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Sayre Passenger Station has Interesting History

If the walls of the Lehigh Valley Railroad passenger station could talk, what a tale they would tell.

The two-story brick railroad station was formally dedicated in June of 1882. At that time, the Robert Packer Band under James M. Daly made its public debut, according to the June 9, 1911 Waverly Free Press newspaper. “The opening of the station was the occasion of a large celebration with nearly all the citizens of Sayre in attendance,” said the account.

The once-famous Packer band carried the name of Robert Asa Packer who was the division president of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. His mansion became the Robert Packer Hospital in 1885, shortly after his untimely death.

One of several strikes on the Lehigh Valley Railroad played out historic events at the Sayre station. The November 30, 1893 Owego Gazette recounts a story involving non-union employees, sheriff deputies and damaged steam locomotives. Inexperienced strike-breakers were blamed for an accident that occurred near the station.

“The men were engaged in placing a switch engine on the track, when a freight train dashed into the yard at a speed of 40 miles an hour and beyond control of the engineer,” said the account. “It crashed into the derailed locomotive, completely demolishing the tender. The engine was carried about twenty rods, and left below the high bridge, standing cross-wise of the tracks.”

Throughout its history, the station has played host to a number of notable people including future-President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, who was governor of New Jersey in 1911, made a political visit to Sayre on October 21, 1911 after arriving on Lehigh Valley train No. 5. After his arrival at the local station shortly after 5 p.m., Wilson gave a speech at the borough hall. Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, served from 1913 to 1921.

Another future president, Theodore Roosevelt, also made an appearance in Sayre on board a train as part of a presidential campaign.

America’s famous inventor, Thomas Edison, passed through Sayre in the shadows of its historic passenger station. The January 12, 1912 issue of the Waverly Free Press recounted his visit.

“Thomas A. Edison, the inventor, passed through Sayre Monday morning. He and his party occupied the private car ‘Wisconsin,’ which carried him through here last Thursday,” said the story.

The station has also played host to the railroad men coming to Sayre to view the legendary Sayre Shops.

In June of 1912, a district superintendent of motive power of the National Railways of Sweden was in Sayre “inspecting the Lehigh Valley Railroad shops,” according to the June 7, 1912 issue of the Waverly Free Press. “He has been in this city for the past two months in the interests of the Swedish government,” read the account.

On October 4, 1912, the Waverly Free Press reported on a unique excursion though Sayre.

“The Lehigh Valley Railroad had three large train loads of immigrants through Sayre Tuesday morning,” the article stated. “Each train had ten cars and the cars were well loaded. The immigrants were from the northern part of Europe and were on their way to the Northwest.”

In the November 15, 1912 issue of the Waverly Free Press, an article told of a visit to Sayre by Etienne Chauvy, an officer of the Central Brazil Railway, the largest railroad in the Brazil. Mr. Chauvy was a guest of Rafe Emerson of the New York consulting firm Emerson & Son.

The article explains how the Brazilian railroad executive ended up in Sayre.
“On arriving in the states, Mr. Chauvy asked Mr. Emerson to show him the best railway shops in the states and Mr. Emerson immediately said they were in Sayre,” the article states. “A complete inspection was made and the working system in the shops explained.”

On November 27, 1914, “A representative of two Russian railway systems was in Sayre Friday afternoon making an inspection of the system shops of the Lehigh Valley,” said the Waverly Free Press.

Never far from events on the world stage, less than a month later, a convoy of military equipment passed by the station in the dark days of World War I.

“A special train carrying motor trucks to be used in the European war passed through Sayre at 9:55 o’clock Tuesday night,” according the December 18, 1914 Waverly Free Press. “The train was composed of twenty cars. The cars were received from the Nickel Plate Line and are consigned to New York City.”

During both World Wars, a canteen providing food and comfort was staffed by volunteers from the American Red Cross and supported by chapters throughout the county.

In the March 7, 1973 issue of the Evening Times, an article recounts the prominent role the Lehigh and its station played during the war.

“The Lehigh…was known to thousands of GIs as the train which hauled them to and from the Sampson Naval Base and later the U.S. Air Force installation on the shores of Lake Seneca near Geneva,” the article said. “Sayre was known to many of the parents of these GIs too, as they told them of the time they stopped here and were greeted by members of the Red Cross who had a service center set up in a part of the passenger station.”

