May 18, 2004

Remembering the Lehigh Valley

After an organizational meeting for the Dryden Town Historical Society, a packed Village Hall listened to Daniel Armitage talk about the thrills of being the "kid from Freeville", riding and occasionally operating the Lehigh Valley Railroad's trains from the age of eight through high school.

Ginny Stairs led the crowd through an election that put Gary Shelhamer, Sandra Prugh, Shirley Price, and Shirley Shackleton on the Board of Trustees, who then elected David Smith as their president, taking over from Laurence Beach, who is retiring from the post. (Attendees also signed a get well soon card for Beach.)

Ginny Stairs conducts the election
Ginny Stairs conducts the Dryden Town Historical Society election.

While the trustees met for their election, railfans looked through books, scrapbooks, and photos at the front and cookies and punch were available.

Railfans browse
Railfans look over photos.

Armitage started by saying how lucky he'd been to have the Freeville station in his backyard, and describing how he'd hung out at the station when he was five. When he was eight, Nick Fisk, an engineer on the Lehigh Valley, gave him his first train ride, to East Ithaca station, and let him blow the whistle at the Game Farm Road crossing. Soon enough, he was "going off at all hours day and night with a bunch of ruffians who worked on the railroad", and the coffee maker in his parents' house was always busy. When the Freeville line was downgraded to a secondary line, crews used to call his house to find out if other trains had passed.

Armitage had plenty of adventures, driving a train to Sayre after its engineer had violated Rule G a number of times, drinking martinis and beer, and getting "English lessons" from a profane man named Truman. He had his own switch keys and flares, and switched the Freeville crossing. He didn't think the railroad knew of his adventures, but in a later conversation with Vic Cole, the retired Road Foreman of Engines for the Lehigh Valley, Cole told Armitage:

"Yeah, Danny, I always did know about it. I've known about you for a long times - but I also knew the people you were with."

Armitage did his best to help those people, notably Ken Rice, the last station master at Freeville. The night of the station's closing, Armitage took the signs off the station. He went to see Rice at Dryden, where Rice was shocked at how quickly the signs had disappeared - until Armitage opened his car door and gave him one.

Daniel Armitage talks about his railroad childhood.
Daniel Armitage talks about his railroad childhood.

Armitage also told the story of decorating a Lehigh Valley train going from Dryden to Moravia through Groton as the "Purple Express", just in time for it to block Groton schoolbuses at the crossing on the day of the Dryden-Groton football game.

After telling his own stories, Armitage presented a slide show of Lehigh Valley trains and stations, from Fair Haven to Sayre, talking about the time (before his time) when Freeville saw sixteen passenger trains a day.

Daniel Armitage shows slides of the Lehigh Valley.
Daniel Armitage shows slides of the Lehigh Valley.

After the slides, an attendee asked Armitage why he hadn't gone on to work for the railroad. He'd applied for a brakeman's position in 1973, and the company was eager to hire him, but an overzealous company doctor kept him out for nearsightedness - despite his having a pilot's license. When Conrail was formed in 1976, they laid off everyone with less than five years' experience anyway, so it wouldn't have worked for long anyway.

(If you'd like more information on this presentation or are interested in Ken Rice's book on working for the Lehigh Valley, contact the Dryden Town Historical Society at 607-844-9209.)

Posted by simon at May 18, 2004 6:29 PM in ,
Note on photos