In their push to collect all the artifacts they can and prepare the ALCO Heritage Museum for Sunday’s grand opening, museum director Jim Cesare and historian Dave Gould, both volunteers, have uttered more than their share of oohs and aahs.
Nothing, however, not even the M-47 Patton Tank, elicits the response that comes with a first look at Charles Lester’s 1930s-era model of the Hudson, a steam locomotive built at the American Locomotive Company for the New York Central Railroad.
“It’s a spectacular museum-quality model that someone, Mr. Lester, was able to construct out of wood,” said Cesare. “It is amazing.”
At a glance
WHAT: ALCO Heritage Museum open house
WHERE: 1910 Maxon Road Ext., Schenectady
WHEN: 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 374-4628 or www.alcoheritagemuseum.org
The model, which took Lester from 1930 to 1934 to build, will be on display from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, along with the M-47 built by ALCO during the Korean War, the Black Beast automobile built by ALCO’s Providence, R.I., plant in 1909 and various other items and interpretive panels illustrating the history of the railroading industry in Schenectady.
Lester’s model, nearly 7 feet long, has been in the home of his son, Charles Lester Jr., who lives on Troy-Schenectady Road in
Niskayuna. Also on display will be a smaller model, also wooden, of a Boston and Maine steam locomotive Lester constructed in 1904 when he was an 11-year-old living in Charlestown, N.H.
“Just from watching trains go past his home in Vermont and New Hampshire as a young boy, Charles Lester built a scale model of a locomotive that became so popular he was sort of a local wonder,” said Gould. “His goal in life was to become a design engineer of locomotives, and in 1911 he moved to Schenectady and enrolled in the training program for draftsmen.”
Lester married Schenectady native Mabelle Downes and went on to have a long career designing engines at ALCO. It was between 1930 and 1934 that he took the time to build his larger model of the New York Central’s Hudson Locomotive.
“He was a remarkable man who has really just come to light,” Gould said of Lester. “Along with actually designing locomotives, he took the time to construct this nearly 7-foot-long model. Except for the small metal parts he used for the piping and valves, it’s made out of wood that’s painted black. It really is something to see.”
Lester’s models were both donated to the ALCO Heritage Museum by his family.
“My mother always had an inkling it belonged in a museum, so as soon as we heard about this place we got in touch with Jim Cesare,” said Lester’s grandson, Charles Lester III. “My grandfather also built a cabinet to set it on and a display case that went over the top. It weighs about 70 pounds and is all hand-carved. We guess it took him about three and a half years.”
Charles Lester III never knew his grandfather, who died in 1957, five years after he retired from ALCO. While the model brings back many childhood memories for Lester, he knew early on it was not the typical plaything.
“I can remember my father keeping it in the family room, kind of off to the side, probably to keep us away from it,” said Lester. “I think we knew it was something special even as a young kid, and as we got older we realized just how special it was. It wasn’t a toy.”
As well as Lester can remember, only the smaller model has ever been on public display, and that was many years ago at Niskayuna Town Hall. His grandfather was also a longtime Republican committeeman for the town of Niskayuna and was secretary of the St. George’s Masonic Lodge for 15 years.
Of the other large artifacts on hand for Sunday’s opening, the M-47 Tank, donated by the Pollard family of Altamont, will be on continuous display at the museum. The ALCO Black Beast, meanwhile, which won the 1909 and 1910 Vanderbilt Cup, is being transported to the opening from Long Island by its owner Howard Kroplick. It will only be at the museum for the grand opening.
The other large artifact on display will be the cab from a Reading Railroad locomotive made in the 1940s at ALCO.
“The guy who donated it had it sitting in his backyard in the brush for a long time,” said Gould. “We rescued it. We have to clean it up a bit, and with General Electric donating a locomotive simulator, we’re going to be able to put people in the cab and it will appear as if you’re driving a locomotive down the tracks. It’s going to be a great interactive exhibit. We’ve had a team of volunteers working on replacement parts and fixing it up. It’s a very rough diamond, but we feel great about getting it here.”
While Cesare and his crew of volunteers are still working to get things ready for Sunday, he’s thrilled to see the museum — under the umbrella of the ALCO Historical and Technical Society — actually come to fruition.
“If I had a million dollars it’s not where I would want it to be, but realistically, for June 10, I think we’ve exceeded our expectations,” he said. “There’s a lot going on this summer and we hope to have a real locomotive in one of our big bays. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and this museum isn’t going to be built in four months. But I’m quite happy with what we’ve done so far.”
Also on display will be a series of oral interviews conducted by Niskayuna High students with former ALCO employees and their friends and families.
“One of the real strengths of this museum is going to be its oral interviews,” said Gould, who also hopes that a research library will soon become a key component of the museum. “Some of them are quite poignant. We have interviews with men who lived in Goose Hill and worked at ALCO, and they’re telling us what life was like back then.”
Throughout the summer, the museum will be open on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. The group is also looking for memberships to help defray museum costs. Individual memberships are $35 and family memberships are $50. Membership includes free admission and a subscription to the society’s quarterly newsletter.
Serious talk of a museum in Schenectady dedicated to railroad history began back in 2008. In November of 2009, the ALCO Technical and Historical Society held its first dinner with 65 people attending and began looking for a location for a museum. In June of 2011, the ATHS announced that it had secured its site, an 18,000-square-foot building at 1910 Maxon Road Ext. in the former home of Dimension Steel Fabricators. The 3.3-acre property has room to expand and is adjacent to the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway.