Relic of the Glory Days of Rail

Enthusiasts scramble to preserve rare but rusting Lion Gardiner dining car
End of the line for the last of its kind? Efforts are under way to save the storied Lion Gardiner dining car, seen here in Kingston, N.Y. Empire State Railway Museum

    The Lion Gardiner, said to be the last of the heavyweight dining cars in the United States, is in danger of being scrapped. Few people may know of its precarious state, or even of its existence, but the run-down and deteriorating dining car is now officially endangered.

    The car was named after the English-born East Hampton settler who in the 17th century bought what came to be known as Gardiner’s Island from Wyandanch, the sachem of the Montauketts. It was built after World War I and served as part of the 20th Century Limited of the New York Central Railroad, which the Empire State Railway Museum in Phoenicia, N.Y., described as one of “America’s greatest trains.”

    The Lion Gardiner also was a car on the railroad’s other trains through the 1940s, a shining example of fine railroad dining during that era.

    The car played an important role in the railroad preservation movement. It served as the dining car for “High Iron” excursion trips in the 1960s, which introduced many people to the concept of reusing historic railroad equipment for recreation.

    Today, the historic car remains in Kingston, N.Y., where it has been deteriorating for the last three decades. Its floor has collapsed, but the stainless-steel kitchen is reportedly still in good shape. Its drastic decaying, however, will soon require the whole car to be scrapped, unless action is taken.

    In April, in its first-ever “most at risk” list to raise awareness of railroad resources facing imminent demise, the National Railway Historical Society listed the Lion Gardiner among the top eight endangered U.S. railroad landmarks of 2013. In response, the Empire State Railway Museum, the Catskill Revitalization Corporation, and the Ulster and Delaware Railroad Historical Society entered into a partnership to “stabilize, assess, and restore” the dining car.

    The restoration has only just begun and remains in the money-raising stage. “Funding is very slow,” said Dakin Morehouse, the president of the Empire State Railway Museum. “We still need an awful lot more.” He did say, however, that going on the National Railway Historical Society’s endangered list has been positive in that it has helped raise some awareness and donations since.

    The Empire State Railway Museum, which is at the forefront of the effort to raise money, has confirmed its first $5,000 grant, though it was a “lower amount than promised,” as Mr. Morehouse put it. He said he expects three more grants to be on their way before too long.

    Otherwise, the project relies on donations, which can be made through the Empire State Railway Museum. Once they receive more funding, the three collaborating organizations plan to move the Lion Gardiner to Arkville, N.Y., where the Ulster and Delaware Railroad is now based, to start assessments and restoration.

    If the restoration succeeds, there is also the question of what the car could be used for. “Operation is possible,” Mr. Morehouse said. “Personally, I would like to see it on the rails again, but it will all depend on the new owner.” He suspects that the car will end up being put on display if restored.

    The Empire State Railway Museum faces a local financial predicament that makes funding more difficult. After Hurricane Irene, Ulster County received $2.3 million from the federal government, but the county executive refused to release any of the money to the railroads, despite the damage done to them during the storm.

    In its grant application, the Empire State Railway Museum described the Lion Gardiner as significant and worth saving for two primary reasons. One was that it is the “sole surviving, unmodified representative of a distinctive period in railroad passenger car body construction.” The other being that the car served on the country’s “most consistently prestigious train,” and on one of the “few railroads to turn a profit on passenger service during the heyday of the passenger train.” As the museum said in summation, it is a “symbolic representative of an iconic era.”

    Despite the odds, most railroad enthusiasts remain hopeful. “I knew these kinds of trains from when I was a kid,” Mr. Morehouse, who is 75, said fondly. “It’s just unfair that so many of them have been forgotten.”

    Support for the Lion Gardiner car has been increasing, but the next few months will be crucial for its restoration. “There’s still a lot to be done,” Mr. Morehouse said, and a “long fight ahead of us.”