Medina Railroad Museum looks forward to reopening to public in Phase 4

Photos by Tom Rivers: A crowd of people check out Thomas the Tank Engine in this photo from May 2017. Thomas brought about 10,000 to 12,000 people to Medina for the train’s annual visit. This photo shows the crowd of people in front of the train by the Medina Railroad Museum on West Avenue. Thomas visited Medina for 15 consecutive years until 2020. There is a chance the attraction could be back in August.

By Ginny Kropf, correspondent Posted 15 June 2020 at 12:24 pm

Museum hopes to host train rides later this year, including Day Out With Thomas

MEDINA – The recent Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to the entire nation, not only affecting businesses, but museums and tourist attractions.

Like other museums, the Medina Railroad Museum, whose operation relies solely on public events, has had to completely shut down during this time. But in spite of that, its leaders are positively moving ahead with plans for the future.

Events on which the museum heavily depends are Day Out With Thomas, Santa and Reindeer Trains and Polar Express, along with Fall Foliage Excursions and a Blues Festival. Day Out With Thomas, which was canceled in May, would have been the 16th year for Thomas in Medina. This year is the 75th Anniversary Celebration Year and Thomas’ birthday, according to museum director Janien Klotzbach.

“A lot of special additions were planned for that event,” Klotzbach said. “We have been working closely with Mattel through this process with weekly conference calls since mid-March. We are staying on top of all government and CDC guidelines and safety regulations, with hopes of still being able to host the event. We have tentatively rescheduled for late August, however, with the timing of reopening in Phase 4 and extreme limits on capacity and attendance allowances for social distancing, it is likely we will not be able to host the event this year.”

Plans for Polar Express and Santa and Reindeer trains are still up in the air, but the museum is hopeful they can take place as usual.

When the pandemic hit, the board and Klotzbach were discussing one of the biggest endeavors since the museum was founded – the purchase of the five coaches owned by the Western New York Railroad Historic Society, which the museum rents for its excursions.

Provided photo: Rick Henn is president of the board of directors for the Medina Railroad Museum.

This pandemic couldn’t have occurred at a worse time, said board president Rick Henn.

Last fall, Henn approached the Western New York Railroad Historic Society with a proposal to purchase the five coaches. The two organizations began discussing the sale and had come to an agreement, when the pandemic put the brakes on everything.

The WNYRHS has agreed to sell the five cars for $450,000 and the Railroad Museum has a donor who will contribute the $50,000 down payment. The museum was originally going to make bi-annual payments at a low interest rate, but with the pandemic creating the possibility of no income for at least a year, the board has reservations about committing to a purchase. The railroad museum realizes, however, having those coaches available is absolutely crucial to their operations and plans for future expansion.

Henn and board member Don Owen met recently with the WNYRHS and discussed a rent-to-own agreement in which Medina would pay the down payment and take possession of the cars. Then, if cars are used for an excursion, which typically cost the museum $1,500 a day, that amount is removed from the principle. If the museum runs no excursions, they only have to pay the interest.

“The deal will definitely benefit both groups,” Henn said. “With Medina in control of the cars we can, as funds become available, start making necessary upgrades to bring them more into line with our passengers’ expectations. WNYRHS will derive income and be relieved of the burden of maintaining the cars. It is truly a win-win situation.”

The WNYRHS facility is located at 100 Lee St. in Buffalo and is called the Heritage Discovery Center. It has displays of railroad memorabilia, but is probably best known for its extensive collection of local railroad personnel files that are available to be researched. There is also a large library operated by the Buffalo Irish Geneological Society which features railroad-related books and genealogical books, as well as other topics. They share the building with the Steel Plant Museum and other not-for-profit organizations.

