The Ghost Trains of New Woodstock
I am haunted by the images of trains... great, black, steam trains... that used to stop outside my window.
My very first recollection of being alive and on this Earth is when we lived in New Woodstock, Madison County, south of Syracuse. It is a visual recollection, and a vivid one.
It was 1944 or early 45, and my father was preaching at the Baptist church. We lived in the small parsonage next door, but I don't really remember much of that. I was only three years old, after all.
It happened, to my good fortune, that the parsonage stood right next to the tracks of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, and just a little down from one of its stops to load and unload. So just about every day, or maybe twice a day, a train would come along, and the engine - puffing and steaming and its little bell ringing a small clear note - would stop right next to the house.
I always remembered that. I remembered how they would sometimes come at lunch time, and my mother would stand me in the kitchen sink so I could look out the little window above the sink. (That's the little window in the photograph below; the narrow one on the far left.) I would get my legs under me, standing in the kitchen sink, steadied by my Mom, and there it would be; a great, black engine....sort of frightening and sort of fascinating.
I remembered that pretty well, and I told lots of people the story. But it was a dormant memory, like and old faded photograph. The details were all there, but it lacked any sharpness... any color.
We moved away the next year - 1945 - to Gilbertsville, in Otsego County, and I had never gone back. So all I had was that dim memory of fragments of the year in New Woodstock. But what it lacked in clarity it more than made up for in drama, and as the years passed, I clung to that first ghostly dream, that image of the great steam trains. As such trains had virtually disappeared from the landscape, this memory became like a fragment of historic film footage - rescued from the dust bin.
Then one day I was watching the movie "The Journey of Natty Gan", a film full of early steam trains. And the sound of one of them - that mellow puffing, snorting sound, punctuated by the sharp little bell - brought the hair on my neck to attention. It was the sound... the sound from 1944... the sound from outside my window. Suddenly the picture had life and color - and a new and urgent fascination - and I started on a quest to rediscover these steam trains of New Woodstock.
A friend of mine sent me a print that he said was probably like the trains I saw. It looked pretty familiar.
I found a picture somewhere else of an engine that ran the line at about the same time (see top of this page), and it looked pretty familiar, too.
Then I visited the New Woodstock Historical Society, which has its collections in the old depot next to "my" house. I had been back to the village a few years earlier, after I got the train bug, having not been there since I was four years old. That was a strange experience. The tracks were all gone, but the house was still there, and the little window. I was seeing ghosts everywhere.
I even went up to the door - my old door - and knocked, and then had to explain to the preacher's wife that I used to live in this house when I was three - forty some years ago - and is there a little window over the kitchen sink? I must have looked innocent enough, for she invited me in and I stood for a few awkward minutes in that kitchen - that same kitchen from 1944 - with the same sink and the same window. I did not dare approach it too closely. It was enough just to close the circle in this way.
So when I returned a few years later to look at the Historical Society collections, I did not know what more I could find. They had the usual artifacts of the railroad - stuff my brother would be more interested in than I. But they also had some photographs, and one of them struck a nerve (below). There was no doubt about it, this was the train, and the photo showed it stopped at the depot in New Woodstock, with the engine puffing away right outside my kitchen window!
The ghost had taken on real substance, now, in a way I could not have imagined possible. A part of me was sad to see my ancient memory become so real. The shimmering dreamlike quality it used to have was in itself a fascination. But I was glad to lay hold of this reality, nonetheless.
I still have a ways to go on this search, and that fact that it is as far back in the past as I will every be able to reach in my life experience does not make it easier.
But it is just another set of tracks. I know it leads somewhere, so I best just keep on with it until I see where it is going.
The image below is as close to "my" reality as I have gotten so far. It was taken at DeRuyter in the fall of 1946. That is just two stations down the line from New Woodstock and just two years down the line from when I watched the trains go by my house.
According to a 1947 LVRR schedule the trains that ran down from Canastota arrived in New Woodstock at 11:12 AM. I remember at least one day when I was being fixed a hamburger for lunch, and the ketchup had just been put on it when the train arrived outside my window. I insisted on seeing the train, so I was picked up and stood in the kitchen sink to look out the little window above the sink at the locomotive, less than 50 feet away.
This is as close as I have gotten to "being there" again, and no doubt this engine type, if not this very engine, was one of the great wheezing behemoths that interrupted my lunch on more than one occassion when I was four years old.
Click on the picture for a closer look.
Another vintage image from the Herbert Trice Collection, and included in Robert Archer's 1977 book A History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad (as is that one above), may also be of a train I saw in New Woodstock. It is the same engine type as the one above; it is just five numbers later (#1155 vs. #1150 above), and is described as "steaming toward Cortland", so probably on the Cortland Branch.
In order to try and get a handle on the layout of track and structures that are no longer there, I found a 1938 air photo at NYSDEC that shows very clearly the New Woodstock area as it was then.
(Click on this image to see a close-up view.)
While examining the photo, I noticed that just north of New Woodstock there was actually a train on the tracks heading south!
(Click on this image to see a close-up view.)
To the model railroad frontpage.