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Museum owner plans old-time train ride for downtown Buffalo

If canals, hockey and museums aren’t enough, James Sandoro wants to bring a new tourist attraction to downtown Buffalo: an old-time train ride powered by a Pierce-Arrow bus that would connect Canalside to Larkinvile.

Sandoro, who built the Buffalo Transportation/Pierce-Arrow Museum on Michigan Avenue, has purchased 16 acres of downtown land from CSX Corp. for $275,000.

Now Sandoro plans to build a small-gauge railroad for the slender strip of land that stretches from just west of Michigan Avenue, along Exchange Street and parallel to the Niagara Thruway, to Hamburg Street.

He intends to create a summertime tourist ride for children and adults, using a replica of an old-style “Galloping Goose” train car that was powered by Pierce-Arrow automobiles from the 1930s.

The Galloping Goose refers to a series of seven railcars that were built individually between 1931 and 1936 by the Rio Grande Southern Railroad to run on narrow-gauge rail lines. The railcars, which used automobile motors instead of steam engines, were less expensive and lighter to operate, and enabled the railroad company to maintain mail service to towns in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

The first two of the trains were built from the bodies of Buick four-door sedans, but the later models used the front-ends, chassis and drive-trains of Pierce-Arrow cars, which were originally built in Buffalo. The trains continued running mail service until the railroad lost the contract in 1950, and then the cars were converted for tourist use. Of the seven original “Geese,” six still exist and are operated as year-round attractions in Colorado and California.

Sandoro wants to revive the Goose in Buffalo, as a replica. His museum already has Pierce-Arrow cars and even a 15-passenger bus, and his land purchase gives him the place to lay the narrow-gauge track. He plans to build his own Galloping Goose using either the bus or one of the cars, with a “cowcatcher” attached to the front, a luggage rack in back and train wheels underneath. A couple of open passenger trolley cars would be pulled in the rear.

“I think that’s awesome. We really love the Galloping Geese,” said Andrea Bestor, historical coordinator for the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, Colo., which has three Galloping Goose trains, one a former 1926 Pierce-Arrow. “Not everybody appreciates them like we do, so that’s pretty cool.”

The land Sandoro purchased, through Great Arrow Line LLC, extends under the Michigan, Hamburg and Louisiana Street bridges, and passes directly between his museum and the elevated highway.

CSX has held that property as part of its right-of-way through the city, to the CSX train tracks, which are still used by the freight transportation company, as well as by Amtrak passenger trains.

Coupled with other land Sandoro already owns, and partnerships he hopes to reach with the Thruway Authority and other groups, he would have virtually unfettered access to a mile of unused rail track or track-ready bed.

The line would begin roughly just north of the new One Canalside Building – the former Donovan State Office Building – before ducking under Washington Street, passing near the Amtrak station and reaching almost to the Larkin at Exchange Building.

Sandoro said he already has some support for the idea, including from CSX officials.

They were “enthused” about it after six years of negotiations on the purchase, he said. And since the land is away from streets, the train ride wouldn’t affect traffic.

“It’s safe, and for kids. It would be a great place for them to have rides and things,” he said.

Alternatively, he said, the path could be used as a commuter trolley line, connecting offices in Larkinville and downtown Buffalo. He said there is even a “beautiful cobblestone street” that is somewhat hidden by undergrowth but runs next to the track and could accommodate a trolley with rubber tires and a “cowcatcher” on the front.

Sandoro, a collector of antique cars and other Buffalo-related transportation memorabilia since he was a child, already has a track record of success in using his collection to create a museum destination. His Pierce-Arrow museum has been open since 2001, four years after he began the effort, after years of warehousing and restoring the old cars.

More recently, he put a significant addition onto the building and renovated its exterior to make it more attractive for visitors.

Today, he has 60,000 square feet of display space at the building, including the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed gas station, and his plans call for adding another 35,000 square feet, possibly starting in spring 2015.

Even with all of that, he said, his museum displays less than 25 percent of his collection, which also includes fire engines, travel trailers made by Pierce-Arrow and a “gigantic” sign collection, with over 2,000 examples of road, neon and porcelain signs.

Almost 18 cars have been donated in the last couple of years, including three Pierce-Arrow vehicles and a 1917 Overland, he said.

“People know all about it, and they want to be part of the mission. People just love the concept of what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s really great. I wish I would have done it 10 years earlier, but we didn’t have the wherewithal and resources. It couldn’t be any better than this.”