by Chris Clemens
19th Century New York would be nothing if not for the Erie Canal, but the train systems laid out by a number of rail companies in the mid-1800’s extended that trade route even further. Railroads usurped the use of the canal for their speed and ability to reach further corners of the map. Now rail travel has been usurped by air and automobile, but much like the canals, nostalgic remnants still exist of a heyday when railroads ruled.
One spot where a remnant is alive and well is in Medina, a town in Orleans County built on the original canal and once boomed because of its waterway location. The Medina Railroad Museum is situated on an old rail line that actually is still used a few times a week for transporting freight in addition to being used by the Western New York Rail Excursions group. I took a ride out to Medina with my friend Ben Woelk of the travel documentary series Slow Road. Ben is probably involved in more projects than Bono, and in addition to Slow Road, he also sits on the Board of Directors for the museum. He invited me out to ride along on the WNY Rail Excursions ”Niagara Wine Trail” tour to check it out.
The Rochester, Lockport and Niagara Falls Railroad was used for just a few years around 1850 before being incorporated into the larger New York Central Railroad in 1853. The line experienced moderate success for its day and ultimately led to the need for a large depot to be built in Medina. In 1905 the building at 530 West Ave was constructed in a timber, clapboard style and measured 300′ by 40′–making it still today what is believed to be the largest extant wooden frame depot in the entire United States! In 1991, the Medina Railroad Museum converted the building to house their extensive and ever-growing collection of model trains, ephemera, lanterns and anything else you could ever possibly imagine.
I had read about the museum a bit so I already knew to expect that there was a large collection of cool stuff to be seen. What I wasn’t prepared at all for was the interpretation of ‘large collection of stuff’. Even once I was inside and had looked through the area just near the ticket booth I thought to myself, “whoa! there’s more??” I had barely just seen the appetizer of a full four course meal! Who-knows-how-many square feet of model railroad tracks have been set up in the center of the rear portion of the museum, and constantly running model trains are surrounded by one of the largest and coolest collection of local history items I’ve seen in one place. Though the focus is largely on railroad collectibles and even separated by rail company in some displays, there’s an unending number of local fire department helmets, a 16 foot Heinz pickle sign from 1897 that existed at the former Heinz factory in Medina, countless lanterns and enough other things to look at that would keep even a non-enthusiast of any age busy for hours.
In an effort to utilize the still running Falls Road Railroad line and bring visitors to one of the coolest little museums in the state, the Western New York Rail Excursions organization has put together a number of short-run events that allow visitors to ride on restored rail cars. This ride in particular was the Niagara Wine Trail Tour and for $45 attendees get the opportunity to ride from Medina to Lockport (and back) while a different winery each week is featured on a vintage 1947 Budd coach car. Servers walk back and forth through each of the cars serving up their finest vino while sights of the small canal towns pass on either side. First Middleport, then Gasport, and then the old Lockport train station that has since been retired and reclaimed by nature and then Cold Springs Cemetery to your South. By this point in the tour, servers have also doled out a super healthy ‘farm to table’ box lunch. The concept of ‘farm to table’ is one I’ve been seeing pop up a lot lately and if you’re not familiar, it’s all about celebrating the roots of our food and the process that’s completed from seed to consumption. Local harvested vegetables, regional cheeses and cured meats, local crackers and handmade hummus all chosen with care by farmers and food artisans right from Western New York allowed riders to navigate the region’s well known culinary arts and was a really wonderful addition to navigating an important piece of Western New York history.
When you’ve reached the cemetery you’re on the Easternmost edge of Lockport and will soon be chugging 80 ft. above the canal. Also on the South side will be the historic “Flight of Five” canal locks that were just recently restored (though, not visible from the train.) The bridge that crosses the canal is noteworthy though, because it’s a truss that was built upside-down. A canal engineer passed the story on to me a few years ago that it was built upside down so that only a water vessel short enough to pass under would be able to use the canal, essentially preventing the growth of freight shipping by water and effectively increasing the use of the rail system. Passing over the bridge is definitely one of the highlights of the trip, unless you’re afraid of heights.
The return trip was smooth and relaxed with more wine accompanied by live jazz guitar by Rochesterian and Eastman School of Music professor Mike Frederick. Tons of photo opportunities and an hour and a half round trip of cruising through the fall foliage of Western New York while being fed some really fantastic regional culinary favorites and listening to a great musician all the while was an absolutely fantastic way to spend an afternoon.
Though the Niagara Wine Trail Train Tour is wrapping up at the end of October, there’s still a Halloween themed ride, and even still the most popular of all the tours year round: the Christmas time Polar Express. Hot cocoa, Santa Claus, the town of Gasport lit up like the North Pole and a children’s theatrical favorite coming to life I’m told is always a huge hit. Checkout the following links to reserve your tickets on one of the upcoming train tours and be absolutely sure that you get there with plenty of time to walk through the Medina Railroad Museum.
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens