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The Last Passenger Train From Penn Yan

Yates Past - September 2008

The following article appeared earlier this year in the Chronicle- Express. Since train travel is one of our themes in September, we asked for permission to run it. YCGHS gives a big thank you to Gary and the Chronicle-Express.

The date was Monday, January 2,1956. The clock on the wall of the Pennsylvania Depot on East Elm Street in Penn Yan read 9:45 p.m.  Off in the northern distance could be heard the muted whistle of a train crossing Flat Street on its way into the village. Three passengers and two sacks of third class mail waited on the wooden station floor for the arrival of Pennsylvania train No. 596 from Canandaigua heading for Elmira and oblivion. This station scene had played out thousands of times over the previous 80 plus years of local passenger train service into and out of Penn Yan. But this particular cold, snowy January evening was different. This would be the last ever scheduled passenger train to arrive in Penn Yan. There was little fanfare and very few people to mourn this demise. Progress had won and extracted its toll. There had been rumors for many months concerning the railroad’s intent on discontinuing passenger service on this line. They were losing money every year on this route as the number of paying passengers dwindled.   The automobile and better roads had made this mode of transportation obsolete. Also New York State’s Railway Labor Laws required full crews on these local trains. Each train was required to have an engineer/fireman, brakeman, and conductor no matter how small the train was.  Sometimes there were more crewmen than passengers. In the late summer of 1955 the Pennsylvania Railroad posted train-off notices at every station stop and asked the New York State Public Service Commission permission to abandon all passenger trains on this line. This would include the northbound train No. 595 from Williamsport to Canandaigua arriving in Penn Yan at 6:59 a.m. daily and train No. 596 southbound from Canandaigua to Williamsport stopping in Penn Yan at 9:37 p.m. daily. The original last runs were scheduled for Sept. 25, 1955 but two lawsuits filed postponed the abandonment until Jan. 3, 1956. There was a long history of passenger service on this line dating back to 1855 when the Northern Central Railroad first built the line. At one time there were a dozen trains scheduled on this Elmira/Sodus Branch — six in each direction. This north/south rail line was very busy during the Civil War. Trains delivered northern troops to the battlefield down south and brought Confederate prisoners to the infamous prisoner camp in Elmira. These Pennsylvania trains carried soldiers to and from five wars - Civil War, Spanish American War, World Wars I and II, and the Korean War.  National Guard members from Penn Yan were sent to the Mexican Border Incident in 1916. The rail line had a direct connection to Fort Dix in New Jersey. Many soldiers just beginning their military service passed through Penn Yan on their way to basic training. The Elmira /Sodus Branch was also a very popular vacation excursion line. Many tourists rode the rails to the Finger Lakes in the summer months. From the south you could connect with the New York Central Railroad in Canandaigua to Rochester and Syracuse for destinations West and East. Southbound you could connect with the Erie Railroad in Elmira to go to New York City and the New Jersey shore.  The only sleeping car service to connect Rochester to Washington D.C. passed through Penn Yan via the Pennsylvania Railroad. This was once a very busy and significant passenger railroad line.   But after Monday, January 2, 1956, there would be no more passenger trains coming or leaving Penn Yan. A single diesel locomotive, a baggage/express car, and a solitary passenger coach rolled into Penn Yan that cold January evening. On board were eleven passengers, a conductor, brakeman in the passenger car and an engineer and fireman in the idling engine.   The conductor called out “B-0-A-R-D” in his best voice and the train with its red coach pulled away for the last time. The train rumbled across the trestle over the outlet and the rear lights disappeared into the black night. Pennsylvania train No. 596 was history as was the once vibrant passenger train service. The passenger train had rendezvoused with a time that had changed. The automobile was now king of the road. Better roads and the interstate highway system had made traveling by car easier thus dooming the local passenger train. The airlines were flying more people longer distances. Gasoline was 29 cents per gallon and very abundant. The passenger train had outlived its usefulness. But history, like that Lionel train going around the Christmas tree, always seems to make a complete circle. The road system is overcrowded and crumbling. Airlines are at best inconsistent and grossly over extended. Gasoline prices are climbing toward $4.00 per gallon and supplies are always tenuous.  Could passenger trains make a comeback? The Finger Lakes Scenic Railroad offers some very popular excursion trains in the area with service to Penn Yan possibly coming in the near future. High speed train service is being developed on New York State’s Empire Corridor from Buffalo to New York with connection to other state corridors possible.  Sen. Chuck Schumer has proposed passenger train service be reinstated from Binghamton to New York.  Could the train trip be coming back into our lives? Only time will tell.

We looked all through our collection for a photo of a train going through the village of Penn Yan... and we didn’t have one! If anyone out there has such a photo, we would appreciate it if you would bring it (or send it) to YCGHS so we can scan it to make a digital copy.

The Pennsylvania R.R. Passenger Depot which once stood off East Elm Street.

The Pennsylvania RR tracks at the Elm Street Crossing.
The passenger depot was on the left.
The freight depot on the right is now Morgan’s Grocery.

By Gary Pinneo

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