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August 5, 2013

Oneonta railroad traditions shifted in August 1958

By Mark Simonson
The Daily Star

---- — Oneontans were starting to realize that the railroad dynasty the city had enjoyed for nearly 100 years was changing, and news from August 1958 was clearly documenting those changes.

With Oneonta so rich in railroad history, the first effort began that month to attempt to capitalize on our storied past. “National Railroad Museum Planned, B-R-T Support Sought” read a headline on the city news page of The Oneonta Star of Tuesday, Aug. 5. A museum committee had been formed the year before and met at City Hall on Monday night to move forward with establishing the museum here.

The Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen were set to meet in Oneonta in late September for its 75th anniversary of formation in what was then a village.

“Committee members expressed belief that if BRT can be enlisted in the movement, the support of the nation’s carriers can be obtained, and museum pieces of equipment can be acquired from them,” it was reported.

“Chairman Charles E. Truscott, father of the museum plan, said he will speak tonight to the Common Council to see if the city fathers will back the committee in approaching Grand Lodge BRT officials.”

Lawrence L. Schomo was another member of the museum committee, a longtime railroad worker who said railroads at the time were already taking on the proportions of museum pieces.

“Not one child in a thousand today has ridden a train,” Schomo said. “Unless the present generation does something, there won’t be much for a museum left, because the next generation won’t know much about trains.”

Both the Council and BRT were enthusiastic about a museum for Oneonta, but by 1964, “Steamtown U.S.A.” was established in Bellows Falls, Vt., as multi-millionaire F. Nelson Blount declined to choose Oneonta as the site. Blount owned the largest collection of steam locomotives and equipment in the world at the time and became a major player as to where such a museum would be located.

Mr. Schomo’s words rang somewhat true in Oneonta in August 1958, when the D&H Railroad announced it was closing and selling its passenger depot, today’s Stella Luna Ristorante on Market Street. The Star reported on Monday, Aug. 18, that a new passenger office was set to open in the freight house, now apartments at the corner of Market Street and James Georgeson Avenue. That office was closed in early 1963 after the D&H eliminated passenger service.

Oneonta Common Council expressed interest in the 1892 depot, as a multiple use building. Among the possible uses mentioned were a bus terminal and central taxi stand, as well as a recreation center or the previously mentioned railroad museum.

The city dropped out as a bidder on the depot when they found out the selling price, $35,000. The building was eventually purchased and served multiple purposes until it became a restaurant in 2000.

On Aug. 27, the D&H asked the New York State Public Service Commission for the right to dispense with a crossing watchman at the Gas Avenue crossing, known now as James Georgeson Avenue. Carmen Mastro, a D&H employee since 1911, had been a crossing watchman for years, on duty most days from 8:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.

“In his place,” the Star said, “D&H wishes to install short arm crossing gates and flashing light signals.”

The PSC heard protest from the City of Oneonta at a hearing in September.

City Attorney John K. Dunn said he was concerned about pedestrian safety, with many of those pedestrians being children coming and going to Neahwa Park’s recreational facilities.

“Oneonta feels,” Dunn said, “that children have a tendency to ignore signals and are more inclined to obey orders of a person in charge such as a crossing guard.”

Mastro’s job was safe for the time, but not for much longer.

This weekend: A new kind of ice was introduced to Oneonta in 1932.

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. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.