The tale of a caboose – Bath & Hammondsport Railroad
Tags: 'Railway Express Agency', B & H Rail Corporation, B & H Rail Corporation Transload Facility, Bath & Hammondsport Railroad, caboose, Curtiss Museum Restoration Shop Volunteers, Delaware Lackawanna & Western Railroad, Erie Railroad, Glenn H Curtiss Museum, Hammondsport, Hammondsport Industrial Track, history, less than car load freight, museum, Museums, New York, Pleasant Valley Wine Company, railroad, sliding freight doors, small parcels, Steuben County Industrial Development Agency, The Champagne Trail, train guards, Urbana, USA
I must confess, here, that I was always interested in railways. My brother took me trainspotting to Derby Works (the great Mecca of the Midland Railway), a neighbour took me along with his son to watch the A4 Pacifics of the London and Northeastern Railway storm out of Doncaster Station, and as a schoolboy, I rode the local ‘blue and cream’ Midland General Omnibus ‘double-decker’ ‘buses from the little village of Codnor, Derbyshire to Langley Mill, Nottinghamshire to spend a happy day on the platform of the then Langley Mill Station watching the steam-hauled expresses out of London hammer through on their way to the North, as well as the local stopping traffic, including the then-new BR Derby ‘Lightweight’ DMUs (Diesel Multiple Units, built in Derby).
So, I still find that rail traffic – an all its forms – interests me. Consequently, I was delighted and surprised, to find a handsome caboose when David and I were on our ‘Infamous Ice Road Trip’. The main reason for the surprise came from WHERE we found it! We had just exited the excellent Glenn H Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, New York – a fabulous place dedicated to the life and work of Glenn Curtiss, the so-called ‘Fastest Man on Earth’, thanks to his motorcycle records, and a famed aviation pioneer – and there it was. Off to our left was a red-painted railroad caboose, carrying the letters ‘B & H’, and the legend ‘The Champagne Trail’. I suppose that it had a perfect right to be there as the Curtiss Museum covers not just the works of Curtiss but also the local history of both Hammondsport and Steuben County.
B & H stands for ‘Bath and Hammondsport’, a short line from Hammondsport which joined the Erie Railroad and the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad at Bath, after running through the small community of Rheims. Passenger service started in 1872, but only lasted until 1917, when the line became focused only on freight. Multiple mergers and acquisitions through the early part of that century lead to the B & H becoming part of the Erie & Lackwanna Railroad in 1960. The line fell on hard times, which gave rise to a take-over by the county in the guise of the Steuben County Industrial Development Agency, which bought the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western rails between Bath & Wayland (including the Hammondsport Branch) and ran it as ‘The Champagne Route’; this refers to the fact that the Pleasant Valley Wine Company – who produced the Great Western Champagne, an award-winning sparkling wine – was located at Rheims, the intermediate stop on the branch line. The service was operated for Steuben County by a series of contractors, the last of which changed its name in 2001 to B & H Rail Corporation. The Hammondsport branch is currently only in use as a siding for rail vehicles, but it has NOT been abandoned. There are hopefully, plans to get a freight service moving once again in the future.
All of which brings us to this amazing caboose. Built around 1915 for the Erie Railroad, it was initially acquired by the B & H in 1938. Rather than acting as accommodation for train guards, an extra braking facility if required on steep grades, and a place to carry bicycles and small pieces of freight, the B & H decided on a different role for this particular caboose. The interior of the caboose was completely stripped out, and a large sliding freight door fitted on either side. The vehicle was therefore dedicated to handling ‘less than car load’ freight as well as ‘Railway Express Agency’ parcels and packages. The REA was a little known U.S. Federal agency which allowed for the carriage of small packages and other items across long distances. This system functioned well, until the rise of road, then air, parcel transport killed it.
The caboose was finally retired after some 40 years of hard work on the B & H system, and was donated to the Town of Urbana. It was displayed next to the B & L Hammondsport Depot for approximately the next 20 years. However, the condition of the vehicle began to give great concern, as it had deteriorated to such an extent that the town was fearful of possible public liability issues. Consequently, the caboose was withdrawn from public display and placed in storage. There it languished for two years, until the Curtiss Museum approached the Town of Urbana in 2001 with a plan move the caboose to the Museum, and completely restore it. This was agreed to, and the Curtiss Museum Restoration Shop Volunteers – a very skilled group of people – completely reworked the vehicle to its operating standard as it would have been in 1940.
The B & H Rail Corporation has received a number of national awards (in 2002/3/6 and 2007) from the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association for the safe operation of its line from Wayland to Painted Post. The Hammondsport Industrial Track is currently listed as ‘out of service north of County Home’. However, there is a small cloud on the horizon in the shape of an internal document which states that the B & H Rail Corporation Transload Facility, off State Route 415, between the Coopers Plains and Painted Post exits off I-86, is ‘offering excellent access to the Pennsylvania and New York gas fields’. Watch this space?