Article From the Spring 2004 Issue of
The Journal of the New York Museum of Transportation
THE "CORNFIELD MEET"
by Paul S. Worboys
On February 24th, 2004, I interviewed my wife Susan’s 90-year-old aunt, Ruth Strong Ostrander, at her home in Greenville, South Carolina. Our meeting was to record some of the delightful stories she can relate about being a wife and mother in the post-WWII baby boom era. One segment is this classic slice of railroad Americana and is entitled, "The Cornfield Meet", after an old term for the head-on collision of two trains.
A native of Auburn, New York, Mrs. Ostrander has resided in Greenville for over twenty years. She and her husband, Eugene (who passed away in 1996), raised their family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and relocated to South Carolina upon his retirement from Kopp Glass Company.
Today, this slim, white-haired woman keeps a pleasant home on the outskirts of Greenville, is very active and enviably popular within her family and church community. She will readily travel to visits with children, grand- and great-grandchildren in Ohio, Connecticut and New Hampshire and has been a joyous companion to the writer and Susan on local sojourns.
Her sidekick on many of these "ramblins," as they call them, is another delightful woman of great humanity and goodness, Greenville native, Ruth Blanton. Mrs. B. is the wheels of the team - for Mrs. O. has not driven a car in years. But when the Yankee carpetbagger and Southern belle get together, the magical joys of life seem to surface - and the stories stream forth.
To set up this account, Ruth, Gene and their three children traveled to his native Olean, New York to visit family for a few days. It was in the summer of 1949, when Bill was still a baby and Jeannie and Bob were pre-schoolers.
Departing their home in Pittsburgh, they drove the 175 miles to Olean, just over the state line. Ruth, having not seen her own parents in some time, decided it would be well for her to venture into central New York for a solo visit with them. Perhaps seeking a respite from her active young brood, Ruth fashioned a railroad itinerary to get her to the city of Auburn, 100 miles away "as the crow flies", but more like 200 by train.
As the sun was breaking the horizon and the kids were fast asleep at the grandparents’, Gene chauffeured Ruth twenty miles to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad depot in East Salamanca. There, after hugs and pecks all around, she boarded morning train #852 for Rochester, precisely 106 miles up the line.
Arriving there, equipped with handbag and valise, she was taxied from the careworn B&O depot to the New York Central station, waited a short time in the ornate concourse, then boarded an Auburn Branch coach for a 75-mile lunch time reunion with her folks. The trip was uneventful and Ruth spent a relaxing couple of days applying the watery eye of memory to the events, people and places of her girlhood.
Then her Sunday departure day arrived and the plot thickened. Gene called to say, "...on the way back, Mother Ostrander thought it would be a nice idea to have a picnic at Letchworth Park [about 60 miles south of Rochester], it will be close to where you would be coming. Instead of coming on to East Salamanca, get off at a place called ‘Silver Lake Junction.’"
Taken aback, Ruth responded quizzically, "I don’t recall ever seeing that stop on the way up?"
"Oh, yes," he countered, "it’s in big capital letters here on the train schedule, so get off at Silver Lake Junction."
Having misplaced her own B&O schedule for the moment, the round went to Gene. In short order, the melodious "Silver Lake Junction" was fixed in her brain - a new bit of geographical trivia committed to memory.
The writer jumps in at this point in the story to announce that, "Yes!" an American husband was (for once) correct. The handsome blue and white 1949 B&O timetable, "Table 38" to be exact, showed Silver Lake Junction exactly as Eugene Ostrander stated. There it was, in bold print, midway down a list of some thirty possible stops between Rochester and good old East Salamanca. Ruth had nothing to fear.
It had a purpose too, for this junction was where a branch line, the former Silver Lake Railroad, headed off to the community of Perry, about six miles away. Prior to and for a time after the B&O takeover in the early 1930‘s, the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh carried on a symbiotic relationship with the Silver Lake - helping to ferry hoards of summer lake enthusiasts and Methodist camp meeting people to flag stops along the lakeshore. Several stately Victorian ‘cottages’ of the Silver Lake Institute cultural center, as with its world-famous cousin at nearby Chautauqua, New York, remain in collective evidence as a National Register Historic District.
