Early on a Saturday morning, Ernie Mann is sipping coffee at the Rensselaer Railroad Station. Settling into a warm and informative conversation, it was the perfect place to talk about his book ‘Railroads of Rensselaer’, just released by Arcadia Publishing. Mann had already been compiling information on the subject when Arcadia contacted him about the possibility of writing a book.
“I told them what I was doing, and they were ok with that and told me to go ahead with it. It took me about a year and a half to finish the book,” said Mann. ‘Railroads of Rensselaer’ is part of a series of other Arcadia books which focus on local history, and Mann will be signing copies of his book on November 7, at Borders in Crossgates Mall from 2-4 p.m.
In his book, Mann has interwoven the railroad with the city of Rensselaer’s history, noting that before the city was established in 1897, the first railroads around here appeared around 1841. “Rensselaer sits at a natural transportation point. To the north we’ve got the Champlain Valley, to the west Mohawk Valley and to the east over the mountains, we’ve got the Berkshires,” said Mann who points out that it made perfect sense to place the center of this area’s railroad transportation in Rensselaer. He adds that the original Indian Trails became roads, and then they subsequently became the railroad routes.
Before the trains really got established here, freight was moved along the Hudson River on sloops and steamboats. Once the Erie Canal was built, there was a lot of advancement in freight traffic and following that when the railroad was established there was no comparison between moving goods on the water versus rails. The time factor of transporting freight was so much faster with railroads and eventually beat out the waterway routes.
In the formative years of the railroad right up until the sixties and seventies, many people were employed by the railroad system. “Everybody had a relative that worked on the railroad,”said Mann, whose own father was one of the numerous employees. Mann himself also worked the railroad during his college years and has been a railroad buff all of his life. Railroad workers were also involved with local politics and ran for many offices according to Mann.
Mann for example, was Fire Chief in Rensselaer for many years.
There is a lot of nostalgia associated with the trains, the possibility of traveling and who doesn’t associate the train encircling a Christmas tree with the perfect view of the holiday season? “It’s a very influential industry [the railroad]; many families pass on their interest in trains to generations. Back in the 1920€s and 30s railroad travel was what glamour flights are like today,”€ť says Mann. For example, what was once a big trip to Boston by train, can now be a day trip. There isn’t the same connection with the wilder or romanticized life of traveling the railroad now, technology has advanced and has left those connections in the past. What was once a gateway to traveling to other places, has now been replaced by so many faster modes of transportation.
Although we do have faster ways of getting around, many will agree that hopping on an Amtrak train to get down to NYC is much better than driving. In just a couple of hours you can go from walking on Broadway in Rensselaer to shuffling around on Broadway in Manhattan. The trip down along the Hudson on the rails is also full of history. Keep your eyes open and grab a map. You’ll feel a little smarter perhaps, and may just walk away with some nostalgia of your own.
Mann doesn’t have any plans in the immediate future for penning another book, but has a strong interest in the electric line of the Albany Southern Railroad. Who knows, maybe a couple of years from now we’ll find an old trolley car to sit in and talk about that over another cup of coffee. For now, we can thank Ernie Mann for his interest in local railroads for keeping our history alive.