved it to the Cooperstown Junction Museum Site after being informed that the tower was scheduled for demolition by the Company. This structure will be reassembled and become part of the Cooperstown Junction Museum Complex. This was the last wooden interlocking tower on the entire D&H System, thus making it a worthy candidate for preservation and restoration.

The Leatherstocking Railway Historical Society currently has over 300 members and is very active in the local community. Its activities include the presentation of slide shows on railroad history for schools and organizations throughout the area and holding monthly meetings during the winter and spring months for members and the general public during which those in attendance are informed of the Society’s activities and presented with a railroad related program.

The LRHS has also conducted videotape interviews with retired railroaders so that their experiences may be preserved for future generations, in addition to serving as an information source for researchers, students, writers and any other individuals interested in local railroad history. In addition to its other activities, the Society continues to acquire railroad memorabilia for its ever expanding collection which will be incorporated into museum displays and archival storage. The Society also publishes a monthly newsletter, Railtimes, which informs members of the LRHS’s activities and rail industry news, and an annual newsletter, The Leatherstocking Journal, which contains museum news and historic articles. The LRHS has also published two books, The first, The Oneonta Roundhouse, has sold over 2,500 copies. This 100 page book documents the birth, life and death of what was once the largest roundhouse in the world. The second, Leatherstocking Rails, documents the history of the numerous railroads that made the surrounding area prosper. Books about the Oneonta Shops and the Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley Railroad are also planned for the future.