The first passenger train that ever rolled into Jamestown, New York, arrived on August 25, 1860, to a cheering crowd…and passenger trains kept on rolling through for the next 110 years. The last service on The Lake Cities run left Jamestown’s Erie-Lackawanna Train Station on West 2nd St. one cold winter day, January 6, 1970, making its way from Hoboken, New Jersey, to Chicago, Illinois. Freight trains still serve Jamestown, but Jamestown’s beautiful station fell into disuse, home for the last 40 years to only echoes and dust and fading memories.
Today, the Jamestown Gateway Station Intermodal and Visitors Center is open for business again. The grand Re-Opening, on Thursday, October 25 was celebrated by hundreds of local citizens, train enthusiasts from across the region and the executives and elected officials who made it all happen. It has been called the most important railroad restoration project of its kind anywhere in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The reopening, however, was significant far beyond the rebuilding of a historic, architectural gem of railroad history.
“The railroad isn’t only Jamestown’s past,” said Kenneth C. Springirth, noted railroad historian and author of 19 books on American railroads and trolley lines. “It’s clearly the key to Jamestown’s future.” One hundred million new U.S. citizens in the next 30 years will surely bring new business and tourism to the region, but the value to the U.S. economy and national security may even eclipse those benefits.
Only two east-to-west rail lines remain open all across New York State, according to Springirth, and one of them runs right through Jamestown, New York. With aging highways and rising fuel costs, many economists see trains returning as the prime mover of people and goods and especially, if needed, military and strategic assets crossing the country.
Guests at the station’s Grand Re-Opening were treated to the arrival of a perfectly restored, vintage steam locomotive on Thursday. The 1925 Baldwin, 0-4-0 saddle-boiler steam engine came whistling up the track, billowing smoke and steam, drawing two passenger cars as it might well have done back in the hay day of railroading in Jamestown. The engine is the property of railroad enthusiast Scott Symons of Dunkirk who had it brought to Falconer to begin its historic run.
Mark Schlemmer, City of Jamestown civil engineer, was tapped to spearhead the actual renovation on the station about four years ago. Mayor Sam Teresi, Lee Harkness, Executive Director of DJDC, Brian Higgins, U.S. Representative for New York’s 27th congressional district, New York Senators Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Clinton, now U.S. Secretary of State and well aware of the national strategic value of railroads, had arranged for a grant of $5 million from the Federal Transit Administration to restore the station. “It has been non-stop ever since,” Schlemmer said, “and worth every minute of it.”
The final tally of $12 million for the restoration project reflects a long list of benefactors, according to Lee Harkness, in addition to the original grant. The Downtown Jamestown Development Corporation played a key role in assembling and coordinating contributions from New York State, Chautauqua County, the City of Jamestown and myriad local contributors, foundations and stake holders. “We owe a special thank you to Carl Belke, CEO of the Western New York & Pennsylvania Rail Road for the loan of one of the passenger cars the came to Jamestown on Thursday,” Harkness said. “And the other car was on special loan from The Western New York Historic Train Group of Buffalo,” he added. “This event was important to our entire region.”
Jamestown’s West 2nd Street station, the fifth and final railroad station in a succession of progressively larger buildings since the 1860s, opened for business on June 7, 1932 at an original cost of $400,000. Its construction had been a boon to an economy still recovering from the Great Depression of ’29. The main waiting room, a spacious 44’ by 56’, and towering more than three stories high, was a grand expression of new hope in the local economy and the highest quality of workmanship.
On May 2, 2003, the station was officially awarded recognition in the National Registry of Historic Places, reflecting its importance to national commerce and regional history. “We all owe special thanks to the grass roots movement, the companies and local politicians that started that ball rolling back in the 1990s,” Mark Schlemmer explained. “It has been an almost overwhelming job from the very beginning.”
The federal grant and historic registry that initially made the Jamestown Gateway Station Intermodal and Visitors Center renovation project more possible requires both faithfulness to the original architecture and a promise of perpetual use in the transportation industry. The rich green polished marble walls were restored, for instance, by finding the original Italian marble quarry from which it had been obtained in 1932 and commissioning new pieces to replace the few that had been damaged during the station’s 40-year vacancy, according to Harkness.
The main portions of the station will be reserved for present and future expansion of train and other transportation services. Other portions of the building, however, have been restored and modified for use as office, commercial and possibly even restaurant spaces which will provide income for the ongoing support of this newest of Jamestown’s high quality commercial spaces.
Near the height of the Erie Railroad’s commercial success throughout New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the company operated 791 busy train stations, as of May 1, 1916. They were indispensable hubs of local commerce and passenger traffic. The Jamestown Gateway Station Intermodal and Visitors Center is now one of only a handful still standing and useable. Most have been abandoned, demolished or repurposed in ways that leave all traces of the rich railroad history all but unrecognizable.
According to Ken Springirth, hundreds of communities throughout northwestern Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio along what was once a busy railroad route, no longer have the luxury that Jamestown can claim. “They’ve lost their rails,” Springirth said while he was in Jamestown for the grand reopening. “Jamestown is lucky in that way, or more accurately, very wise.”
“You can look forward to a lot of hard work, and it will take perseverance,” the railroad historian added, “but Jamestown could be in for big dividends in the future by continuing its rich railroad heritage for commercial and passenger traffic.”
“We expect this station to be another key to the economic growth of Jamestown and our entire region,” Harkness said at the opening ceremonies on Thursday. “We’re open for business.”