Nostalgia overcame me as I stepped inside the Ithaca branch of the Chemung Canal Trust Company. It was not deja’ vu, because I had been inside the building some 43 years prior, when the structure was known as The Station restaurant. In 1971, I was an undergrad at Ithaca College. Back then, my steady girl and date-night dining companion was the always aspiring murder mystery author Jane Dentinger.
Prior to its 42-year run as an upscale eatery, the building was the passenger station of the long defunct Lehigh Valley Railroad. So my mission that April day was three-fold in nature – to recapture some romantic memories, shoot photos of the old depot and honor an obligation to my friend David. That a trio of such seemingly disparate objectives could dovetail at a single venue might seem absurd, and if so perceived, gentle reader, then I would urge you to continue.
Western Union co-founder Ezra Cornell chartered the university bearing his name in 1865. That same year, the Lehigh Valley Railroad (LVRR) already supplied Ithaca with freight and passenger service from points south, but Cornell knew that attracting the brightest students from the far flung cities of Buffalo, Rochester and Toronto required seamless passenger access to Ithaca. From his perspective, the timing could not have been better, because the Lehigh Valley was also eager to expand passenger service while establishing a faster freight route to Buffalo. However, as events unfolded, it became apparent that Cornell’s timing could not have been worse.
In 1871, Cornell founded the Geneva, Ithaca & Sayre Railroad (GI&S). But within days of inaugurating service, the Panic of 1873 struck and the GI&S fell into bankruptcy. Ezra Cornell died in 1874, and in 1876, the GI&S was purchased outright by the Lehigh Valley. More determined than ever to continue its rapid expansion, the LVRR continued providing freight and passenger service to Ithaca, but to avoid double-heading heavy loads of anthracite coal (black diamonds) up the steep hills surrounding Ithaca, it built a second, more level route through Van Etten, New York.
Passenger trains and freight consists (pronounced “con-sists”) eventually converged in Geneva. At one point, as many as 18 LVRR trains stopped at or passed through Geneva each day. After leaving Geneva, passenger trains proceeded to Buffalo, with freight consists stopping at the sprawling Manchester division yard for interchange or unloading. Upon departure, northbound passenger trains were routed along the east shore of Cayuga Lake to Auburn. Once there, trains drove west to Geneva, likely dropping off Hobart College students before continuing north and west on the two-track mainline.
In 1896, the railroad made the monumental decision to offer world class passenger service along its entire route. It sponsored a contest to pick the best name for the train and “Black Diamond Express” was chosen. On May 18, 1896, the first Black Diamond Express departed Ithaca. Advertised as “The Handsomest Train in the World,” each train set consisted of four Pullman coaches, a café/baggage car, two passenger coaches and a parlor/observation car. To ensure a consistent public image, the railroad acquired four identically configured train sets.
The coaches were painted dark green with livery trimmed in “Cornell red,” and the trip between Buffalo and New York City took 10 hours. The train was an instant, highly profitable success. As proof, during its first 20 years of operation, the Black Diamond Express carried over 7.5 million passengers! The yellow brick, Romanesque-inspired station in Ithaca was erected in 1898. It’s located at 806 W. Buffalo St.
The end comes quickly
By the end of WWII, passenger traffic on LVRR was plummeting. Improved highways, better quality automobiles and reliable domestic air travel meant the LVRR could no longer compete profitably. Passenger service was reduced, and on May 11, 1959, the last Black Diamond Express rolled out of Ithaca. One of the railroad’s most senior engineers, Henry G. Hartley, was at the throttle.
After Lehigh Valley passenger service ended, the former Ithaca station sat empty until 1963 when it reopened as The Station restaurant. The LVRR tore out the tracks running into and out of Ithaca leaving only a short shot of rails behind the building. Along with selling the property, it also sold the owner several passenger coaches, a caboose and a tiny switch engine. As proof, if you look closely, you can see the letters LVRR on one of the wheel truck castings, along with the date.
Once the restaurant opened, patrons could dine in the former passenger waiting room, baggage claim or the ticket-office-turned-barroom. But by far, the best place to eat was aboard the rail coaches, which had been converted into dining cars. In 1971, there were two upscale restaurants in Ithaca and each served fabulous food. But on ambience alone, The Station, with its dining cars and unique menu format, was the hands down winner.
