New York Central Shop Switcher Saved by School Custodian Finds Permanent Home in Rochester

Steam locomotives were once the backbone of American railroads, until they were replaced by more efficient diesels in the 1950s. Steam locomotives quickly disappeared from the American landscape, with thousands meeting their demise in scrap yards across the country. Only a few escaped the cutting torch, thanks to the dedication of those wishing to preserve the “golden age” of railroading for future generations to enjoy. One of those examples is Despatch Shops No. 5, a small switching locomotive that spent its entire career working at the Despatch Shops in East Rochester until the mid-1950s.

Built in 1924 by the Vulcan Works in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., it was purchased by Merchants Despatch Transportation Corp. (MDT) for exclusive use at its freight car manufacturing and repair shop in East Rochester known as “Despatch Shops.” Classified as an “0-4-0” (no leading wheels, four powered driving wheels, and no trailing wheels), this style of switcher carried its water supply on a saddle tank slung over the boiler, and burned coal carried in a compartment behind the cab where the controls are located. Small “tank engines” like these were perfect for working in industrial environments. The vast East Rochester car shops turned out dozens of freight cars a day, and locomotives like these were used to move new cars to the yards for outbound delivery, bring in old cars to be repaired, and generally help move materials around the plant.

Merchants Despatch was a subsidiary of the mighty New York Central Railroad, one of the largest railroads in America connecting New York and Boston with Chicago and the Midwest. Steam operations came to an end in 1954, and No. 5 was set aside for retirement. The engine received a fresh paint job and was briefly displayed outside the Despatch Shops main offices before it was sold to scrap metal dealer Rochester Iron & Metal. For many years it was displayed outside the scrap yard’s office on St. Paul Blvd. (now the location of High Falls Terrace Park).

It was around this time John Virgilio took an interest in the engine. Following the tradition of his father, John enjoyed a brief career on the New York Central as a fireman and brakeman from 1949 until 1954 when diesels replaced steam. His family had been collecting railroad artifacts at their farm in Henrietta for some time, with the hopes of someday opening a museum where children could learn about the “golden age” of railroading that was rapidly disappearing. Virgilio made inquiries with the scrap dealer, but the engine was priced just beyond his reach at $3,500.

In 1964, RI&M was closing down its operation on St. Paul Blvd., and considered lowering their asking price for the engine to just $1,250. Virgilio was working as a custodian for the Rush-Henrietta school district at the time, and launched an intense fundraising effort to cover the cost of purchasing the engine. Reaching an agreement with RI&M, No. 5 was moved to Henrietta by truck on June 17, 1965.

John Virgilio formed the Mortimer Railroad Historical Society, named after the junction of the New York Central, Erie, and Lehigh Valley railroads located behind his home in Henrietta. Virgilio’s small private museum opened on June 11, 1966, with many school groups and tour buses paying a visit over the years. A shed was built around the steam engine in 1972 to protect it from the weather and possible vandalism. After complaints from his neighbors and concerns about the security of the collection, public viewing came to an end, and the little steam engine was tucked away and nearly forgotten.

The Rochester & Genesee Valley Railroad Museum in Rush began cultivating a relationship with the Virgilio family in 2017. When John Virgilio passed away in 2021 at age 91, his son Barry reached out to us about finding a possible home for his father’s legacy. After touring the museum, Barry and his mother Phyllis agreed that RGVRRM would be the perfect new home for No. 5 in May 2022.

The locomotive was safely delivered to Industry on July 7, 2023, where it is on temporary display in the museum’s display yard opposite the restored 1909 Erie Railroad train station. The museum’s long-term plans include cosmetic restoration and putting the engine on permanent display so visitors can walk through the cab, sit in the engineer’s seat, and feel what it was like to be at the throttle of a steam locomotive.

Located off Route 251 in the Town of Rush, the Rochester & Genesee Valley Railroad Museum has a full schedule of exciting events where you can ride vintage trains and tour the museum’s extensive indoor and outdoor exhibits. For more details, please visit


-via Press Release

This article was posted on: July 21, 2023