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Let the good times roll at rail museums

The Lehigh Valley No. 211. The Nickel Plate Road No. 79. The U.S. Army No. 1843.

If you're a railroad buff, these names make sense. And if you're a railroad buff, there may be no place in Western New York more rewarding than two museums in Rush, just southwest of Rochester.

The New York Museum of Transportation and the Rochester & Genesee Valley Railroad Museum are about two miles apart, but every Sunday a train runs between them.

The locomotives and other railroad cars -- boxcars and cabooses among them -- are at the Rochester & Genesee Valley Railroad Museum, located at a former depot of the Erie Railroad, across the road from Industry, a facility for delinquent youths. The New York Museum of Transportation is housed in a building once used as a dairy barn by the juvenile facility.

Both museums are run by volunteers, and although the museums are separately administered, some volunteers are associated with both.

The railroad museum lists among its collection 60-plus pieces of "rolling stock," including 11 locomotives, nine of them diesels and two steam-operated. The New York Museum of Transportation collection includes horse-drawn carriages, cars and a large model railroad display in addition to railroad equipment.

Visitors pay one admission charge (at the New York Museum of Transportation), ranging from $5 to $8, depending on age and whether a special event is scheduled. Both museums are open only on Sundays, but they're open every Sunday of the year, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

A term like "Army No. 1843" may not mean much for the uninitiated -- which includes me -- but brochures, signs at the museums, and volunteers like Pete Gores and David Peet have lots of information. The Army No. 1843 was built in 1953 and was one of many such locomotives used at Army bases around the country. The No. 1843 was used at the now closed Seneca Army depot in Romulus, among other places.

Two of the locomotives at the railroad museum once belonged to the Eastman Kodak Company for use at the vast Kodak Park in northern Rochester. Three others were used by Rochester Gas & Electric Company.

Along with six passenger cars, six cabooses, eight freight cars and a few others, the locomotives are outdoors at the Industry depot.

Inside the depot building and inside some of the cars, however, are displays of photos and memorabilia. For example, inside a 1930 baggage and express car, the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western No. 2078, is a display of hundreds of passenger timetables and dozens of photographs of railroading in the early 1950s.

Inside one boxcar, the MDT No. 14053, is a photo exhibit of the former Despatch Shops in East Rochester, once a major builder of "leased refrigerated freight cars." Salt was used to slow the melting of ice in the refrigerated cars; it leaked through the floor boards and caused track to deteriorate.

The depot building and some of the locomotives and cars are works in progress. Years of loving labor donated by the volunteers have helped make the building, locomotives and cars closely resemble their original condition, but the work continues and is likely to go on for years.

What makes the Rochester and Genesee Valley Railroad Museum all the more interesting is that it has none of the overly polished slickness too common in many museums. It's as if somebody accumulated lots of big things in his backyard and is permanently working on restoring them. It's all the more interesting because the work is ongoing and visible.

To get to the Rochester and Genesee Valley Museum you first go to the New York Transportation Museum, where you can spend an hour or so looking at old trolleys, a fire engine, an antique ambulance, endless photographs, and a model railroad display that fills a space the size of small basketball court. A half dozen or so model trains are usually in operation while the museum is open.

A 12-minute film, "The Steel Wheel," tells the story of the now defunct Rochester subway. There is an occasionally changing display of miniature model scenes created by Donovan Shilling, a Rochester-area historian. These include an Erie Canal lock and an old-time automobile service station.

For many visitors, however, the highlight of a visit will be not so much either of the museums but getting from one to the other. A trolley car leaves the New York Transportation Museum once every half hour for the 15-minute trip to the Industry Depot.

A particularly interesting day for railroad buffs to visit the two museums could be next Sunday, designated "Diesel Day," when visitors will be able to ride on a giant diesel engine.

Or for those wanting to look at changing autumn scenery, any one of five successive Sundays beginning Sept. 18 are designated "Fall Foliage by Trolley and Train" days.

But even if you're just an occasional railroad buff, and you don't have a cousin or friend who collects and restores locomotives in his backyard, any Sunday is a good Sunday to visit the two museums.


>If you go:

Take the Thruway toward Rochester to Interstate 390, go south to Exit 11 (the first exit south of the Thruway), turn left onto Route 251, go about a mile and a half, turn right (north) onto East River Road. After about one mile, you'll see the New York Museum of Transportation.

Admission for adults is $7, for seniors (65 and over) $6, for children (3-15) $5. Add $1 for adults and seniors for special events, like Diesel Day and Fall Foliage days. The charge covers both museums and is good all day and for unlimited train and trolley rides.