For 133 years, Port Jervis was a bustling railroad city. From the chug-chug of steam engines to the sleek locomotives of the 1980s, trains were the highlight of this little river valley at the junction of three states.
Now, four nonprofits are joining forces to bring Port Jervis’s railroad legacy back to life; over Memorial Day weekend, they plan to celebrate with a Port Jervis Transportation Festival.
The festival — marking the grand opening of the Port Jervis Transportation History Center — will be held, rain or shine, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on May 28, 29, and 30 at the Erie Turntable and Railyard on Pike Street in Port Jervis. Parking is available at the adjacent Save-A-Lot shopping center.
“Port Jervis is a railroad town,” says William Schill, board member of the Tri-States Railway Preservation Society (TSRPS), one of the partner nonprofit agencies behind the Port Jervis Transportation History Center. “It was a fabulous city in which to grow up. I think the history center is a great idea.” Joining TSRPS are Operation Toy Train, the Outdoor Club of Port Jervis, and Friends of Port Jervis Art & History.
The proposed history center won't be a single building. It will encompass the nearly 10-acre, city-owned parcel that includes railyards and an operational Erie turntable, with full-size vintage boxcars, cabooses and engines onsite.
Although the property is now surrounded by a strip mall and a drugstore, it’s not a far stretch to imagine the hulking roundhouse that encircled the turntable and dominated the landscape from the late 1800s until arson decimated it in 1987.
After decades of stagnation, peppered with occasional unsuccessful efforts to mark the railway’s history, the story of the turntable and its environs may finally be revived.
Rudy Garbely is the board chairman of the Port Jervis Transportation History Center, a board member of Operation Toy Train in Orange County, and vice president of communications for the Dining Car Society, a group that celebrates the history of railroad dining cars.
For 15 years, the Dining Car Society displayed restored Lackawanna Railroad dining cars on the rails of the Delaware-Lackawanna Railroad in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and served dinners in the cars for six of those years. One of the cars — Lackawanna Diner 469, built in 1949 — will have a new home at the Port Jervis history center, where dinners based on original railroad recipes and menus will be served during the Memorial Day weekend festival. Future plans include regular lunch and dinner service, as well as private rental of the dining car, according to the Dining Car Society.
An assortment of railroad equipment will call Port Jervis home in time for the festival, including three engines, three dining cars — including Lackawanna Diner 469 — a flatbed car, four cabooses, and three insulated boxcars donated by CSX, according to the Outdoor Club’s Mike Ward.
Ward is enthusiastic about the history center and what it will bring to the city. A caboose will become the history center’s office, which would be the first stop for visitors. One of the boxcars — heated in the winter, cooled in the summer — will house exhibits of railroad artifacts curated by the TSRPS.
Another boxcar will serve as headquarters for the city’s annual Soapbox Derby. A stage will be built on the flatbed car for live music and other performances. Ward’s vision for the turntable includes an engine on display, along with a boxcar that has an LED screen on the exterior for outdoor movies.
These aren’t model trains we’re talking about: The boxcars alone are 70 feet long apiece. The turntable is an impressive feat of engineering, and the history center’s promoters hope that surrounding it with vintage equipment will draw visitors from across the country.
Port Jervis Mayor Kelly Decker is happy to see such promising plans for the city-owned property.
“It’s one of the largest Erie turntables on the East Coast, and it’s a draw right to the middle of downtown,” Decker says. “I think it’s absolutely wonderful to showcase Port Jervis’ transportation history. Our existence started in the 1800s with the D&H Canal, then came the railroads and the interstate highways. We talk about American history; here, we can show it.”
The current idea was sparked by Operation Toy Train. The nonprofit group uses equipment and tracks provided by six railroads throughout northern New Jersey and southern New York, filling its boxcars during the winter holidays with donated toys that are then delivered to the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots Foundation. The inventory of train cars has grown over the years as Operation Toy Train acquired equipment, and by the end of 2019 the group was looking for off-season storage space.
“One of our directors said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to store them in Port Jervis at the turntable?’” Garbely says. “The more we talked about it, it went from simple 11-month storage to an exhibit.” As thoughts were shared among the Outdoor Club, the TSRPS, and the Friends of Port Jervis Art & History, the idea of the history center was born.
“Trains roll,” says Mike Ward. “We wanted to have an entity to acquire equipment that would remain here in Port Jervis. For once, I think we’re going to make it work where others have abandoned it.”
If you go
What: Port Jervis Transportation Festival
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. May 28, 29, 30, rain or shine.
Where: Erie Turntable & Railyard, 100 Pike St., Port Jervis. Parking available at the adjacent Save-A-Lot shopping center.
Admission: $5; children under age 12 are free.
For tickets and info: pjthc.org
Dine in an Original Diner Car: Dinners will be served in the Lackawanna Diner 469 dining car, built in 1949, during the Port Jervis Transportation Festival on May 28-30. Reservations will be available at diningcarsociety.org/events starting on March 18.
Jane Anderson is a Hudson Valley freelance writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Times Herald-Record: Port Jervis railroad history celebrated in new center, festival