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All Aboard At Planting Fields

With bluegrass music playing, the sound of a model railroad roaring by and the happy chatter of a successful party, the new exhibit at Planting Fields Foundation (PFF) opened to a preview audience on April 4. Henry Joyce, PFF executive director and Gwendolyn L. Smith, PFP assistant curator at and curator of All Aboard: A Railway Fortune at Planting Fields can be confident of a great run.

 

Henry Joyce said, “It’s a wonderful exhibit because it’s such fun and it brings out the child in all of us. It also explains why Planting Fields is here. Mai Rogers Coe’s fortune is what built it.”

 

Joyce’s exuberance and warmth invites the public to come and experience the exhibit through a series of themed events. [See our calendar to chose your favorites.] The exhibit opened to the public on Saturday at the Manor House and runs through Sept. 2.

 

It is about one of the last great chapters in the history of America’s love affair with railroads, which began in the 19th century and changed the United States forever.  It is the story of the Virginian Railway, built between 1907 and 1909 by the great robber baron Henry Huttleston Rogers, father of Planting Field’s co-owner Mai Rogers Coe with husband William R.  Coe. Ten years after her father’s death in 1909, Rogers’ trust was released to Mai, and her inherited shares of the Virginian were valued at $6.8 million ($167 million today). Those funds made Planting Fields mansion and arboretum the glory it is today.

 

Exhibit Curator Smith is at home in the railroad environment. She grew up in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area, “with the railroad in my backyard.”

She called H.H. Rogers a renaissance man. “He built the Virginian with $40 million of his own money. He built it in 1907 when no one else was spending money, but he had the vision to do it and the Coe family was so socially well connected they knew who to go to for help.” They eased the wheels of progress.

 

Smith feels connected to the exhibit through her paternal grandfather who worked on the railroad for several years. She said, “Besides being romantic railways can be dangerous. When the Virginian was built, they forged over new territory and built trestle bridges over giant chasms. They used the newest technology they had at the time, including blasting tunnels through mountains with dynamite.” That sometimes resulted in terrible fatal accidents.

 

She lectured on April 7 on the Virginian Railway, which was the most ambitious project to be funded by the fortune of one man. The ultimate success story of this coal transporting empire, happened at a time when railroads changed the course of American history and culture. 

A Private View

Michael Coe, R.W. Coe’s son said, “My father was all involved with the Virginia railroad all of his life, he loved the railroad, which was started by my great grandfather.

 

“My father ran the financial operation from Wall Street. He was a real railroad man and we had to obey the timetable as any good railroad man and be there a half hour before the train left. My father travelled down to Wall Street in a private car on the LIRR. He used to play Backgammon with all his friends going in mornings and coming back afternoons.  [Dave Morrison, LIRR historian added in a telephone interview, “The club car was stored in the yard in Oyster Bay and it went to Locust Valley, when needed, and picked up those private club men and drove them to New York City.]

 

Coe shared a secret. He said, “Being the son of the family of a rail road official, you got a free pass for every railroad in the country. I never paid a nickel for a trail ticket. I didn’t have a Pullman Pass, unfortunately. My grandfather did have that. But on the old New Haven Railroad I took the train to Long Island using my train pass when I was an undergraduate in Boston, in Cambridge, at Harvard.

 

[Morrison said railroads from their very earliest history every gave all of its employees free transportation passes and it was good for their family too. “If you were going to travel across the country in the 1960s and before, when passenger trains were worked for the individual railroads, that was true. I worked on the LIRR and if I wanted to go to California, I could apply for a pass to other railroads to get there. Passes have been given to other individuals, like politicians. One who got a free lifetime pass was Vincent Seyfried, railroad historian. At the 150th LIRR anniversary, the then president gave him a free lifetime pass on the railroad.]

 

Coe said, “The railroads were much better in those years. We gave up on railroads, it’s a tragedy.”

A Family Business

The Virginian Railway was a family business: H. H. Rogers’s son-in-law, William R. Coe, became director of the railroad in 1912 and was appointed to the Executive Committee in 1915; he was elected vice president in 1925 and chairman of the Executive Committee in 1938.  His son, William Rogers Coe (father of PFF Chairman Michael D. Coe) was a member of the board of directors beginning in 1927 and served as vice-president and treasurer from 1942 until his resignation in 1956. Michael Coe is an archaeologist, anthropologist, epigrapher and author. He is looking forward to a new edition of the re-publication of the book he and his late wife Sophie wrote (1966) The True History of Chocolate, which will come out in June. “The research changes things all the time and I have to keep it up to date. There is always new information coming out,” he said. Coe is the Curator Emeritus of the Anthropology collection in the Peabody Museum of Natural History, from 1968 to 1994.

Rail Fans

Many of those attending the preview were real rail fans.

 

Margaret Stacey of Lattingtown said, “I grew up with trains. It was my father’s railroad but I built all the models for the villages from kits. We visited the Black Forest where they built the kits and we saw the original buildings. There were fountains and a ski slope in the layout. We have over 100 of the little houses. We had 200 little people in the little village. 

 

“Before the trains disappeared my father had me ride the 20th Century Limited to California. It was a great time. I have my mother’s trains from the 20s, too.” Her husband Tom added,

 

“We took the train today, to Brooklyn.” They are truly train fans.

 

Trains have a sense of romance and nostalgia. As Henry Joyce said, “Everybody sort of becomes a child again with trains.”

 

All Aboard! A Railway Fortune at Planting Fields will be on view now through Sept. 2. Open daily 11:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. at the Manor House at Planting Fields. There is free admission with the $8 parking fee.