It may not be as grand as Schenectady's old Union Station, but for the first time in a half century the city has a railroad depot it can be proud of.
The new Amtrak building, which opened in October, certainly passes muster with Earl Shirkey, a lifelong Schenectady resident who knows something about railroads. Before there was Amtrak and Conrail, both of Shirkey's grandfathers were engineers for the New York Central, and as a young boy in the 1950s he often visited the majestic structure that was Schenectady's railroad station from 1908 to 1969.
"The original station was a little more grand, but I think they've done a wonderful job," said Shirkey, who visited the new building soon after it opened on Oct. 17. "No, it's not quite like the old one, but I was very impressed. It really looks fantastic."
Jay Green, district manager for Amtrak Operations/East, says his staff has heard nothing but good reports about the new building, which he refers to as Schenectady Station.
"All of the feedback we've received has been incredibly positive," said Green. "I would say the No. 1 thing we're hearing is quality. People are telling us it's a beautiful building."
Amtrak used its own architects along with a design team from the New York State Department of Transportation to create the building, which came with a $23 million price tag. Murnane Building Contractors of Plattsburgh got the work done two weeks early.
"We had a well-greased and collaborative effort to plan the building and a construction team that pulled it off," said Green. "We were very proud to be a part of it."
The old Union Station was sold by Penn Central to the city two years after it closed in 1969. While the city looked for tenants and buyers -- the Schenectady Light Opera Company Schenectady almost purchased the place but the deal fell through -- none materialized and in July of 1971 it was demolished. What was put up in its place in 1979 was a workable but unexciting alternative.
"It was a utilitarian, soulless entity that nobody shed a tear about when it was gone," said city of Schenectady historian Chris Leonard. "I never saw the old Union Station, but I love this upscale modernization which also lovingly reflects Schenectady's history. The new station is a beautiful return to our past."
Visitors to the new building are greeted with a map of New York on the floor of the main lobby. The waiting room, while not as big as Union Station's, is considerably larger than its immediate predecessor, and on the east wall there are two large screens showing iconic images of Schenectady and its history.
"I like the way they did the outlay of the map of New York on the floor," said Shirkey. "The images on the screen are also wonderful and really honor Schenectady's history. The building and what they've done with it is a real plus for downtown, and it does make me think of Union Station."
For more than 50 years, Richard DiCristofaro owned the Wedgeway Barber Shop on Erie Boulevard just across the street from the train station. Like Shirkey, he thinks the new building is a big plus for downtown, and from his vantage point, he got a good look at the work while it was being done.
“I was very impressed with the work ethic and the workmanship,” said DiCristofaro, who recently sold the business but still cuts hair there on a regular basis. “The crew was phenomenal, and they got it done ahead of schedule. Union Station was all terrazzo, granite, marble and whatever, so it’s not like that, but they still did a very nice job.”
In his book "Schenectady's Golden Era: 1880-1930," county historian and former newspaperman Larry Hart described Union Station this way. "It was gleaming marble corridors, brass-trimmed teller windows, comfortable lounges, cathedral-like waiting room and unique platform walk-ups."
That's pretty much the way Shirkey remembers it.
"Anytime we were downtown, I'd want to go visit the station and just admire it," said Shirkey, 71. "There was a place to get your shoes polished, a newsstand, and two main entrances, one facing Liberty Street and the other facing Wall Street. The ticket windows were pretty much where the ones are now."
Shirkey's grandfather James McCauley was born in Ireland in 1849 and worked on the New York Central from 1872 until he passed away in 1915. His other grandfather, Earl D. Shirkey, worked as an engineer from 1901-1944. A Pattersonville native, he passed away in 1958.
"I never met my mom's dad, but I was 11 when my grandfather Earl passed away so I did get to know him pretty well," said Shirkey. "I remember my father was upset because they had the temporary train station out in Colonie for a while. He was close to his father and that was kind of depressing for him. My grandfather wouldn't have liked that or the small station that went up after they demolished Union Station. This is so much better."
At night, visitors get a bonus. Blue lighting illuminates the facade of the building, and the three large arched windows allow visitors to look into the main lobby, even from a distance.
Green didn't want to pick out his favorite Amtrak station along the Empire Corridor, but he says Schenectady Station is another great reason to feel good about rail traffic.
"We also have a new station in Niagara Falls, Rochester and now Schenectady," he said. "We're also working on designs for a new station in Buffalo. But Schenectady Station is special. It really gives a nod to our wonderful railroad heritage in New York."