Tell Me Something Good: History behind last train through downtown Syracuse

Tell Me Something Good

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — Former Syracuse mayor Rolland Marvin invited people to the big event, in a newsreel that played in theaters far and wide.  “For more than two centuries, Syracuse has been known as the city where the trains pass through the heart of the town,” he said.

The city planned a jubilee celebration 85 years ago, on the weekend of September 24, 1936.  That’s when the last locomotive rumbled through downtown streets, and trains were re-routed over elevated tracks to a new $17 million station along Erie Boulevard East.  The Onondaga Historical Association estimates that investment equates to more than $335 million today.

“It was incredibly dangerous, and as those locomotives got bigger and they got faster and the population got bigger, people were getting injured, people were getting killed,” says OHA Curator of History Bob Searing.  “So, it was a major public safety issue.  But… it was first discussed in the 1870’s and it isn’t until 1936 that it’s actually completed.”

Thousands of people lined Washington Street as the last train through downtown Syracuse made its way past City Hall, which is still here, and the Yates Hotel, which is not.

From newspaper headlines of the day, Bob Searing describes the scene.  “People are singing Auld Lang Syne.  There’s a band playing. There’s thousands of people standing in the rain on a cold fall day in Syracuse, cheering this giant Iron Horse.”

Ruth Pass Hancock was there with her family.  “My father made sure all of us girls knew what was going on in the city, and so he took us to the event when they celebrated the last passing through of the train.”  Mrs. Hancock’s grandfather and father both ran Syracuse China, which made dishware for the New York Central and other railroad lines. 

She was 13 at the time, and still remembers the jubilee marking the occasion.   “I don’t remember too much about it,” she said with a chuckle.  “I think I was more interested in who else was there!”

Mrs. Hancock has no trouble remembering her first train ride to New York, leaving from the Franklin Street station to see the legendary actress Eva Lagalienne play “Peter Pan.” 

She remembers three cross-country trips by rail, once sneaking her grandchildren into a private observation car full of Rockefellers.  She says she made her grandsons keep diaries on those trips… and boasts that the now-grown men still have those diaries today.  “The romance of taking a train ride, and the excitement of watching the countryside go by, can’t be beat,” she says.

That romance continued for another quarter-century before cars and planes largely overtook rail travel, and the elevated rail beds became the foundation of Interstate Route 690.  But it’s nice to think back, to a time when the railroad helped define our town.

As that newsreel put it as one of the final engines pulled down the middle of Washington Street: “So, it’s all aboard for a safer Syracuse, in which this sight will be just a memory.”

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