A Depot on the Main
The year 1810 saw the establishment of the Penfield Township, east of Rochester, in upstate New York's Monroe County. It would be 31 years before the Auburn & Rochester Railroad connected the city of Rochester to the Finger Lakes by way of Penfield, laying the first rails through what would become East Rochester. It wouldn't be for another 12 before the A&R was incorporated into Cornelius Vanderbilt's rapidly growing New York Central Railroad in 1853.
Located on what was then the outskirts of civilization, Penfield Station refers not to any station itself, but rather an area alongside this trackage. It roughly surrounded Washington St. (known as Station Rd.) between Linden and Maple Avenues. At the time, Maple Ave. would have connected to Washington St, with the railroad underpass only having been built in 1955. This area would include a combined freight and passenger station, built in 1884; the building being constructed on the northwest corner of the grade crossing over the New York Central tracks at Washington St.
In 1896, a new railroad station was built at the north end of Main St. where it intersected Maple Ave. This was in preparation for the creation of the new Village of Despatch (the name of which would be changed to East Rochester in 1906 on account of extensive lobbying by, among others, the Piano Works). The Village would be incorporated a year later in 1897, and in a move that I'm certain lead to many a befuddled traveler, trains would stop at both stations, despite them being no more than 760ft apart, until 1898, when passenger service would be discontinued to the original Penfield station. However, the freight house would stay on, helping to handle some of the hundreds of freight cars being loaded, unloaded, or routed through Rochester and her surrounding communities every day.
Through the rest of the 19th Century, and into the early 20th, the New York Central grew in scale until what was once a single pair of steel ribbons running through Penfield was now a 4-track artery between New York City and Chicago, accompanied by two side tracks. This made for, in our modern day and age, an almost unimaginable 6-track railroad crossing where Washington St. now passes under the railroad. In the early 20th Century, the station on Main St. would receive no less than 16 passenger trains per day! Around the same time, the original Penfield freight house was torn down, and a new one was built on the other side of Washington St. as part of the Despatch shop complex. It was a two story all-wood affair – housing a freight handling floor on the ground and offices above, and it would stand for nearly a century.
The tracks it sat next to were the single greatest rail link between the nation's capitals of finance: New York City and Chicago. The New York Central's “Waterlevel Route,” so advertised because of the smooth and undisturbed ride along the Central's nearly gradeless mainline, played host to some of the finest trains in American history. The “Great Steel Fleet” as the NYC's passenger trains were called in later years, held claim to such names as “20th Century Limited” and “Empire State Express”. Every night, a veritable parade of long distance passenger trains flashed through East Rochester, one after the other; the Eastbounds accelerating towards Syracuse, and the Westbounds gradually slowing as they approached Rochester proper. On them were politicians, actors, financiers, laymen, and, if Alfred Hitchcock's film North by Northwest is to be believed, men on the run from Soviet sympathizers.
The freight house continued its quiet role in relative obscurity for the first half of the 20th century. It survived economic success and decline in equal measure, but as the 1950s rolled on, the combination of the highway and the airplane took their toll on the railroads. The 60s saw freight traffic decline to such a crippling level that the depot became disused, and April 1st, 1970 had the dubious honor of being the date that the long-lauded Despatch car shops closed forever, with a beleaguered repair department staggering on until the year 2000. The freight house survived though, and was used alternately as a warehouse, a nightclub, and a restaurant, where it managed to save itself from the fate of so many other stations – either disused or destroyed. Even Rochester's own New York Central station was not so lucky, the grand structure being knocked down by Amtrak in favor of a far less expensive to run but far less aesthetically appealing concrete block.
In 1982 Stanley “Stan” Slade, a fourteen year veteran of the restaurant business, combined his entrepreneurial aspirations with his love of trains to open a model and toy train store in the old New York Central Railroad's freight station in East Rochester, NY. In spite of steep competition, “Despatch Junction,” so named after the aforementioned New York Central's sprawling Despatch railroad freight car shops (also located in East Rochester), entered the new century on strong footing. The 130 year-old freight house, which had weathered the Great Depression, both world wars, the tumult of railroad decay that hallmarked the second half of the twentieth century, and had stayed afloat through the recessions of the 90s and 2000s, tragically caught fire on the 26th of May, 2014.
Gutted, but still standing after the fire, the building was demolished immediately on account of unverifiable structural integrity. Stan, along with his good friend Frank and a small host of assistants spent the next three days combing through the charred rubble. A surprising number of models were able to be recovered with minimal damage, but the two most important items were a 3.5” gauge live steam locomotive from Stan's personal collection, as well as the original brass bell from the Despatch shop's steam switcher, both of which are proudly displayed in the store today.
The original freight station had been built of then readily available but now extremely costly local old-growth hardwoods. Additionally, owing to its original purpose, the building had never been designed to be a train shop, and so rebuilding efforts were instead patterned after a sister New York Central (formerly Michigan Central) station; the well-loved all-wood passenger station in Chelsea, Michigan. Another all wood station, but built to handle people rather than freight, it typified the Central's presence in towns and villages across the snow belt. The plans were taken from a book of New York Central building designs, and were used as the basis by architects and engineers from which to develop a purpose-built shop with a floor plan far more open than the original freight house. Accommodations for the 21st century customer were made, including modern HVAC, water, and electrical systems, as well as the dense insulation so necessary in snowy upstate New York. With the new plans approved, construction proceeded apace, and the rebuilt Despatch Junction was open for business in time for the 2015 holiday season.
In the years since the fire, Despatch Junction has steadfastly continued to serve the Greater Rochester Area, providing a now unique outlet and repository for a wide selection of both vintage and modern model and toy trains. Much as in the original building, the shop's inventory continues to push the limits of what the building can reasonably hold. Every day and night, the high iron next to the shop continues to sing, as CSX and Amtrak trains rumble and rocket by on the New York-Chicago mainline, so close you can quite nearly reach out and touch them. Occasionally you'll hear one give the shop a couple toots of the horn in acknowledgment – almost as if the railroad itself remembers what this shop once was.
Special thanks to Jim Burlingame, former (in no particular order) East Rochester Village Historian, Fire Chief, Event Coordinator, and nearly every other conceivable job, for his invaluable and generous assistance in making this as accurate as possible.