Instead of reading from a traditional “book style” menu, a large ring of entrée “tickets” sat on each table. As an example, if your choice was a T-bone steak, you’d tear the ticket from the ring and the server – replete with a black vest, pocket watch and black railroad conductor’s cap – would ask for the specifics. As you replied “medium,” “baked potato,” “house Italian dressing” and such, your waiter would punch the ticket with your choices. It was a terrific gimmick. And while the railcar remained stationary, the illusion created was that of dining aboard a moving train.
Like the Black Diamond Express, The Station spared no expense on decor. The dining car carpeting was from surplus stock originally woven for the Pullman Coach Co. The 18-foot Seth Thomas, four-faced railroad clock was also authentic. The time on the clock faces never changed. Each had been set to the time when the last Black Diamond Express departed Ithaca. The lounge car definitely deserves special mention. With furniture and wall treatments of Cornell red, it bespoke of the splendid opulence of the Victorian era. When nestled on a settee sipping cocktails with Jane, the atmosphere was quite stimulating.
A new beginning
After 42 years of continuous operation, in September 2005, The Station restaurant closed. It remained closed for refurbishing/repurposing and reopened as “The Station” branch of the Chemung Canal Trust Company in June 2006. Immediately upon entering, I was greeted by the winning smile of manager Sandra Grooms, and for the next 90 minutes we exchanged comments and shared memories of the Ithaca she and I both remembered. It’s important to note that because of the building’s historic significance, the bank has preserved as many authentic LVRR artifacts as possible. After explaining my presence, I asked Sandra what it was like working in such a storied structure.
“Working here is a unique experience because of what this building means to so many people,” she told me. “It’s meeting people like you, Rich, who share their memories of the old restaurant. Some of our older customers recall meeting loved ones returning to Ithaca via the Black Diamond Express at the end of WWII or the Korean War. And many Cornell alumni like to reminisce about the private parties held in the railcars. I never know exactly what folks will talk about as they reprise those days gone by, but the stories – the stories every one of them tells me are an unexpected bonus. Believe me, I know how lucky I am to be on the receiving end.”
When I asked for permission to photograph the interior of the building, Sandra denied my request. “I wish I could say yes, but for security reasons I must say no.” But then she added, “Feel free to take photos of the exterior of the building and the railcars.”
With interior photos forbidden, describing the polished granite columns supporting classic Roman-style arches, various other architectural elements, and historic remnants of the building’s glorious past is woefully inadequate, and for that I apologize. So here’s a thought: Since Ithaca is located in the heart of Finger Lakes country, why not make the drive and visit this Lehigh Valley Railroad remnant in person?
Rich Finzer resides in Hannibal. During his 44-year writing career, he has published over 1,100 newspaper, magazine and Internet articles. His award-winning book, Maple on Tap, is available through his publisher ACRES USA. His two novels, Taking the Tracks and Julie & Me are available at amazon.com.
For More Information:
Read The History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad: “The Route of the Black Diamond,” by Robert F. Archer
Read Lehigh Valley Memories; A Tour of the Lehigh Valley Railroad in New York's Finger Lakes Region, 1941 – 1959 by David Marcham
Watch a film snippet of the Black Diamond Express by searching “Black Diamond Express + Library of Congress” on YouTube
Visit Chemung Canal’s website for branch and ATM locations (http://www.chemungcanal.com/home/offices)
A few follow-up facts
Following graduation from Ithaca College, Jane Dentinger wrote the six-volume series of Jocelyn O’Roarke murder mysteries. Her books are available through Amazon.
In 1974, during the centennial anniversary of Ezra Cornell’s death, the old Ithaca station was added to the National Historic Registry.
My friend David lives in Colorado. He is the grandson of Henry G. Hartley, one of the last engineers of the Black Diamond Express.
I’d like to extend my sincere appreciation to assistant vice president and erstwhile “Station Master,” Sandra Grooms, for her warm hospitality and sparkling comments.
by Rich Finzer