New book revisits Old Put
by Brian Howard
Joe Schiavone remembers the day he fell in love with the Old Put. It was a summer morning in 1948 when his father, Joe Sr., put him aboard the train in Granite Springs for the two-stop trip to Yorktown Heights. The sway of the cars and the smell of creosote - the tarry substance that kept the railroad ties from rotting - remain vivid, as does his panic when the conductor nearly forgot to remind him of his stop. But, sure enough, Joe Sr. was waiting there for him on the platform.
"I guess I was hooked from that point on because that was my first time on a train," said Schiavone, now 66 and clad in an engineer's hat as he ponders his memories a few yards from that very station.
Schiavone's lifelong passion for the Putnam Division of the New York Central Railroad was born that day on the tracks between Somers and Yorktown, culminated with the publication of "The Old Put ...," 104 glossy, stitch-bound pages of vintage photographs and personal accounts of a railroad whose last passengers boarded
49 years ago.
Published by Merit Printing of Peekskill after a year of research and interviews, the book and three hours of companion DVD images are being released this weekend at the Grange Fair in Yorktown.
Schiavone is also discussing the Putnam Line at forums in Mahopac, Yorktown and other communities once served by the the 56-mile route between Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx and Brewster. The conversion of that right-of-way into the North County Trailway was a great impetus for the book.
"So many people use the North County Trailway right now, it's a wonderful opportunity for families to get a sense of what it might have been like in an earlier time," said Yorktown town Supervisor Linda Cooper, who has co-written one book on local history and is working on another.
The trailway was where Schiavone, a retired elementary school teacher who now lives in Mahopac, met a curious Brian Vangor.
A Yonkers native who at 49 is barely old enough to remember passenger trains on the Old Put, Vangor nevertheless harbored a lifelong passion for the tiny railroad. About 10 years ago, he attended a forum on it at Mahopac Middle School, where Schiavone was the "guy in the front row who knew every answer." They met two months later on the trailway and talked for hours.
"I've been telling Joe for years, 'Joe, you've got to write a book about this. You know more about this than anybody,' " said Vangor, who digitized all of Schiavone's photos and memorabilia for the book and filmed his narration for the DVD.
The book has the early approval of local history buffs and those who knew the Put the best - the railroad men.
"It's unbelievable. It brings back a lot of memories when I look at that," said retired engineer Jim Morgia, 79, of Croton Falls.
A fireman on the Put in 1947-49 - only riders and locals called it the Old Put - Morgia's rescue after his train was stranded in Yorktown during the Blizzard of 1947 is detailed in the book.
Morgia, who later worked on the Harlem Line and retired after 50 years, understands the nostalgia surrounding the Put. Its charm lay in its curvy route and slow pace. It was smaller than other lines and better suited to its time than it would be today, he said.
"With the building and the way things are with trucks and traffic, I don't know whether it would really pay for itself," Morgia said. "But sure, they miss it."
Schiavone used to show his fourth-graders 8 mm videos he shot of freight trains on the Old Put after he got out of the Navy in the early 1960s. The DVD contains that footage, the video Vangor shot of Schiavone and 16 mm films of the old steam trains contributed by Schiavone's late friend, George Meyer.
Passenger service on the Putnam Line ended in 1958. Freighters made the last run to Carmel in 1970.
Schiavone was 10 when the last steam engines ran on the Old Put. He went home and cried in his room after he saw the first diesel. Years later, he watched as a salvage company picked up the rails and ties.
"Well, the tears rolled down my cheeks, because it was the first time I realized we were losing the Put,"
Schiavone said. "This is the finality of the whole thing. There wasn't going to be any Put after that day."
Reach Brian Howard at email@example.com or (914) 666-6177.