Article From the Winter 2002 Issue of


The Journal of the New York Museum of Transportation


Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised to find transportation in the background of so many of our volunteers. After all, we all have to move around in this world. But it does seem that most of these spotlight features usually mention some connection with the transportation industry in the background of the subject, and it’s true this time as well. Meet Phil McCabe.

When Phil was born, in 1930, his father worked for Otis Elevator Co. But that’s not the transportation connection we’re talking about. Dad’s 1933 promotion brought the McCabe family to Rochester, and in 1940 they moved to Honeoye Falls where Phil soon discovered it was fun to bicycle over to Rochester Junction on the Lehigh Valley to "hang out".

He got to know all the regular employees and he remembers well the click click of the telegraph and the steady parade of steam-powered freight and passenger trains. A favorite spot to watch the action was upstairs in the tower where the towerman threw the long, "armstrong" levers to control switches and signals at the junction. Switches led from the New Jersey-to-Buffalo main line north to Rochester, and south to Honeoye Falls, Lima and Hemlock. There was a small yard at the junction as well, so the tower was a busy place, and Phil enjoyed the "bird’s eye view" from there.

Aunt Dorothy lived in Ithaca, also on the LV main line, and Phil was lucky to visit her from time to time, with the family traveling on the famous Black Diamond. But the trip he remembers most fondly was on the more humble Honeoye Falls branch. He was 12 years old at the time, and he often saw the local freight head south late in the afternoon, returning north to the junction late in the evening. One day, the conductor hollered out, "Going to Honeoye Falls?" After Phil answered in the affirmative, the conductor said, "Well, put your bike in the caboose and ride with us!" With the EMD switcher burbling up front, the caboose swaying on the light rail, and a triumphant arrival in his home town, Phil’s love of trains was signed, sealed and delivered.

Well, for awhile at least. Seems that flying also had caught Phil’s fancy, and when a grass air field operation was started up right there in Honeoye Falls after World War II, Phil found a new place to "hang out". Now in high school, he was able to trade work around the air field (moving planes around, mowing, fueling, etc.) for the occasional plane ride.

Weekend shows at the air field were a special opportunity, and several times each summer Phil and his fellow fans would operate "light signals" to communicate with the radio-less planes. These were large electric lights, mounted on a short, shotgun-like base. The color of the light could be changed from red to green to clear. By positioning signal men along the approach pattern to the field, their colored light signals would keep the planes separated and control their landings.

Phil went on to enlist in the Air Force in 1948, where he became an instructor in the Weather Service, teaching at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois. He started private flying lessons while at Chanute, and eventually found time to finish and get his license in 1970 (with instrument rating later, after getting snowed in for a few days in Bradford, PA). In between, he got his BS and MS degrees in biology and after a two-year stint teaching at Monroe High School, joined Eastman Kodak Co., where he did classified government work, primarily satellite programs, until his retirement.

Phil married Cathy Santos in 1985 after meeting at a local political committee meeting. Cathy has served on the Town Council in Henrietta for eight years now, and spoke at our electrification celebration last June. Cathy has a son, Bill, and grandson William is often a feature in the McCabe house. Phil’s kids are Chuck (and grandson Chad) and Marcy (granddaughters Meghan and Lauren). All are in the Rochester area except Chuck, who got the airplane bug when flying around with Dad and now works for Cessna in Wichita.

One day about ten years ago, fellow classified worker Rand Warner invited Phil to come out and see what was going on at the RGVRRM depot. Soon after, in 1993, Phil took a ride on the track car that as of that spring was now operating all the way from NYMT to the depot, and we had our hooks in him! "I like to drive", says Phil, and as a result he has taken the track car training and is one of our main operators on weekends as well as during the week on group tours.

Hard to tell who’s having more fun…Phil McCabe
or grandson Will Santos, age 2.
Cathy McCabe photo

Phil’s contributions go well beyond track car operation, however. He has a business in retirement making signs, primarily those beautiful carved jobs you see around town, with the gold leaf. At NYMT, he’s utilized his skills and knowledge of sign materials to create our main highway sign, two "Entrance" signs (one painted on a silo!), directional signs inside the main exhibit hall to lead visitors to the ride, the famous "slow pedestrians" sign, and several others. Our nice, neat signs impart a quality image as well as serve an information function, and we have Phil to thank for them.

For the future, he hopes to qualify as a trolley motorman when we put our next group of trainees through the course. He’ll continue helping us when another sign is needed, and he says he does silk screening too. Not to mention woodworking. In fact, as we parted, Phil was heading for the TC-1 overhaul workplace to see what he could do to help. Now, wouldn’t an old Otis elevator be a cool addition to our collection…..