There was one problem for the traveling public, however, when it came to the Silver Lake Junction, boldly displayed in my timetable from 1949 - no Sunday connections - and, for good measure, none on Monday through Saturday either.
The yarn continues...
"So, being the obedient wife," Ruth sighed, "I did as I was told. I came into Rochester on the Auburn train, took a taxi to the B&O station and paid the fare for Silver Lake Junction."
Perhaps it was because passenger business was poor and soon to disappear from this B&O line that the ticket agent apathetically issued Ruth a ticket to nowhere. She paid him cash money and the pass read "Silver Lake Junction" - there was little doubt in her mind she was on her way to some where.
But when she boarded train #851 with her precious ticket, resplendent in Sunday dress and anxious to see her family once again, the conductor declared, "Lady, you don’t want to get off at Silver Lake Junction, there’s nothing there. We’ll take you on to Gainesville, the next town five miles down the line."
"Well, I have to get off at Silver Lake Junction," Ruth said, "because my husband wouldn’t know where to find me. He assured me that he would be there."
Ticket punch at the ready, yet befuddled by her status, the conductor grew testy at the challenge to his authority. Enunciating each word into a crescendo, he replied, "But, it’s... just... a... cornfield!"
"Well, he’ll find me..." retorted the trim little lady, hackles rising. Heck, with three young ones down the line, she also knew a thing or two about stubbornness, "I don’t know what else to do?"
Clearly agitated, yet defeated in purpose, he shrugged, punched her ticket and grumbled, "Alright, if you insist."
Seventy minutes and several stops later, they came to the afore-demeaned Silver Lake Junction, and Mr. Conductor was right - it was, at least from the vantage point of a rail coach window, literally a cornfield! Nothing. No buildings were in sight, but for a farmstead silo high on the distant hill. A large cornfield, with two sets of rails going right through the middle, became Ruth’s vision for the Ages.
Little did she know (or Gene, who was merrily trundling the family up from Olean), the last operator of the Silver Lake Junction depot would have given valuable advice before this Letchworth picnic scheme was hatched. Mused one-time BR&P agent Gilboy, "...there was nothing there as far as a town or people or houses. You couldn’t see a light anywhere at night. The houses were scattered way back."
However, in Ruth Ostrander’s eyes, that was her stop, no "ifs" "ands" or "buts," because her man Eugene said to meet him right there. So, after scrambling the crew into an unexpected ‘STOP’ mode, she bid adieu to the obstinate conductor (who dared not re-ignite the issue) and alighted from B&O #851.
The little train, a baggage and mail car and one day coach, pulled by an unpretentious coal-burner of the 4-6-2 ‘Pacific‘ class, picked up speed and, with each "kerchoof" vanished around the bend. An elongated plume of smoke and steam hung over the empty tracks to East Salamanca. It was just before lunch.
Attired in high heels, white gloves, and with her brown perm buried under a stylishly floppy hat, Ruth began to wonder if she was overdressed for her first visit to Silver Lake Junction. Here she was, attired as any well-mannered lady out in public would be a half-century ago, but, well, you know the phrase, she was, "...all dressed up and with no place to go."
She knew there would not be another passenger train for another several hours, and the lack of nothing more than a weedy depot foundation was none too pleasing. Sniping at the memory from decades ago, Ruth quipped, "Who wouldn’t assume that, if a stop is on the timecard, then there should be a station... a tool shed... an outhouse... something!?!"
Alone, with the murmur of katydids and shimmering rails baking in the midday sun, she regretted not asking that stern conductor where she might go if her husband failed to show. A half-hour passed.
Her feet started to hurt in those high heel shoes and there was nowhere to sit down without mussing her good clothes. "Nothing to worry about... be stoic," she thought to herself, "he will show."
Then the sound of a train clattered close by, giving her a jolt of expectation. But it was merely the Erie local, down in the valley, behind schedule on its leisurely run to Binghamton. The vote was in. As the midday sun bore down more intensely, she was just not having a good day.