The historic passenger station also witnessed the end of the passenger train era when the eastbound Black Diamond passenger train, which had carried passengers between Buffalo and New York City since 1896, made its farewell in May of 1959. According to the May 14, 1959 Daily Review, “The final eastbound Black Diamond was in charge of James Davenport, engineer, and Fred Delaney, conductor, both of Sayre, and John McGrath of Towanda, the fireman. The westbound was in charge of Henry Hartley, of Wilkes-Barre, engineer, and Edward Bedell, of Sayre, conductor.”

Along the line, people turned out to view the passing of the last Black Diamond and the end of an era.

In 1973, the Sayre Evening Times reported on the planned closing of the Sayre Shops and its “tremendous” impact on the Valley economy should it close.

“The Sayre shops and yards of the road for years and years were the hub of the line between Buffalo and New York,” said the article. “At one time, it is estimated that as many as 3,000 persons were employed in the local facility alone. And the same was the case up and down the line. It was the largest Valley employer of people for half a century and the Lehigh Valley Railroad was known all over the world. Now there was roughly between 400 and 500 employees.”

The station continued to be used by the Lehigh until April 1, 1976, when the Lehigh Valley Railroad was absorbed in Consolidated Railroad. Conrail continued to use the building until it was sold in February 1982. A restaurant was opened in late 1985 by Valley businessman Larry Brown who had purchased the building from Louis Sandroni.

On September 26, 1980, the Valley Railroad Museum Association was incorporated to promote the preservation of railroad history and historical research, according to the incorporation papers.

Formerly operating as a mini-museum on W. Packer Avenue near the Packer Avenue bridge, the new museum opened on the first floor of the passenger station on July 1, 1984. A Railroad Heritage Days was held on June 23-24 at the passenger station.

The new museum featured displays on various aspects of railroading in the Valley, including an HO-scale replica on the second floor of Sayre, Athens, Waverly and South Waverly.

The opening of the restaurant forced the museum to move to the second floor where the layout was expanded. Two rooms displayed railroad memorabilia while a third room was used as a gift shop. The hallway housed the museum’s collection of railroad books. One of the popular sellers in the gift shop was the seven-volume Pictorial Review series of booklets showing photographic views of the Valley railroads.

On May 13, 1987, station owner Larry Brown was killed when the single-engine plane he was piloting crashed near Sayre Hill.

In 1991, as Sayre Borough was marking its Centennial, the museum purchased and restored a Sayre-Built caboose built in 1941. The all-steel caboose was placed near the entrance to the museum and opened for tours.

In 1994, the building’s new owners announced plans to expand their furniture store (located on the first floor) which forced the museum to new quarters on Desmond Street. A short time later, the museum moved to smaller quarters on W. Packer Avenue.

Work has started on restoring the station building which is now leased to the Sayre Historical Society.

Newspaper columnist Paul Seibel remembered the station in a January 27, 1986 editorial column in the Evening Times.

“Back in its railroad heyday, the passenger station was a daily beat for Times reporters,” Seibel wrote. “It was handy to then-Times offices, and at one time the reporters could walk through Desmond Street Park, where Newberry’s now stands, to pursue the rest of their duties.

Seibel mentioned ticket agents Charlie Hamm and Ray Stermer, and baggagemaster Ralph Tompkins. Trainmasters included Cyril Johnke, Charlie Fagan, F.L. Dougherty, Jim Dunfee and others, Seibel wrote. Assistant road foremen including Vic Cole and James Lathrop also had offices in the station.

Seibel recalled the telephone switchboard operators and the railroad police, the traveling milk agent, track supervisors and more.

“All of these people served the railroad when Sayre was the system’s hub,” Seibel wrote. “The Lehigh Valley is no more, and it was hard to see it die.”

In a fitting eulogy for the railroad heyday and a challenge to future generations, Seibel wrote, “The Lehigh Valley was the reason many of the area’s residents live here, because their fathers and grandfathers came here to work on the railroad. We should all try to keep the memories alive.”