Volunteers directed lines of traffic through packed parking lots and sweated under the hot sun outside the ALCO Heritage Museum during Sunday’s grand opening. Inside, people cooled in the shade of huge industrial vaulted ceilings and mused over such relics as an M47 Patton Tank and genuine Reading Railroad engine cab. In all, more than 3,000 people visited the museum in the first hours of its opening.
“We didn’t officially open until 1, but people started coming at 11,” said museum board member Paul Hoffman. “By the time we did the actual ribbon cutting, there was a line all the way out of the parking lot.”
While any crowd tallying in the thousands can be considered a success for a local museum, volunteer staff weren’t surprised.
“That guy, who’s 50-something and collects model trains,” said museum director Jim Cesare, pointing out symbolic individuals in the crowd, “he’s my target audience. And those two Munchkins, they’re my target audience. And the guy whose dad worked here back in the day, he’s also my target audience.”
According to Cesare, the museum is perfect for every group, and from a brief survey of the crowd, he appears to be correct.
“How do you start it?” asked Jai Isaac, 10, of Amsterdam, fingering the wheel of the Black Beast, a 103-year-old ALCO-built race car.
The Beast was Isaac’s favorite machine of the day. With the polished engine and sleek body, all steel and wood and shining brass, it’s a good choice, though a case can be made for the Patton Tank.
Robert Freedman of Albany, on the other hand, came for the yards of model train circuit.
“I collect American Flyers,” he said. “I saw an ad in the paper and had to come.”
The main draw, however, is not locomotive trivia, but the industrial history tried to the very foundations of Schenectady.
“Back in the day you had GE that lit the world and ALCO across the street that hauled the world and that was Schenectady,” Cesare said. “Everyone within walking distance worked at those two places.”
The American Locomotive Company manufactured engines from 1848 to 1969, employing thousands, and bringing economic growth to Schenectady.
“We wouldn’t be here if not for the men and women who worked at ALCO,” Dave Gould, volunteer historian, said. “It’s their accomplishment.”
The rail industry as a whole was a great draw of immigration, so on a very literal level, many people would not be in the country if not for ALCO.
But Schenectady’s factories, as demonstrated by the Patton Tank, also built the war machine that protected this country, employing between 30,000 and 40,000 workers during World War II alone.
David Cooper of Gloversville is the grandson of one such worker.
“My grandfather [George Cooper] was sort of drafted to work here,” he said. “So many young men went over, but they still needed people to build things.”
To honor the workers, in addition to the many engineering relics, the museum displays a wall of family histories connected to ALCO.
“It’s great,” Cooper said, standing before the wall. “I just wish they had done it years ago so more people who worked at ALCO could have lived to see it.”
The ALCO Heritage Museum will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekend over the summer.
Following the grand opening, the museum will charge for admission. The board’s current goal is to insulate, heat and air condition the massive steel building they are currently leasing.
For more information, to donate or become a member, visit www.alcoheritagemuseum.org.