One of Heather Walker’s most cherished memories from her childhood in Greenport took place in the woods on Frank Field’s property. After trick-or-treating on Halloween, she would head there with other friends to take a ride on Mr. Field’s Peconic County Miniature Railroad. Ms. Walker and the others along for the ride would see jack-o’-lanterns, ghosts hanging in the trees, and other Halloween décor peppered throughout the woods.
“It was something we looked forward to, more so than just going trick-or-treating,” Ms. Walker said on Saturday afternoon.
She smiled as she recalled how, years later, she would bring her own children to Mr. Field’s property for the same experience, and would take them there on Sundays after church as well. Riding the miniature railroad was a Greenport tradition passed down for generations, from when Mr. Field began operating the train in the early 1980s until he stopped in 2012. But that tradition will be reignited soon, thanks to the dedication of Ms. Walker, her fellow Greenport Rotarians, and several other community members.
Ms. Walker was among the many people on hand near the skate park on Moores Lane on Saturday for a ceremonial unveiling of the Greenport Express. The train was purchased by the Greenport Rotary in 2017, and for the past two years, the Rotary has been raising money to restore the train and install a new track in the wooded area adjacent to Moores Lane. Plans are also in the works to construct a small train station and public restrooms in the area between the skate park and the water tower. Members of the Rotary said they hope the train becomes an attraction, in the same vein as the village’s popular carousel, for Greenport community members and others who want to enjoy a family-friendly, nostalgic experience.
While Rotary members and others in the community have been instrumental in the effort to restore the Greenport Express, everyone agreed that the person who deserves the most credit for making it a reality is Rotarian Joe Cherepowich, Ms. Walker’s father. Rotarian Patt Rudder referred to Mr. Cherepowich as the “driving force” behind the project, and referred to the miniature railroad as “part of the fabric of the village.”
Rich Israel, another Rotarian, has been another big supporter and backer of the project and he spoke Saturday as well, serving as the master of ceremonies. He said that Mr. Field had “created a tradition in the village that our children looked forward to,” and that the train “represented a good experience in Greenport.”
Mr. Field, who is in his 80s and is also a Rotarian, was unable to attend Saturday’s festivities.
Mr. Cherepowich spoke briefly to the crowd about his dream to restore the miniature railroad he’d taken his own children on when they were young. The idea was born four years ago, when he and Greenport Mayor George Hubbard Jr. were chatting while watching a Greenport High School football game. They envisioned the three-quarters of an acre in Moore’s Woods, which is owned by the village, as a perfect new home for the train, which can accommodate more than 30 children.
Final paperwork necessary for approval was recently submitted to the Department of Environmental Conservation, and Mr. Hubbard expressed optimism that “the final hurdle,” as he called it, would be cleared soon. The route for the train had to be reconfigured a bit to comply with the DEC, which means the project has taken a bit longer to get moving than anticipated. Other Rotary members, including Mr. Rudder, said they remained hopeful that the train could be running by the holidays.
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Greenport Rotary has already raised $120,000 of a necessary $250,000 for the project, and Mr. Rudder said the first step will be to finish final improvements to the train itself, which was built in 1950. Several improvements, such as refurbishing the engine and updating it from six volts to 12 volts, have already been done, but it still needs new brakes. Once that is done, the track can be laid and the train will be running.
Mr. Rudder also pointed out that Don Fisher, president of the Railroad Museum of Long Island in Riverhead, has been a key member of the committee, and his expertise regarding the train itself has been huge. Mr. Rudder added that additional funds will be directed toward the building that will house the train, as well as the public restrooms, which will not only serve customers who come to ride the train but people using the skate park and other facilities in the area as well.
There was a bittersweet feeling to the day, as Mr. Cherepowich battles terminal pancreatic cancer. He was treated to a nice surprise after speaking to the crowd, when Mr. Rudder asked him to help unveil a banner that proclaimed a new nickname for the train: The “Joe Cherry Choo Choo.”
Mr. Cherepowich smiled as he looked at the banner with his daughter standing at his side. He gave brief remarks to the crowd, but said he did not feel well enough to be interviewed.
It was a special moment for Ms. Walker, who was all smiles as she handed out slices of a train-themed cake to the crowd after the ceremony.
“I’ve been working hand in hand with him on this, so we’ve been able to have a father-daughter bonding together,” she said. “It’s great to see it coming to ground. We’ve had so many fundraisers over the past two years, and we’ve been working really hard with the community.”
Ms. Walker spoke about how her father has inspired her and so many others in the community to do good and try to improve life for others. She spoke about how, four or five years ago, Mr. Cherepowich would start Tuesday morning Rotary meetings at the Hellenic Snack Bar and Restaurant by asking fellow members to share a random act of kindness they’d performed during the week.
“It encouraged everybody from week to week, because we’d know we’d have to get up and share something,” she said. “But he really stressed that it didn’t have to be something monetary; it could be something as simple as letting someone go ahead of you in line at the grocery store.
“His motto in life is to make a difference in someone else’s life,” she added.
Saturday’s event was a family affair in more ways than one for Mr. Cherepowich. His granddaughter, Madison Payne, sang the national anthem, accompanied by the Greenport Rotary band, to kick off the festivities. Like her aunt, Ms. Walker, Madison also has memories of riding the train when she was very young, with her older cousins. She’s 17 now and a senior at Riverhead High School, so her train riding days are over, but she was clearly thrilled about its return and what it will mean to the community.
When asked about her relationship with her grandfather, she smiled broadly before speaking.
“My grandfather is my pal,” she said. “He is the kindest and most amazing man I’ve ever been able to know. If I’m half the person he is, I’d be so lucky. He’s worked so hard to make this vision come to life. I think it will bring great unity and happiness to the children of Greenport, and I’m so excited to see Greenport experience something like this again.”
Top photo caption: Greenport Rotarian Patt Rudder, left, with fellow Rotarian Joe Cherepowich, as they unveiled the banner revealing the new nickname for the Greenport Miniature Railroad, named after Mr. Cherepowich, who was instrumental in making its rebirth a reality. (Credit: Cailin Riley)