“The opportunity to purchase these five historic New York Central Bud passenger cars that we lease from WNYRHS is very exciting news, as these cars have been a part of our museum for many, many years,” Klotzbach said. “It is important to both our organization, as well as the WNYRHS, that these very special cars remain in our area and continue to be enjoyed here for many years to come. It is my hope we can acquire these gems, not only to keep them as well preserved as they already are, but also to work toward cosmetic upgrades. Adding air conditioning to the cars would allow us to expand our excursion season into the warmer summer months, which is the peak of the tourist season. This would be an amazing opportunity, not only for us, but for our local community.”

The Medina Railroad Museum will be looking for other donations and grants to help with the purchase.

In addition to purchasing the coaches, the Medina Railroad Museum is working with noted historic structure restoration architect Clinton Brown to determine and maintain the structural integrity of the historic museum.

In the meantime, Klotzbach continues to come up with a plan for reopening, which is difficult because information keeps changing and is sometimes contradictory. At the same time she is trying to balance the costs associated with reopening without knowing how much income the museum can expect. With help from other museum employees, she has created a survey which was sent to everyone on the museum’s e-mail list in early June. Next, she will send it to all their contacts on Facebook.

Hopefully, according to Henn, that will give them some direction in their decision making.

Thanks to a grant from the Small Business Association, the museum has been able to move forward on cataloging and processing the massive collections in the museum’s possession. Just prior to the Covid-19 stay-at-home order the collections manager Kat Schepis and several employees began reorganizing and upgrading the cataloging of the museum’s collections, working toward plans to display artifacts on a rotating basis, as well as having a special featured “artifact of the month,” said Klotzbach.

“We had to halt that process due to the pandemic and have had to wait until restrictions were lifted to allow a very limited staff back into the museum,” Klotzbach said. “We will continue the process, respecting all safety guidelines.”

Henn said one of the most important  things the museum has to do is determine what they want the future of Medina Railroad Museum to look like. It had always been founder Marty Phelps’ dream to create a museum campus with artifacts paying tribute to railroads, firefighters and veterans. The museum today is full of displays honoring all three.

“For me it gets tricky because I know we have to upgrade our displays, but I do not want to completely lose the ‘Marty’ influence,” Henn said.

Klotzbach is Phelps’ daughter, so moving the museum forward and carrying on her father’s legacy is of extreme importance to her.

“My father was always thriving to make the museum bigger and better to reach a ‘world class’ level,” Klotzbach said. “His main objective was to create a place to preserve and commemorate the history of railroading, the fire service and our military – a place for all to enjoy with the best experience possible. This museum is already a pretty remarkable place and with the remarkable team we have and our committed trustees, we believe the Medina Railroad Museum can reach this level, as we all share in his dream and strive to carry our his mission. I believe my father would be very happy to see where is museum is today, and I am very much looking forward to out future growth, even with the challenges we face with this pandemic.”

Viennah, 1, is held by Josh Nickerson of Gerry, near Jamestown, while the bubble machine generates lots of bubbles at the Thomas event in May 2016 at the Medina Railroad Museum. In addition to riding the train, there are numerous activities at the museum and on its grounds for children.

Improvements to the layout are ongoing, with many already made to make it more alive and easier to view. Lights have been installed in buildings on the layout, street lights are operating in little villages and there is a “fire” in the blast furnace in the steel plant.

New track installation, which required some major tear-down and rebuilding of scenery will allow for more variety in routing trains, Henn said. Much of that work is overseen by museum board member Dan Koneski and staff member Jerry Kwiatkowski. A very complex project they are working on is installation of a new signaling system on the layout that will accurately mimic the operation of real railroad signals.

Klotzbach explained a new rail line was added, allowing the model trains to move closely to the edge of the layout for up-close viewing for small children and customers in wheelchairs, who would otherwise struggle to see them in action.

“Adding a new line requires added scenery around that area, and that process takes a great deal of time,” Klotzbach said. “It requires a patience and knowledge to achieve and we are grateful to have such skilled people willing to do this for our museum and for our visitors to enjoy.”

When Phase 4 re-openings are allowed, Medina Railroad Museum will announce its re-opening date on social media pages, as well as on their new website at