When I was a kid I would lie awake in bed at night, waiting for sleep to come, listening to the cry of locomotives crying out in the dark, against the low thrum of the diesel engines. I loved trains, and wanted nothing more than to be blasting through the darkness in the cab of a locomotive watching the moonlight shining on the rails in front of me.
Dad used to drive me over to the freight station on Lehigh Ave. where we would park and wait for the trains to go by. I think he secretly enjoyed them as much as I did. The old New York Central mainline, which once ran right through the heart of Batavia, had long since been re-routed south of town, but it still carried a lot of traffic, and it never took long for a Conrail freight to come drumming past. Passenger trains were a rare sight in the early 1970’s, and seeing one was always a thrill.
It wasn’t always that way though. Once the greatest passenger trains in all the world ran right through the bustling heart of Batavia. The Empire State Express, and the 20th Century Limited carried celebrities and captains of industry through our town. We even played a small walk on role in one of railroading’s greatest triumphs.
This humble little locomotive was once world famous. Engine 999, which was to be known at the Empire State Express, was purposely design and built for speed. The New York Central railroad had commissioned it to try to set the world speed record in advance of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which it was due to be exhibited at.
On the afternoon of May 9th, 1893 on the New York Central main line, just west of Batavia, it became the first man made vehicle to travel faster than 100 miles per hour when Batavian Charlie Hogan opened the throttle wide in an effort to make up time on the Rochester to Buffalo run.
Word spread quickly, and the following day the engine was returned to Syracuse, to pull another leg of the Express, this time with railroad officials, and reporters on board to record the speed. On the run from Syracuse to Rochester, and into Batavia, Hogan held the train back to 60 mph, waiting for the long flat, straight section of track between Batavia and Corfu. When Hogan passed his home town, he opened it up. The train was clocked at 35 seconds to the mile as it reached Corfu, but it wasn’t done yet. Between Corfu and the little village of Crittenden the train reached 32 seconds to the mile, or 112.5 miles/hour.
The New York Central got the publicity that it had hoped for, and the engine was placed on display at the World’s Fair. It’s fame spread, and Engine 999 became synonymous with speed. When Henry Ford built a race car in 1902 to advertise his fledgling automotive company, he named it the 999. The engine served as the flagship passenger train of the NY Central for several years until replaced by other locomotives. It still served the railroad up until 1952 before it was removed from service and donated to the Museum of Science and Industry, on the grounds of the 1893 fair.
It remains there today. The tracks that the 999 ran on are still there, little changed in over 120 years. Drive west from Batavia on Route 33 and they parallel the road as flat and as straight as they have ever been. I’ve driven that stretch many times. I always enjoyed coming upon a train and trying to pass it. It’s strange to say, but 120 years after Engine 999 set the record, trains travel far slower. The fastest speed records for travel between New York and Chicago were set back in the 1930’s and 40’s, when the NY Central’s 20th Century Limited, and the Pennsylvania RR’s Broadway Limited would trade the record back and forth, making the run in less than 17 hours.
Times change, and technology wanes. Air travel brought about the end for intercity train travel in the U.S. back in the 60’s. The Amtrak train from NYC to Chicago now takes 19 hours(only one hour less than it did in 1900) and the experience is not much better than riding a Greyhound bus. Romance has been sacrificed for convenience, and while we lament it’s passing, we still clamor for seats on Southwest Airlines cattle cars to save a buck.
But, here at 20 Prospect we still sit on the porch in the spring darkness, and listen for the sound of train whistles passing off to the south of town, carrying our imaginations away to a place far beyond the reach of airlines.