Join a railroad buff on his vintage railway tour from Binghamton to Syracuse to relive the early days of train travel.
As a child of the 50’s, even before I could read, I could recognize the railroad heralds that adorned the freight train cars that would occasionally pass through my suburban northern New Jersey town, as well as the many commuter trains that traveled through each day. As I grew up, I made it a point to try and ride as many of these lines that I could. One of the more obscure railroads was a rather down-at-the heels enterprise, the New York Susquehanna and Western, or, more colloquially, the Suzy Q.
It boasted not of flashy silver passenger cars or shiny new diesels – in the mid 1960’s, it had rather tired 25-year-old engines in a dull silver, coupled to 40-year-old dark commuter coaches that had served their time in Boston, and came to the wilds of New Jersey for their second life. At that time, the owner of the railroad was a real estate developer who offered each commuter $1,000 to stop riding the Susquehanna. Noone took advantage of his offer, but eventually its passenger service stopped, leaving only an occasional freight train to ply its way along what was left of a line that once ran from Jersey City to Wilkes Barre, Pennysylvania.
As the years passed, I maintained my interest in riding trains. From time to time, there was a trip here or there, new states, new countries, but not like the old days. What I missed was the sense of what trains were like when my age was in single digits, with the wonderful stations along the Lackawanna Railroad, built of brick and concrete, ready to withstand the ages in proud glory.
But the years had passed as well for the NYS&W. Having shed the commuters; the now freight-only railroad was taken over by the Delaware Otsego out of Cooperstown, New York. It’s dynamic president, Walter Rich, had joined together a few threads of different railroad lines and re-assembled them into the enterprise once again known as the New York Susquehanna and Western, extending from the Hudson River to Syracuse and Utica through Binghamton, NY.
A Ride 150 Years in the Making
By some divine act, I was invited to ride the portion between Binghamton and Syracuse on what had been one of the Lackawanna’s branches, dotted with the brick and concrete style stations of my youth. The trip, run in October 2004, commemorated the 150th anniversary of the line. Appropriately, the 20 car, 500-passenger train was hauled by a steam locomotive! Mr. Rich had purchased a Chinese-built steam engine for excursions over the system, and on this bright October Day, the #142 shone brightly.
After a ceremony which conveyed a sense of the forces that put the Syracuse, Binghamton and New York Railroad together, we were off…a bit late, but we were off. The route of our trip played tag with US Interstate #81, but, instead of circumventing town centers, we went through them, stopping along the way in Marathon, Cortland and Tully, all three boasting of the finest stations the Lackawanna could build, restored to their original glory. The townsfolk were all happy to see the train, and, in Cortland, the longest stop, the locals made an excellent barbecue lunch for all the train riders.
But it wasn’t the towns that made the trip, or the long shiny train, polished to perfection. It was the sense of riding a train as if it were 1955. It was looking at the farms, the deer along the streams, the hills, the lack of billboards, and no fast food restaurants. I found out that day that I-81 gave no clue to the country that it passed through. All of this seemed like a dream, but it wasn’t. It was October 16, 2004.
We arrived in Syracuse, the mid-point of the trip, for a cake-cutting and a short walking excursion through the center of the city. Even the approach to Syracuse was as grand as the rest of the trip. The Lackawanna had taken the high road, literally, and elevated its tracks to its downtown station. When we arrived, we arrived. When the train (taking up almost one-third of a mile on the elevated structure) was ready to depart, the steam engine was removed for a well-deserved rest, and some diesel engines that had assisted on the way up took full responsibility for our return.
Bathed in the late afternoon and evening light, the route seemed different. Coupled with a slightly faster ride, the trip ended all too quickly for me, this joyous reunion with simpler times.
How To Make This a Family Weekend
Although this kind of anniversary comes only once, the excursion schedule is quite diverse, and, if you are within a few hours’ drive of the system, you will have a most pleasant family outing. Weekends from May to October, the line runs along the Delaware River, using New Jersey’s oldest steam engines to ensure a memorable ride. Come summer, more engines are added to the line, which operates several days a week. Throughout the year, there are holiday runs, too, using newer passenger cars. It is easy enough to check the site of the New York Susquehanna & Western Technical & Historical Society, a non-profit educational society that manages the trains (or call 908/454-4433.)
Note that some of the rides originate in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, where in 2002, restoration was begun on the former Central Railroad of New Jersey/Lackawanna Railroad station at 178 South Main Street. The station house dates from 1914 and is the centerpiece of the town’s historic district; a few motels are in the vicinity. Families may prefer to base themselves in nearby Easton, Pennsylvania. Just one hour north of Philadelphia, it’s at the fork of the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers. When not riding the rails, you’ll enjoy seeing its beautiful State Theatre, and walking around Central Square. Just off the square is the Crayola Factory (where fun crayon-making tours are available), the small National Canal Museum, and the Easton Visitor Center. For more information about the region, visit the Lehigh Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau at www.lehighvalleypa.org.
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