A smidgeon of anxiety commenced to eroding her constitution, when, about an hour into her grand adventure, Ruth heard the "chug, chug, chug, chug," of an approaching freight train. Like a knight in shining armor, a pair of monstrous steamers rolled into view, laboring upgrade from Rock Glen. (2-10-2 Mikados of the old Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh, they were, and a fine sight for a weekend afternoon.)
One had to wonder who was more awestruck, the petite lady decked out in her Sunday-go-to-meetin’ outfit and staring down grimy, smoke-belching behemoths, or the dumbfounded engineer, peering upon Ruth’s delicate beauty - but a visual aberration in this isolated railroad-slash-agrarian place.
As the engineer pulled close, a crewmate leaned out of the locomotive cab and shouted in his most gentlemanly railroad vernacular, "Lady, what the [bejeebers] are you doing here!?"
"I was supposed to meet my husband," Ruth screamed at the arriving tempest, "but this doesn’t look like a place to meet!"
"Well, the man whooped, "they never should have left you off the [golldarn] train!"
As the train slowed to a crawl and the fireman continued to feed the stoker, the head brakeman jumped down to the cinders and directed Ruth to a quieter spot. The look on his face told it all. They had a through freight in tow, a schedule to keep and a 1.4 per cent grade to master, so an unescorted damsel was no better than some farmer’s stray bull blocking the tracks.
Ruth stood firm, "It wasn’t the conductor’s fault. I insisted, because I didn’t know what else to do. My husband said he’d meet me here."
"Well, this d.., er, darn place burned years ago - there hasn’t been anything here since. The only thing we can do is take you on to Gainesville."
"Is there any place I can leave a note? I know my husband will find me."
Fortunately, there was a railroad telephone box on a pole at the depot site, so Ruth gave up the original plan and tacked a hurriedly scribbled note in plain view. Camouflaging a growing frustration with the events of the day, she kept her refinement and penciled something polite, like, "Dear Gene, Sorry I couldn’t meet you here, I have gone to Gainesville in a freight train."
In the meantime, Gene and the children and Mom and Dad Ostrander got a late start (which, according to Ruth, was normal for the Ostranders - "...not like the Strongs, who were always two hours ahead of time."). When they got to Silver Springs, a mile south of their intended meeting spot (and well after Ruth entrained at the junction) Gene asked a shade-tree mechanic how to get to Silver Lake Junction.
They were bluntly informed, "Well, there’s nothing there!" To which Gene declared something to the effect that he was supposed to meet his wife at the Silver Lake Junction depot - as shown in bold print on his trusty timetable.
"But there’s nothing there," came the local’s knowing retort, "that depot burned twenty-five years ago, there hasn’t been anything there since! I’d say your timetable suggests a station because, some old railroaders consider the ‘spirit’ of a depot to be as real as the depot itself. Understand?"
"My god," Gene replied, "I told my wife where I’d meet her and, knowing her, she’ll be there! I can’t take the chance that she isn‘t there. How do I get to the junction?"
With a condescending air and a northerly nod, the other man deadpanned, "Well ... you go a mile that way ... and you come to a white farmhouse ... and several barns. Then go down through the lane ... you’ll have to go over a couple of fences ... and you’ll come to a cornfield. Find your way through the cornfield and that is where the depot used to be."
O.K. Motoring northward, they followed the directions precisely and readily found the described farm. Leaving Grandmother Ostrander and the children waiting in the car alongside the road, the men headed off to find the lady in the fine Sunday outfit, armed with valise and obligatory woman’s handbag.
Ruth continued, "Dad Ostrander, bless his dear heart, who was in his 60’s or 70’s at the time, went right along with Gene - climbing over fences and all - it took him four days to recover! They came down to this spot and Gene, after some degree of searching and calling out, found the note and thought, ‘Ah, well, everything’s fine, she’s at Gainesville.’"
So, it was backtracking over the fences for the Ostrander boys, up the farm lane and to the car.
