When Charlie Monte Verde initially reached out to me, towards the start of the pandemic, he said that he had recently moved to Buffalo and wanted to talk about the city. Of course I said, “yes,” and before I knew it, we were sitting on my rooftop, discussing community activism, the environment, restaurants, developments… and trains. You see, Charlie comes from a train background – his family has been in the transportation business, sometimes freight and sometimes passenger, for generations, and he’d moved home to work his way to the top of it.
Moving from Chicago to Buffalo, Charlie told me that he was excited to get involved in some fun projects. Originally hailing from Rochester, he had been following the economic and cultural rebirth of Western NY, Buffalo in particular. He was excited to hear about all of the advancements that were being made along the waterfront, as well as other areas of the city.
After chatting for a couple of hours, Charlie sprang something on me. He told me that he had identified three train cars and an engine, that were significant to the region, and in jeopardy of being scrapped. I immediately understood the implications of what he was proposing, because I had always thought that Buffalo should have some sort of train-related “calling card” (along with a museum and the Central Terminal) that would additionally help people to understand and relate to the significant history of Buffalo as a train town, or “bread-maker for the nation.” A stand-alone engine, with attached train cars, at an unexpected site along the waterfront would look sensational, and would help to tell the story of Buffalo and its railways.
In other cities, I’ve seen train cars converted to pop-up restaurants, similar to dining car-style rescues like we have witnessed in the University District and Larkinville. Now, Charlie was talking about recovering a real gold mine of WNY railroading and industrial history that was on the verge of being lost forever. As the initiative grew, the Flour-by-Rail Legacy Project was born.
“At this point, preservation is the priority,” of the FBRLP, said Charlie, who is a second generation railroader by profession. “I believe that this is an important piece of the puzzle for Buffalo’s ongoing renaissance. Of course, the cars in question are not even connected to an active track – Conrail and CSX used them as tool sheds for track maintenance, and the latter has been terrific about helping preserve these boxcars. But recently there has been an emphasis on unloading them.”
The initial car that Charlie became aware of while he was still living in Chicago, working for Amtrak, Buffalo Creek Railroad boxcar no. 3424 – is located in Rochester (see images). As he began strategizing efforts to save that car, he found another distressed boxcar on the East Side of Buffalo – New York Central boxcar no. 43819 – that is “ticking away” and presents a greater sense of urgency.
This was when flour was king in Buffalo.
“These are the cars that moved milled flour from Buffalo to the entire eastern seaboard,” Charlie explained. “This was when flour was king in Buffalo. At one point, there were thousands. Now, there are only a handful left.”
Ultimately, Charlie envisions the cars and engine being relocated to the Buffalo waterfront, to be put back in “action” near the grain elevators that they serviced. He has a handshake agreement (read: ‘elbow-bump,’ in 2020) with a well-known, riverfront property owner willing to display the equipment and mold the exhibit into an educational, interpretive display at an iconic Buffalo location that’s accurate to where the equipment was once used (rendering by Scott Alexander Wood Illustration below).
“The safety appliances on the cars are outdated,” Charlie noted. “That means that we are going to have to flatbed them to the site, starting with the East Side car. They’ve been out of revenue service since around 1975. We will have to protect them from further weathering, and then we would like to restore them with the help of local and national rail and industrial historical societies that can provide us with era-accurate paint schemes, car numbers, etc.”
Charlie, whose family’s business is as a short line and regional freight line operator (since 1989), feels that part of his mission moving back to WNY is to preserve these historical artifacts that are in jeopardy of being lost. “The railroad is in my blood,” he told me. “I’m working with railroad foundations and historical societies to make this happen, but there would also have to be some help by the community. If I can get this first car moving, the rest should fall into place. I need to show that it’s possible, and that the Buffalo community wants this. In the end, we will all have a role in celebrating Buffalo’s transportation history, while enhancing a popular waterfront destination location.”
In order to get the wheels turning, Charlie is working towards securing a non-profit status. He has also set up a crowdfunding platform, where the community can chip in towards the effort. “I’m willing to do the legwork, and work with property owners, transportation companies, railroad enthusiasts, artists, historians, and the rest,” said Charlie. “This will, however be a community effort – it starts with this one significant train car that is found on Buffalo’s East Side. From there, we will be able to attract additional supporters and resources. The East Side boxcar is going to be the truest test of the whole effort, not just because of the urgency, but because it’s the first one. We need to demonstrate the importance to Buffalo – once people see this first car on the move, delivered safely to the waterfront, a palpable excitement will be generated that will make rescuing and restoring the others more achievable.”
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Lead image: Charlie Monte Verde, courtesy Flour by Rail Legacy Project