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When Ithaca Went by Train: The Lehigh Valley Remembered

When Ithaca Went by Train: The Lehigh Valley Remembered

There is something about a train that has appealed to artists, writers, and musicians for nearly two hundred years. E. M. Forster called railway stations “our gates to the glorious and the unknown”: “Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return.” Romance and mystery seem to surround the idea of train travel, and today there is a great nostalgia for a time when the whole country seemed to move efficiently by train.

The Lehigh Valley owned nearly four hundred locomotives, three hundred passenger service cars, and sixteen thousand freight cars at the height of its service in the 1940s. They operated three mainline passenger trains that traveled round-trip between New York City and Buffalo in the 1940s and ’50s—the daytime Black Diamond, and two overnight sleepers, the Star and the Maple Leaf—though freight traffic was the Lehigh Valley’s largest source of revenue.

A ten-page timetable was published twice a year, usually coinciding with the beginning and end of Daylight Savings Time. Rail stations were generally spaced at five- to ten-mile intervals, each staffed by an agent-telegrapher. Some stations also handled U.S. Mail and milk in cans. The agent was responsible for everything from selling tickets to loading (and unloading) baggage, milk, and mail from the trains.

Geneva, Manchester, and Sayre were mainline terminals with Ithaca, Auburn, and Cortland on branch lines. In fact, there were more than sixty open stations situated along the 430 miles in the Finger Lakes region. Some freight cars were cut down and furnished to meet the need for “observation cars” which ran slowly up the side of Cayuga Lake, where passengers could follow the progress of Cornell’s crew team.

The end of World War II ushered in dramatic change and a steep decline in freight and passenger traffic. As the national highway system improved and automobiles were increasingly accessible, railroads became less imperative to private travelers and businesses. In 1946–47, plans were made to replace the Lehigh Valley locomotive fleet with diesel engines, but as the fifties ended it was clear that financial problems were unfixable and the railroad began to cut back. In 1959 the railroad applied for and was granted the discontinuance of passenger service, which was granted with the exception of the Maple Leaf operating between New York and Buffalo. On May 11, 1959, the Black Diamond departed Ithaca for the last time. The Maple Leaf service survived only another two years.

The sound of a train whistle is a mournful one, akin to a feeling of longing or sadness—it speaks of transition and change, a movement away from familiar things out toward the vast unknown. For the Class of 1952, one of many Cornell classes whose first experience of Ithaca began upon arrival at the train depot, the train must have inspired excitement and anticipation as they began their new lives as college students.

I would like to thank the members of the Class of 1952, who inspired this show through their experiences of traveling to Cornell via train, as well as Catherine Jung, Class of 2013, for her help and enthusiasm in putting this exhibition together. Thanks also to The History Center in Tompkins County for the use of the historic images and to Kroch Library for the loans of Lehigh Valley Railroad memorabilia.

Nancy E. Green
The Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

 

For further reading:

Robert F. Archer, The History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad: “The Route of the Black Diamond,” 1993.

David Marcham, Lehigh Valley Memories: A Tour of the Lehigh Valley Railroad in New York’s Finger Lakes Region, 1941–1959, 1998.