Reverting her discourse to when the freight train came along, Ruth quoted the brakeman, "We can’t leave you here, we’ll go on to Gainesville. I don’t want to put you up in the engine cab, because you’ll get all dirty. When the caboose comes along, just climb on the caboose and they will take you on in."
The heavy locomotives tugged the first of their load over the trestle spanning the Erie tracks, as the dutiful trainman stood at Ruth‘s side. Little did she know, he was ready to fling her and her gear on the train, if that was the requirement. It may have been chauvinistic, but she was not going to be left behind at Silver Lake Junction.
Several cars with various purposes resolutely passed them, thump-thump-thumping flat wheels and all, until along came the caboose. The brakeman lectured, "Now just grab onto the bar and pull yourself up. The train won’t stop completely, so grab the bar."
"But I grabbed the wrong bar," Ruth chortled, "the man pushed me up and the two railroaders on the caboose yelled, ‘Lady, don’t ever get on a train that way!’"
Exasperated, the new passenger huffed, "Well, my experience is pretty limited. That’s the first time I ever had to do that!"
As it turned out they were exceptional fellows, dutifully hauling her baggage aboard and announcing, almost in unison, "We are all family men here." She thought the declaration was interesting at that harried time, but it did not have significance until many years later, when (in retelling the story for the tenth time) it suddenly struck her they were reassuring her they were gentlemen of the highest order.
"They helped me, she continued, "there were bunks in there and a little refrigerator. They got me a glass of water and helped to sit me up on one of the bunks and, in due time, we arrived at Gainesville."
Still working up the steep grade, the freight was not about to stop until it made its way to the Gainesville water crane for a long drink. Unlike the train she abandoned earlier, Ruth would not see a dandy passenger conductor flinging down a foot stool and extending a hand for her to alight daintily in that little burg.
Instead, a beefy railroader swung off the caboose, grabbed Ruth’s things, sat them down in a heap, scurried back into place and waited. Strong arms helped the lady out and down, into the equally strong arms of the man positioned on the ground.
The delivery was completed, the crewmen were heroes and the lady, slightly out of whack for a Sunday tea, was back on terra firma. No one needed to remind her that the first-class caboose ride ended precisely where one or two fellow travelers on #851 from Rochester may have alighted quite a while earlier.
Had she been in the mood to look over her shoulder for a little snapshot memory, she may have appreciated the irony of her adventure. Her elegant carriage was, frankly, an old wooden caboose, marked in tattered B&O herald and in the C2600’s of the old BR&P numbering system. Within the circle logo was the motto: "Linking 13 Great States with the Nation."
Waiting in the shade of the tired little Gainesville depot, situated well behind the tired little Gainesville Hotel, the solitary Mrs. Ostrander was in high dudgeon as she assessed her prospects. The part-time station agent had luckily gone home to await the evening train, otherwise he might have gotten an earful about the "amenities" at Silver Lake Junction.
Passersby seemed nonplussed that the fancy traveler had used unconventional means to grace their fair realm. (word of such matters spreads fast in small-town America, you know.) Even the assertive dared not inquire as to her intent and thus risk stirring up a hornet’s nest.
Finally, after another uncomfortable hour in wait mode, along came the Ostranders - true to form in their tardiness.
"Well, I was feeling a little ‘cool’ towards my husband," Ruth noted with a chuckle, "but he was perfectly relaxed (behind that sheepish grin), since he knew I had gone on to Gainesville with no problem."
In retrospect, Gene Ostrander was very grateful to the men in the caboose and, since his wayward spouse had gotten their names and addresses in transit, he sent a nice note and a carton of cigarettes to each one of them.
"Knights of the Road," he called the railroad men, whose names were still fixed in Ruth‘s memory, "... Walt Frost, Ralph Kelly and Ed Kiley."
Concluding her account, Ruth mused on the entire Silver Lake Junction experience, now aged with a patina of more than fifty years,"...it became a family story and we had a good many laughs and reminiscences. Some day, I ought to go back and have my picture taken."