Watertown man turned lifelong love of trains into a successful career
The letter with its unique signature — a pencil-sketched railroad steam engine — is in as good condition today as it was 69 years ago when Edward Hungerford rolled the stationery out of his typewriter.
"You ask what I like for a hobby," the writer, from his home in New York City, said in a reply to a teenage resident of the Children's Home of Jefferson County, Arthur Parker. "My greatest hobby is the railroad. It always was and always will be, and that is why I did the great railroad show here in New York last year."
Arthur and his fellow band members from the Children's Home had visited the 1939 World's Fair in New York City, and one of their tours, possibly their favorite, was Mr. Hungerford's Railroad Conference exhibit. It was a 17-acre international display of engines and cars, a collection of antiques and those of their generation.
A native of Jefferson County, Mr. Hungerford had even written a five-act drama, "Railroads on Parade," with a cast of 250, to embellish his exhibit.
World's Fair visitors could experience, in a 3,000-seat theater, the birth and growth of the industry. Using contributions from 27 railroad companies, the show featured 25 locomotives and 40 horses.
"Do write me again," Mr. Hungerford encouraged his young correspondent in Watertown. "If I do not answer very promptly you will understand that I am very busy and it is not that I do not appreciate your letter."
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Mr. Hungerford, who in other writings described himself as the "foremost rail fan of the country," dated his interest back to his youth when he watched the Rome, Watertown & Ogdensburg trains pull in and out of local yards.
Other memories included the time he spent with his grandfather, Dr. Edward Sill, who practiced medicine in Dexter and Watertown.
"My maternal grandfather was a country doctor, a zealous man and a kind-hearted one," he wrote in his recollections about Northern New York.
"To a great section of the countryside of Jefferson County he was more than doctor or surgeon; he was father confessor, financial adviser, good friend.
"As a boy I rode frequently with him upon his rounds. The farmhouses opened wide their hospitality to old Doctor Sill. He was their help and their comforter in adversity; the joyous sharer of their happiness."
Edward was the only child of Charles Anson and Cora Sill Hungerford, who made their Watertown home at what is now 156 Clinton St.
For much of his youth, when he wasn't watching trains, he was a likely frequent visitor to a grocery store in the Washington Hall block on the south side of Public Square. The shop was operated by his parents until 1892, when he was about 17. That was when Charles Hungerford took on a bigger proprietorship on the opposite side of the Square, beginning a 13-year run as owner of Watertown's well-known landmark, the Woodruff House. The teen was given a job there, running the elevator.
His father, who later moved the family downstate to Kingston to continue in the hotel business, wanted to see his son become an architect, but Edward was uncooperative. Since he was not the most inspired student at Watertown High School, the Hungerfords sent him to Willistown Seminary in Easthampton, Mass. That didn't work out so well, however, and he was obliged to leave because of low grades.
Despite that lackluster background, he was grudgingly able to enroll in an architecture program at Syracuse University. Much to his father's disappointment, that commitment was short-lived. The young Hungerford abandoned his studies in Syracuse, set out for Western New York, and landed a job in 1896 as a reporter with the Rochester Herald.
"Damn fool!" said his father.
After three years in Rochester, his career direction was in motion, with reporting and editing jobs taking him to the Glens Falls Times, the Brooklyn Eagle, New York Evening Sun and the New York Herald. He continued writing, with the railroad industry becoming his focus. He was able to bolster that interest when he became press representative for the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, a position he held for seven years.
During his early years in New York, he met and courted Bertha R. von Rechenberg, a woman of German heritage, and on Sept. 26, 1906, they married.
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There were other jobs along his route: advertising manager for Wells Fargo & Co. Express, and director of publications at the University of Rochester. Come 1925, the railroad writer set out to become railroad promoter when he approached the president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Two years down the road, the B&O was to observe its centennial. Mr. Hungerford proposed doing a history of the company.
Railroad president Daniel Willard not only grasped the suggestion, he took it a step further. He hired the writer to be the B&O's centennial director.
Building upon what he had seen at a railroad celebration in England, Mr. Hungerford put together an extravagant exhibit at an improvised park a few miles outside Baltimore. "The Fair of The Iron Horse," featuring displays and a two-hour play, "Pageant of The Iron Horse," opened on Feb. 28, 1927, and drew unexpected crowds averaging 50,000 a day, and going as high as 110,000. But why not — there was no admission charge for the show, which did not close until Oct. 16.
For Mr. Hungerford, "his success in Baltimore became his chief calling card," wrote Curtis L. Katz in the November 2003 issue of Railfan & Railroad magazine. "He enthusiastically created five more transportation pageants during the 1930s."
Among those were the Rochester Centennial of 1934, the Parade of the Years Pageant in 1936 in Cleveland; and ultimately the "Railroads on Parade" that was visited by 14-year-old Arthur Parker and his friends from the Children's Home in 1939.
The railroad display at the fair, which extended into 1940, presented steam, electric and diesel engines brought from Italy, England and Canada. Among contributors at home were the Pennsylvania Railroad, the B&O and General Motors, which showed off their brand new streamlined diesel-electric passenger locomotives.
The New York attraction drew 2.6 million visitors during its two-year run.
In the "Railroads On Parade" program, Mr. Hungerford was identified as author, producer and director. His brief biographical sketch mentioned that he was the author of several popular books, including "Men and Iron," "Pathway of Empire" and a biography of Daniel Willard. It also revealed that each year he traveled more than 75,000 rail miles "just for the fun of it."
Mr. Hungerford eventually calculated that over the years he had ridden more than 1.5 million miles on rails.
His travels brought him on occasion to Europe. He was in Italy in 1928, and was received by Benito Mussolini for a visit. While he was on that trip, his 72-year-old mother traveled to Europe and planned to join him and Bertha in Germany. Widowed 13 months earlier, she died on June 22 in Amsterdam, Holland.
Charles Hungerford had died in May 1927 in an apartment the couple maintained in the Woodruff.
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Edward Hungerford also wrote for The Saturday Evening Post and Trains Magazine. He was the author of best-selling books, including "Planning a Trip Abroad." Another of his popular titles was "With the Doughboy in France," a journal of World War I experiences.
His hometown newspaper serialized his "Story of the Rome, Watertown and Ogdensburg Railroad."
And he was no stranger in Watertown. A Times story in 1974 recalled, "Whenever he took a vacation, he ended up in Watertown and recounted to those who would listen to him the stories of the railroads with the proper fictional embellishments which only he could offer."
During their summer visits in Watertown, Mr. and Mrs. Hungerford rented the 304 Paddock St. home of Harold Remington, who owned Kamargo Supply company in the city.
In his later years, as he penned his recollections of the north country's past, he bemoaned the decline of the railroad.
Referring to Watertown, he wrote, "It no longer is the important railroad hub that it was fifty or even twenty-five years ago. The handsome large station that was builded (sic) two decades ago is now too large. The bulk of the Watertonians travel by motor-car, even when they go sizable distances ... . That is one thing the colossal improvement of the highroads of New York has done to the railroads — all but ruined them. The motor-car and the bus (this last only to a slight extent) have taken away the passenger traffic; the motor-truck the cream of the freight. And none of these pay their just tolls to the state."
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Bertha Hungerford died Jan. 13, 1940, at the couple's New York City home. Mr. Hungerford continued to ride the rails, and that's what he was doing in the spring of 1948 when, while in California, he was stricken ill with an infection. His conditioned worsened on his train ride back to New York, where he was admitted to a hospital.
He lost his battle to the illness of seven weeks on July 29, 1948. He was 72.
A daughter, Adrienne H. Devereaux, and granddaughter, Ann Devereaux, survived.