SUMMER DREAMS COVER STORY
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
MILFORD – Call it The Little Engine That Can.
Donall Sullivan’s little train, out of commission for more than 15 years, will once again carry passengers – of all ages! – from Milford’s Wilber Park to the 150th anniversary celebration of the Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley Railroad Saturday, July 13.
“Sullivan was a tool-and-die man and he built a little train on his property in Otego,” said Bruce Hodges, president, Leatherstocking Railway Historical Society. “When he died in the mid-’90s, Gene Bettiol bought it because he didn’t want it to leave the area.”
Later, Bettiol donated it to the Leatherstocking Railway Historical Society, which owns the C&CV, but after a few years, the engine stopped working.
Now, thanks to volunteer Carl Ayres, the engine has been rebuilt to run on electric power, and Eagle Scout Rudy Bohm built a 1,200-foot loop of track, including a bridge.
“We’re going to have people park in Wilber Park and then ride the little train to the celebration,” said Hodges.
The Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley will celebrate 150 years with a re-creation of that day in 1886 the C&CV first came to town.
“Railroad openings were traditionally celebrated with cannon fire and church bells,” said Jim Loudon, founder of LRHS and the author of “Leatherstocking Rail: A History of Railroading Along the Upper Susquehanna.” “The history center will ring the bell in Milford, then up by Pop’s Place, one of our members will light off a cannon.”
“That’s just the kind of members we have,” said Hodges.
And when the train arrives in Cooperstown, all five churches will sound their bells. “It used to be that women would come out in their best dresses and wave white hankies at the train,” said Loudon. “Maybe we can get a few to do that on Saturday!”
The railroad started in 1887, carrying hops and textiles along the Susquehanna to connect with larger lines that went through Albany. “There used to be four knitting mills along the Susquehanna,” said Loudon.
But debates between whether the line should extend to Utica or to the Hudson erupted, causing the 10-year “railroad wars” that ended with stakeholder Judge Edwin Harris had a heart attack and the treasurer, Edgar Light committed suicide.
The railroad carried freight and the occasional tourist through the 1970s, but when I-88 came through, the railroad was no more – until 1999, when the Leatherstocking Railway Historical Society purchased it and began running it as a not-for-profit.
Starting in April, the group runs frequent themed train rides, including with the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, Fall Foliage tours, the Cooperstown Blues Express and train robberies. “Train robberies didn’t really happen in this area, but we still have a fun group that comes out to do them.”
Last year, multiple event trains sold out, prompting the group to add additional dates. “With our Christmas trains, we have families who have been coming every year since we started,” said Hodges. “They tell us that it’s not Christmas without a ride on the Santa train.”
And though there was no golden spike that officially christened the Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley Railroad in 1886, there will be one on Saturday. The event will also include an ice cream social, music, presentations by Loudon and Milford Postmaster Judy Kessler, who will also do a commemorative postal cancellation.
“We have a postal car with a slot, and when we first put it on the tracks, this old woman drove up and put a letter in the slot!” said Loudon. “We went ahead and took it to the post office for her, but she probably remembered a time when you could do that.”
They will also have a 1924 Baldwin Steam locomotive pulling the special Sesquicentennial train, on loan from a company in Dunkirk.
“We have to learn how to use a coal burner, but you only turn 150 once,” said Loudon.