There’s so much history at the Railroad Museum of Long Island in Riverhead, it’s almost hard to absorb it all.
The museum is located on Griffing Avenue alongside the railroad tracks just east of the station and has model train displays, exhibits and a gift shop on site. It also offers rides on the train that ran in the LIRR pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair.
Every summer at the end of August, the museum hosts a two-day railroad festival where lots of working model trains set-ups are on display, rail cars and locomotives are on display, and kids can try their hand at being the engineer driving the train in a special simulator car. Railroad organizations from around the region set up displays and railroad aficionados gather for hours of train talk. There are games and contests, food and live music, too — because working on the railroad requires some R&R.
The museum, now in its 29th year, is run by an all-volunteer, mostly male, staff that maintains the property equipment and displays, paints — and repaints — the locomotives and rail cars and fuss over the property. There’s a library of rail history in one of the buildings — documents, maps and photos tracing the history of the iron horse on Long Island.
It’s a fascinating history and Railroad Museum president Don Fisher got schooled in it after he first connected with the museum when his son was young. Fisher, usually outfitted in engineer’s overalls, can talk for hours about the railroad and how central it was to local commerce and community — and about the museum itself, which extends beyond the fenced property on the east side of Griffing Avenue. The rail cars parked north of the tracks are part of the museum’s holdings; Fisher and other volunteers will give tours of some of them.
And whatever you do, don’t call the old cars “junk” or complain they’re an eyesore. Fisher is protective of the holdings and he is a force to be reckoned with.
The parked cars are themselves steeped in history.
Among them is the first double-decker train car ever used in America. “The 1936 passenger car serves as the prototype for every bilevel car that people ride today — every one of them,” Fisher says excitedly. It’s undergoing restoration parked on the tracks.
Another car is “one of two that was used on Oct. 8, 1955 when the LIRR gave up steam,” Fisher says. “That was the day when everything went diesel and electric,” he says.
“This car came from the east, another from the west. There were all sorts of dignitaries aboard — and Boy Scouts. The two cars met in Hicksville for ceremonies,” Fisher says. “Steam locomotive engine 39 brought in this car from the east.” The Railroad Museum of Long Island owns Engine 39, too. It’s being repaired and restored. “After the ceremonies, the dignitaries were all taken away in brand new 1955 Alcoa cars by a brand new diesel locomotive.”
The Riverhead museum is the only place where there’s a complete set — Engine 39 and the passenger car it brought to the ceremony.
Another car was one of the first batch of commuter cars after the Metropolitan Transit Authority took over the LIRR from Penn Central, he points out.
Another was at the Grand Central Terminal grand opening after the big restoration. It was one of the only cars the LIRR sent as its emissary.
There’s a mail car, too, used to transport mail for the U.S. Postal Service. It had a crane that came out of a side door and picked up bundles of mail at the post offices, he said. It was in use from 1910 through the 1970s.
The railroad station, the rail yard and the development around it were a hub of local commerce not all that long ago, Fisher says.
“There were potato trains, cabbage trains, cauiflower trains,” Fisher says. The building that today houses Revco Electric was once a potato house. “We had an ice house over here,” Fisher says, gesturing to a spot on the museum site. “This was such an active area. Everything used to build up Riverhead from the late 1800s to the 20th Century came through here — lumber, brick, coal… everything you needed in the town,” he says. “They had two freight houses here.”
“It’s an industrial site.”
The exhibits on the grounds of the museum are a point of personal pride. There are several Eagle Scout projects and there’s constant ongoing restoration work being done by the museum’s dozens of volunteers.
The 1920s wooden caboose got all new windows last year, Fisher notes. “Every freight train had a caboose,” Fisher says. It was the conductor’s office and a place for rest and refreshment. It was also a safety device, he explains. “The caboose is always a bright color so a train coming up behind you would see you.”
There’s so much history at the museum — and since the railroad was so central to the development and functioning of the local economy, the history represents so much more than rail history.
The festival continues on Sunday, Aug. 27 from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for kids.
RiverheadLOCAL photos by Denise Civiletti
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