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Railway group reserves land for museum
Plan also includes two excursion trains

The vintage railroad equipment is a reminder of when Buffalo was the country's second-largest rail center for nearly a century.

There's the 110-foot-long, behemoth Pennsylvania Railroad steam locomotive, once used to haul coal and iron ore into Lackawanna. Or the 1950s-era New York Central cars, which carried passengers when the railroads were at their peak.

There's an old-fashioned dining car, and the car President Dwight Eisenhower used to crisscross the country.

This rail equipment and more is currently scattered in Hamburg, Orchard Park, North Collins, Lackawanna and Buffalo's East Side.

But that's about to change. The Western New York Railway Historical Society, best known for its model train shows, plans to consolidate its equipment and railroad memorabilia into six buildings it has bought or is in the process of acquiring at a brownfield site in South Buffalo.

The railway society signed a memorandum of understanding Monday to acquire 35 acres of the old Buffalo Color Corp. site for $490,000. The land and buildings were purchased at auction in 2008 for $300,000 by South
Buffalo Development.

"This is the end of a 30-year search for a permanent home for the museum. We're extremely excited about it," said Joseph Kocsis Jr., the society's president. "We've had a lot of false starts in the past, but here we've finally found a home."

The rail enthusiasts are also on track to operate two excursion passenger trains beginning in 2011, after building track and platforms along inactive Prenatt Street that's adjacent to the site. Plans include occasional stops at Central Terminal, which saw its last passenger train in 1979, and special excursions through the region to destinations such as Niagara Falls, Medina, Jamestown and even Cleveland. Trips that bring people into Buffalo and fall color leaf runs are also planned.

The track will be serviced by Norfolk Southern Railroad, which owns switching rights, with the rail cars brought up to Amtrak standards.

The railway society also this month paid $750,000 to buy buildings on nearby Lee Street, along with nearly 2 acres once used for parking on Elk Street. The purchase, from Parklee LLC, a private partnership, will serve as the railway society's initial headquarters and exhibition space.

"What we want to do is not going to happen overnight," said Edward Patton, director of museum development. "But once we get solid footing, we fully believe we will be able to expand this thing over time. We envision the excursion train revenues will cover our operating expenses at the site, and foster the ongoing development of the project."

The first phase of remediation won't be complete until early 2011, and it could take up to another year before the other two phases are finished, Patton said. The closing won't occur until the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which is supervising the remediation, certifies its completion.

The most prominent feature will be conversion of the former four-story Schoellkopf Power House into a 25,000-square-foot exhibition hall and space to house rail cars.

Kocsis said the long-range plan is to eventually restore the power house's 25 arched windows, which stand 35 feet tall, at a cost of $30,000 apiece. Ammonia compressors in the building once necessary to produce ice for the dye business are expected to be preserved, Kocsis said.

He said the railway society also supports the property being historically landmarked.

The Steel Plant Museum, currently housed in the Lackawanna Public Library, has agreed to move to Lee Street, and Patton said other nonprofits have been or will be approached.

Lorraine Pierro of the Industrial Heritage Committee, a local organization that celebrates Buffalo's industrial past, thinks the location's access to water and railroad tracks, and its past history makes it an ideal site for what's planned.

"Buffalo Color was where the Schoellkopf family became the first U.S. manufacturer of dyes in this country. It's a very prominent historical site for Buffalo," Pierro said.

Buffalo Color, which at its peak employed 3,000 and was the No. 1 manufacturer of indigo dyes used in dungarees, went bankrupt in 2003.

The railway society is paying South Buffalo Development $750,000 to redevelop the power house, machine shop and ice house.

The excursion runs will tie into the nostalgia people feel for the Central Terminal. The station won't have to reopen to make use of a passenger loading platform.

"There would be an opportunity for excursion trains to come and go as a point of origin, or a stop on the way. That's in the equation," said Mark Lewandowski, president of Central Terminal Restoration Corp. and a railway society trustee.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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