Building the perfect replica of a Dutch ship isn’t enough to keep county Historian Don Rittner busy. Now he’s taking on yet another project that must be completed next year — before centennial celebrations begin.
Besides building the Onrust for the quadricentennial anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage to America in 1609, Rittner wants to fix up an old locomotive for the county’s bicentennial.
Both celebrations will occur next year, which means he has just six months to finish.
No pressure, right?
“That ship, whew!” Rittner said. “That’s from scratch. This, this is restoration.”
It will be much easier than the ship, he said. At least, he hopes so.
Right now, the locomotive is rusting in a warehouse in Rotterdam, where the Schenectady Museum has stored it for more than a decade in hopes of someday obtaining the money to fix it up.
It was built by workers at Alco, who volunteered their time in 1941 to create a replica of the French train used to transport troops and horses during World War I. It was designed for a group of veterans known as the Forty & Eight, who during the war were transported in boxcars that could carry 40 soldiers or eight horses.
They drove the locomotive in parades every year until the engine died. Then, they donated it to the museum.
Rittner wants to haul the locomotive out of storage for every bicentennial event next year, using the distinctive train as the symbol of the county.
Schenectady had the country’s first railroad junction and the first passenger tunnel — as well as one of the first fires from sparks flying out of the early wood-burning steam engines. Schenectady then became one of the first cities to ban locomotives, forcing railroad companies to tow the trains with horses while inside the city boundaries.
The railroad led to the development of entire towns in the county, including Delanson, which took its name from the railroads that met there.
Safer engines were developed here as well, including the diesel-electric engine invented through a partnership between General Electric and Alco.
“A lot of the innovations in railroading were invented here,” Rittner said. “This little replica really symbolizes a lot in Schenectady County history.”
Even General Electric can’t compare to the effect locomotives had on the county’s past, he said.
“The history of GE is later 19th century. There’s more of the locomotive history than GE history,” he said. “To me nothing represents the entrepreneurial spirit of Schenectady more than Alco — you know, railroading really is what opened up the country.”
Rittner thinks Alco’s replica locomotive is distinctive enough that it could be used as the gathering point for every bicentennial event next year — a sort of visitors’ center, where residents could buy souvenirs or pick up maps and other information about that day’s activities.
But the train needs work first.
“It’s really cosmetic, more than anything else,” Rittner said hopefully as he stared at the rusted, dented old locomotive.
The bumper is twisted and falling off. The headlights are missing. Rust seems more prominent than paint on much of the frame.
But Rittner thumped the train soundly and pronounced himself reassured.
“It’s filthy, it needs work,” he said. “But it’s not structural, it’s just dirty.”
He glanced at the engine and deflated a little.
“I wouldn’t be too hopeful about that,” he said. “I think it would take too long to rebuild the engine by January.”
But he could easily put the train on a flatbed to transport it around the county.
All in all, it will be quite a job — but a snap in comparison to the three years of toil on the Dutch ship that must also be done in six months.
The bicentennial schedule has not been set yet, but will include a dinner at Glen Sanders on March 7, the day that Schenectady County officially separated from Albany County, 200 years ago.
A commemorative stamp and new historical markers will also be unveiled throughout the year, and high school students will be asked to compete for publication in a book of essays about their hometowns.
The bicentennial committee is also creating self-guided tour maps of various locations in the county and producing short television programs that will air on SACC-TV.
Historians will also spend a day at the Mabee Farm identifying artifacts that residents have found on their property.
Activities will also be offered at each of the regular county festivals, including Niska-Day.
“Rather than create a new day, we’ll piggy-back on days with a new theme,” Rittner said.
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