A Monthly Column on Historic Structures of New York's Southern Tier
The Vestal Station
Sunshine, Rain... and Phoebe Snow

The great Vestal train wreck of 1901.
"Binghamton was jarred at 9:45 o'clock on Saturday night and the western sky, for a moment, was aflame. Buildings trembled, people ran into the streets, and there was talk of an earthquake." This report appeared in the Binghamton Republican on Monday, June 10, 1901, describing a rear-end collision of two trains at the Vestal station, the forward-most train having a five-ton load of dynamite in the car next to its caboose.

The report continued: "A flash as if the Heavens were on fire followed and before it had died away a deafening roar which sent its vibrations for seventy-five miles announced that the ruin had been complete." Five men were killed in the accident, and as the report so graphically continued, "the dying groaned as they writhed in awful pain on the ground in the fields nearby where they had been thrown by the explosion."

Built in 1881 by the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad (DL&W), the Vestal train station has been witness to a lot of memorable events. Without a doubt, the Great Vestal Train Wreck of 1901 was the most spectacular.

It was in 1881 that the DL&W Railroad introduced a new, simple station that would later be known as "pagoda" style. With its steeply pitched roof, distinctive curve over the eaves and circular roof supports, the building had a very unique and somewhat oriental look. The Vestal station would serve as a model for several other stations built in this style on the route west of Binghamton, including those in Apalachin, Elmira, Horseheads, Nichols, and several other locations. The station in Apalachin eventually burned, and over the years it and most of the others were replaced by brick or stone structures. The Vestal station is one of very few pagoda stations that survive to this day.

The station was originally located on Main Street in Vestal, one block north of Four-Corners, where Route 17 is today. Located on the south side of the tracks the station was part of a complex that included the Rounds Coal Company building (recently relocated to the Rail Trail,) and a large wooden coal tipple. The Rounds building had a large drive-through opening where trucks loaded with coal would be weighed. The coal was then dumped in the tipple, where it was sorted by size and loaded into train cars.

Left: the Vestal station today; Right: August 1959, last stop of the Phoebe Snow.
The station handled a steady flow of traffic for many years. In 1949 the DL&W Railroad launched a streamlined passenger train named after the company's well-known advertising mascot, Phoebe Snow. The Phoebe Snow would make daily stops at the Vestal station on its route from Hoboken, New Jersey, to Buffalo, New York.

But all things must pass. Just as railroads had replaced canals, highways were rapidly taking freight and passenger traffic from the rails. In August, 1959, Phoebe Snow would make her last stop at the Vestal station.

For the next eight years the building sat empty. In 1967 Vestal Supervisor Edwin L. Crawford, fearing the community would "lose a sense of history" with the loss of the old station, made an unsuccessful attempt to have it donated to the town. Instead, it would serve as a storage warehouse for a local lumber and supply company and continue to deteriorate. Finally in 1971 the station was sold at auction.

The Town of Vestal had the winning bid and planned to use the building for a museum. There was one condition with the sale - the building had to be relocated.

December 1972, moving the Vestal station.
In December, 1972, one month after the third and final deadline to move the building passed, a dilapidated, 73-foot long, 63 ton train station was loaded onto a truck and slowly driven one half mile to its present location, next to the Vestal Library.

After an extensive restoration effort, in June of 1976 the museum opened for business. Today, still owned and managed by the Town of Vestal with support by the Vestal Historical Society, the Vestal Museum serves the community with ongoing exhibits and educational programs.

A local historic landmark, in 2006 an attempt was made to list the building on the National Register of Historic Places, but because the building was no longer located in the context for which it was built, the designation could not be granted. To qualify, the building would have to be moved again, this time back to a spot slightly east of the original location along the Rail Trail. That's an idea that appeals to Vestal Historian Margaret Hadsell, but she is quick to comment, "there's just no money for that."

In its current location on the Parkway, the old Vestal station stands out from the crowd of shopping plazas and restaurants. On that fast paced, highly commercial stretch of highway, the building's unique architecture and graceful style add character and a definite touch of class.

Inside is a different world. Interesting exhibits fill the building and are changed regularly, but there is more to see if you look beyond the displays. The ticket window, worn wooden floors, large sliding freight doors, all have stories to tell - of travelers in a slower, simpler time, of young men heading off to war, or returning, of the daily but always exciting arrival of the Pheobe Snow, and of course, the great train wreck of 1901.

The Vestal Museum today.
Thanks to a little foresight and a lot of hard work, this piece of Vestal history has been preserved and continues to provide a service, just as it did a century ago. The preservation effort that started 40 years ago ensured that this community would not "lose a sense of history."

I guess it's serendipity. Recently on a late afternoon I pulled off the Parkway in Vestal to make a phone call. Intent on the conversation it wasn't until I hung up that a change in weather became evident. Spanning the eastern sky was a magnificent rainbow - and centered beneath like a bright emerald jewel was the Vestal train station.

There's a saying: "It takes both sunshine and rain to make a rainbow." The old Vestal station has seen its share of both, and today, as a restored and functioning historic landmark it stands as one of Vestal's most prominent and recognizable icons.

The Vestal Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, winter hours are 11:00 to 3:00. For information call 607-748-1432.