Len Kilian pointed down the tracks at a westbound train as he carried his lawn chair and cooler across the Riverlink Park bridge on a Tuesday evening.
“That’s an empty automotive train on its way back to Detroit to load up with new cars,” he said, with the approaching headlight still just a speck in the distance.
Kilian, author and rail historian, was the first of a group of committed train fans to set up his chair facing the tracks under the red tin roof of the stairway tower.
Around suppertime, men trickled in with their own chairs, laughing and unwrapping sandwiches from Stewart’s and Subway. They chatted about their wives and projects at home, and then a train whistled in the distance and they were up like a shot, leaning over the guard rails picking out details.
“These cars are empty,” Kilian said. “You can tell because the springs aren’t compressed. That one’s a Burlington Northern out of Santa Fe. You don’t see a lot of those out here.”
Most of the men gathered on a recent Tuesday were part of an un-named group of train enthusiasts from all over the Capitol Region headed up by Bill McChesney of Schenectady.
“It’s not a club,” he said, “there’s no real structure.”
During the winter, they meet at each other’s houses every week. Five of them have large model train setups, most of which replicate a past or present real-life system and the group treats them as such, running them on a specific, documented schedule.
Watching and learning
Over the summer, however, they spend their evenings watching actual trains. It’s a chance to get outside, meet other train enthusiasts over a sandwich, but it’s also research.
“We try to learn from real trains, pick it up firsthand,” said Bill Doyle, as he hefted an old camera. Doyle snapped pictures as trains went by. Over the winter he’ll use them to get the paint and weathering right on his HO gauge model engines.
“Some of us are retired railroaders, some are model railroaders, and some just like trains,” said Dave Gould. As a founder of the recently established ALCO Museum in Schenectady, retired Amtrak employee, and operator of one of the group’s five model setups, he represents all three.
It’s not exactly a diverse crowd. The youngest regular is in his late 40s. The oldest is 93-year-old World War II veteran John Shuler who’s been watching trains in Amsterdam since 1930.
“There aren’t as many kids as I’d like to see,” Paul Werschler, owner of JP’s Trains & Hobbies of Latham. “We got started with model trains as kids. We got them for Christmas. Now they get video games.”
For an aging subculture, Werschler said he sees a lot of new faces picking through the tiny figures and micro-engineered nuts and bolts that crowd the shelves of his little shop.
“One thing about this hobby,” he said, “when someone comes in here, just starting out, one of the more experienced guys will take him under his wing, teach him the basics, maybe even help him build his first setup.”
That attitude has been growing at the Riverlink Park gatherings. On that Tuesday night, three guys from Upstate Model Railroads, a separate club, showed up for a visit.
Within a few hours of taking a seat with Kilian, the little platform was crowded with about a dozen lawn chairs and conversation only stopped when the rumble of a train drowned it out.
The problem is, there’s no room for expansion. The space at Riverlink is relatively small, and train watching locations are limited.
“Since Sept. 11, it’s hard to set foot most places without getting arrested,” Werschler said from behind the narrow counter of his shop, “There are fewer and fewer places you can watch trains.”
Since Tropical Storm Irene damaged Guy Park Manor and the area surrounding Lock 10, McChesney said the Riverlink bridge is one of the last good spots.
“We had three,” he said, “and Irene took care of two of them.”
He said some train fans are desperate enough to rent track-facing rooms in America’s Best Value Inn in Amsterdam.
history rolls by
But there’s another reason these enthusiasts make the trip to Amsterdam. Train history is plentiful in the carpet capital.
“Amsterdam had a very rail-centric economy,” Gould said. “The mills ran on coal, which was shipped in by train, and the carpet had to be shipped out. They needed to be near the track because it connected them to the world.”
McChesney pointed east to the highway bridge, where a passenger station once stood. To the west, there once was a large shipping station.
“Right where we’re sitting,” he said, “there was a gasification station, where coal was turned into gas. Both were shipped in and out by train.”
Now the rail system is different. There are more shipping containers than boxcars. Government-run Amtrak has taken over for private passenger trains. Where there was once four tracks, there are now two. Even so, occasionally a little piece of history rolls by.
As the sun slanted in the west, the Hickory Creek observation car, all 1950s curves and glass, zipped by at the back of an Amtrak train. A few guys jumped up from their sandwiches.
According to Kilian, that very car once ran on the 20th Century Limited, one of the most famous trains in history.
Ken Nelson, one of the core members of the group, recounted how he once toured Hickory Creek in Penn Station.
“I had a friend of mine take a picture of me sitting in it,” he said. “ ‘Please don’t sit in the train,’ they said, so my friend took the picture and I moved right along. It was really beautiful in there.”
Doyle snapped a few pictures as it went by. No doubt he’ll be replicating its graceful curves come late September when the shrinking days drive the train fans indoors.
“That’s the sort of thing that makes the evening,” he said.
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