The "Cornfield Meet"
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 her delightful stories about being a wife and mother. 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. The episode below, is entitled, "The 'Cornfield Meet'", after an old term for the head-on collision of two trains.
To begin this story: Ruth, Gene and their three children motored 175 miles to his native Olean, New York, to visit his family for a few days. It was in the summer of 1949 and Ruth, who had not seen her own parents in some time, decided to go on to Auburn by train for a visit with her folks, and return the same way, while the children and her husband stayed with Gene's family.
So, the next morning 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 she boarded morning train #852 for Rochester, precisely 106 miles up the line. Auburn was 100 miles away "as the crow flies," but more like 180 by train.
Arriving in Rochester, equipped with handbag and valise, she 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. The 75-mile trip was uneventful and Ruth spent a relaxing couple of days with her family in Auburn.
When her Sunday departure day arrived Gene called to say, "Mother Ostrander thought it would be a nice idea to have a picnic at Letchworth Park [about 60 miles south of Rochester]. On the way back, you will pass near the park. 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."
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. However, for Silver Lake Junction, my timetable from 1949 states: no Sunday connections, and none on Monday through Saturday, either.
This junction was where a branch line, the former Silver Lake Railroad, headed off to the village 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 Railroad, helping to bring hoards of summer lake enthusiasts and Methodist camp meeting people to flag stops along the lakeshore. Several of the stately Victorian "cottages" are now on the National Historic Register. Silver Lake Institute was similar to the world-famous institute at Chautauqua Lake, New York.
"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 somewhere.
But when she boarded train #851 with her 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, "All right, 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 high on the distant hill. It was a large cornfield, with two sets of rails going right through the middle. 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 the conductor scrambled the crew to make an unexpected stop, she alighted from B&O #851.
The little train, a baggage-and-mail car and one day coach, pulled by a 4-6-2 "Pacific" class coal-burner, picked up speed and, with each "kerchoof" vanished around the bend. An elongated plume of smoke and steam hung over the empty tracks toward East Salamanca. It was just before lunch.
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.
Alone, with the murmur of katydids and shimmering rails baking in the midday sun, she regretted not asking that stern old conductor where she might go if her husband failed to show. A half-hour passed and her feet had begun to hurt in those high-heel shoes-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 midday sun bore down more intensely; she was just not having a good day.
A smidgeon of anxiety commenced to erode her constitution, when, about an hour later, Ruth heard the "chug, chug, chug, chug," of an approaching freight train. Two monstrous steamers, 2-8-2 "Mikados" of the old Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh, came into view, laboring upgrade from Rock Glen. One can wonder who was more awe-struck, the petite lady decked out in her Sunday-go-to-meetin' outfit staring at the grimy, smoke-belching behemoths, or the dumbfounded engineer, peering down upon Ruth along the tracks in this isolated place. A crewmate leaned out of the locomotive cab and shouted, "Lady, what are you doing here!?"
"I was supposed to meet my husband," Ruth screamed, "but this doesn't look like a place to meet!"
"Well," the man whooped, "they never should have left you off the train!" As the train slowed to a crawl, 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% grade to climb—an unescorted woman was no better than some farmer's stray bull blocking the tracks.
"It wasn't the conductor's fault. I insisted to be let off, because I didn't know what else to do. My husband said he'd meet me here."
"Well, this place burned forty 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."
Camouflaging a growing frustration with the events of the day, she kept her finishing school refinement and penciled something polite, like, "Dear Gene, Sorry I couldn't meet you here, I have gone to Gainesville in a freight train." Fortunately, there was a railroad telephone box on a pole at the depot site, so Ruth placed her hurriedly scribbled note there, in plain sight.
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 had re-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 forty 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 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."
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 Ruth.
"Dad Ostrander, bless his dear heart—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 in her discourse to the time when the freight train came along and she was standing alongside the tracks, Ruth quoted the brakeman, "We can't leave you here, we'll carry you 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 and they will take you on in."
The heavy Mikados tugged 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 what was required. It may have been chauvinistic, but she was not going to be left behind at Silver Lake Junction.
A string of cars rolled by them, until along came the caboose. The brakeman explained what she should do, "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 admitted, "the man pushed me up and the two railroad men who were in 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 anything like 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 assuring her that they were gentlemen.
"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 1.4% grade, the freight was not about to stop until it made its way to the water crane at Gainesville. Unlike the train she abandoned earlier, Ruth would not see a dandy passenger conductor flinging down a hand stool and extending a hand for her to alight daintily in that little burg.
Instead, a beefy railroader jumped down, 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 railroad men 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 would have seen that she had ridden in an old wooden caboose. It was numbered in the system of the old BR&P and marked with a tattered B&O herald. 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—or he might have gotten an earful!)
Passersby seemed nonplussed that the fancy traveler had arrived by unconventional means. Word of such matters spreads fast in small-town America, you know. Finally, after another uncomfortable hour, 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 Ruth 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 Iron 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. "Who wouldn't assume that, if a stop is on the timecard, then there should be a station... a tool shed... an outhouse... Something!?!
"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."
Susan Worboys standing at the site of Silver Lake Junction, February 2004
© 2004, Paul S. Worboys, photograph by the author
Similar versions of The "Cornfield Meet" recently appeared in the Perry Herald, and also in Lehigh Valley Railroad Historical Society Newsletter, Railway Society Journal of Western New York, and Headend, The Journal of the New York Museum of Transportation.