Greenport Rotary revives popular mini-railroad

Looking back this week on the Greenport Rotary Club’s years-long campaign to relocate and revive Frank Field’s legendary Peconic County Miniature Railroad, veteran Rotarian Richard Israel had to laugh.

“This was an original idea of a couple of Rotarians who said, ‘how hard can this be?’” Mr. Israel recalled. “‘He built this himself in his backyard.’”

That was nearly eight years ago, or as Mr. Israel described it, “seven to eight years of just everybody — every time we hit a bump in the road — we figured it out, and there was always somebody who came to our rescue.”

This week — as Mr. Israel prepared for the culmination of all that work with Saturday’s grand opening of the “Greenport Express Miniature Railroad” on Moores Lane — he looked back on an odyssey through government regulations, material shortages, red tape and fundraising.

 Mr. Field, a Long Island Railroad engineer who moved to Greenport in the 1970s and built the mini-railroad behind his Webb St. home, offered free rides to local kids on Sundays from 1985 to 2012.

“He did it out of the kindness of his heart,” Mr. Israel said.

When he decided to retire, Mr. Field approached the Greenport Rotary in hopes of keeping the tradition alive. By late 2016, plans were in motion. Rotarian Joe Cherepowich, who died in 2019, led the initial campaign, and the revived train has been dubbed the “Joe Cherry Choo Choo” in his honor.

Working closely with village officials including former Mayor George Hubbard Jr., the Rotary explored multiple spots to reconstruct the railroad. Mitchell Park was considered, as was the parking lot near the North Ferry terminal and Long Island Railroad Museum, but neither option panned out.

Planners finally settled on some village-owned property next to the skate park on Moores Lane.

Since the area includes a small amount of wetlands in the form of Moores Drain, a ravine that stretches from Silver Lake to the bay, the state Department of Environmental Conservation got involved. One tripping point was the access road that runs through the area where the train tracks were ultimately laid down.

“The village said ‘just put it on the road.’ Then other people said, ‘that would block my access.’ So we went through a tortuous time between the DEC, the environmentalists and everybody else, but we finally got [DEC] approval … four and a half years later.”           

The Rotarians took it all in stride and kept pressing forward.

“During that same time, we were talking to people about what it is to run a railroad, how it should be built, and everything else,” Mr. Israel explained.

“Rob Brown, who is a local architect in Greenport, said that he would help us create the plans. The village, at that time, helped us design and lay out the tracks.”

Mr. Field sold the Rotarians one of his three trains for “minimal money,” Mr. Israel said.

From there it “went off to Riverhead Brake [Services], and they rebuilt the engine and the electrical system.”

Momentum was building.

“There were many people in our community who stepped forward and said, ‘I want to be a part of this. I want to get this [train] going again, for my kids, for their kids,’” Mr. Israel noted.

When it came time to build the new mini railroad station, “basically we paid for materials and everybody donated their labor — and some people did both.

“Riverhead Building Supply gave us a very generous donation and a discount on all the lumber. The roofers, the siders, the framers, the concrete guys, the guy who put the fence around it — everybody understood the benefit of what we were doing. This wasn’t a commercial project. It was a labor of love for everybody involved.”

Each of the donors, which include financial supporters, local businesses and civic groups, are honored on plaques at the new mini-railroad terminal.

As building got underway supply line disruptions fueled by the pandemic started taking a toll. “Whatever we thought was going to cost $1, cost $2.50,” Mr. Israel said.

Yet in the end, the job got done, and the railroad will finally be open this Saturday, June 29 on Moores Lane from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Going forward, Mr. Israel said, the Rotary will hand off operations of the railroad to the village.

Mr. Israel, who with his family made substantial donations to the project and is honored with a plaque in front of the station, said the project was ultimately a celebration of community teamwork.

“I’ve always considered Greenport to be a wonderful place to live,” he said. “and this is a good thing. We aren’t raising money because somebody had a tragedy — which the Rotary does too. But to do a good thing that helps to enhance the village, and continue to be what makes the village special, is great.”