The roar of an Amtrak train as it passed by the Hyde Park Railroad Station broke the quiet only briefly in the lovingly preserved building as Hudson Valley Railroad Society members prepared for a recent monthly business meeting.
Jeff Armstrong, who is considered “the kid” by the other 25 society members (since he is only in his 30s), was providing repair advice for a beautifully detailed, but non-functioning, model train engine. The Station Master and Librarian Larry Laliberte also was not distracted from poring over the evening’s agenda, which included the society elections and two key upcoming events: the centennial of the station and the 70th anniversary of the FDR Funeral Train that came through in 1945.
This is a small group with a quiet passion for trains, large and small.
The restored station-turned-landmark museum, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, reflects their single-minded focus on keeping alive the history of the railroads in the Hudson Valley.
No large trains have stopped at the Hyde Park station since 1958, although there was so much rail activity after it was built in 1851 that this is the restoration of the second station. The first one was torn down and rebuilt in 1914 to make room for more tracks.
Franklin Roosevelt used the station frequently to commute to Albany when he was governor of New York — but not when he was President. He could actually travel from Washington, D.C., to Hyde Park faster by using trains on the west shore of the Hudson River and then, crossing at Poughkeepsie, continuing north via motorcade.
His funeral train did pass through the Hyde Park Station, an event that inspired one of the many books in the society’s on-site library, “FDR’s Funeral Train: A Betrayed Widow, A Soviet Spy, and a Presidency in the Balance.”
There are details about that train that members like David Toll can immediately share from their wealth of knowledge, amassed since the society was founded in 1966 by Bill Comley, who had a train shop and layout in his basement and welcomed the first meetings there.
“There were two trains, one weighed 1,800 tons that broke a coupling twice,” Toll said. “There was an armed soldier every 20 feet of the way.”
Toll also noted that Cornelius Vanderbilt started the New York Central Railroad, which owned the station and its property before selling both to the town of Hyde Park.
“Since the Vanderbilts had one of their mansions right here, this station was likely given a little more attention than others,” he said.
That attention eventually waned, and after the trains no longer stopped, the empty station was badly run-down and vandalized.
The story of its survival is reminiscent of “The Perils of Pauline.”
In the 1970s, a group of FDR High School students and other supporters spent two years in an unsuccessful attempt to rehabilitate the station, which was by then owned by the town. On the day of a memorable Town Board meeting in 1975, a bulldozer was on the station premises, ready to demolish everything,
Instead one of the town board members made a request that the society rehabilitate the station and use it as a clubhouse for a yearly lease of $1. It is a fee they still pay annually.
Once they took it over, the society completely recreated the entire station, down to the ticket booths. The restoration began in 1975 and today, the building houses extraordinary working models of trains, complete with carriages, signs and horns.
The entire upstairs, above the former baggage room, has HO-gauge modules depicting the Poughkeepsie Smith Street yards with New York, New Haven and Hartford trains, including the circus trains (with elephants!). There are also two “train-cams” that provide an engineer’s viewpoint. Downstairs is the Kingston New York Western and Ontario layout, with “scratch-built replicas.”
Books, DVDs, and souvenir items (T-shirts, wooden train whistles) are always available to help raise funds.
The ongoing maintenance is funded by member dues, public contributions, sale of society souvenir items, and an annual Train Show and Expo fundraiser at the Poughkeepsie Civic Center every November.
Hudson Valley Railroad Society/ Hyde Park Railroad Station museum
Museum open year round: Monday nights 5-9 pm; summer hours: Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays noon–5 p.m. Free admission
Soceity business meetings: 2nd Monday of each month, 7:30pm
34 River Road, Hyde Park