It may be hard to believe but there once was a time when the Genesee & Wyoming Railroad was a single 14.5 mile railroad in western New York state, not the owner-operator of more than 120 railroads that has spread fleets of orange colored locomotives to three continents.
The year was 1981. The Genesee & Wyoming’s existence and indeed viability were tied to its singular function of hauling salt from the largest salt mine in North America to connections at P&L Junction (Pittsburgh and Lehigh Junction). Connections to four different class one railroads that once existed in the P&L Junction area provided advantageous shipping options for the salt. It could travel to customers using the Lehigh Valley, New York Central, Erie, or the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh (later Baltimore & Ohio).
The attraction of Retsof, N.Y., to this then-young devotee of shortline railroads was likely influenced by the Genesee & Wyoming Railroad’s primary use of Alco-powered locomotives, featuring RS1’s to boot. EMD locomotives had invaded the property only the year before. In August 1981, I somehow convinced my wife Martha to accompany me along with boys aged three and one on a trip to photograph the Genesee & Wyoming. Don’t ask me how I managed that.
After a four-hour Sunday afternoon drive from Pennsylvania, we arrived at Retsof, the operating headquarters of the railroad. We would be ready to start railfanning when operations resumed on Monday. Retsof had been established for the workers at the salt mine. As one might suspect, the name Retsof represents the backwards spelling of the last name of its founder William Foster, the head of the Empire Salt Company. In 1981, Retsof could be accurately described as a hamlet. We needed lodging. A small motel with a dirt parking lot was located on the north side of the road. With no one there, signs directed potential lodgers to inquire at the restaurant across the road. A night’s stay was secured at the restaurant. As we walked toward our room down an enclosed passageway in front of the rooms, we saw a snake slithering away. This was not a good omen. Fortunately, no snakes were in our room. However, the floor in the room was so filthy, that our crawling one year old boy soon dirtied his hands and knees as he explored the room. Scrubbing and a bath were in order.
Fortunately, the next day dawned sunny. We headed toward the railroad offices. When I entered the office, the man behind the desk glanced in my direction and took action before I said a word. He wheeled his chair and went to the filing cabinet. He quickly brought me a release form to complete. Obviously, he had seen railfans before. In the course of our conversation, he revealed that the road train had already made its way north to P&L Junction. When we arrived at the junction, we found the crew assembling the train of empties for the return trip to Retsof. Alco RS1 No. 1976 still in bicentennial paint was on the lead. Its clean condition spoke of the pride that the employees had in their railroad.
I struck up a conversation with the crew. I was surprised to hear them ask if I wanted a cab ride! That offer certainly was extremely tempting, but I wanted pictures of the train and declined. The cab ride invitation was extended to my wife. She accepted. The crew asked whether she had obtained a release at Retsof. She had not. No problem, the crew replied, we have extra forms on the locomotive. Once the forms were signed and the train was ready to depart, she climbed aboard. The chase was on, my wife riding in the cab of a bicentennial painted RS1 and myself driving the car with two boys in car seats. Upon arrival in Retsof, Martha disembarked from the train and I took additional shots as the power switched the incoming cars to finish up the day. Now, this is the way to railfan!