By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
SELKIRK — There are few businesses as impactful on the local area as the railroad industry.
In the 1800s, the railroad was the impetus for the creation of the village of Ravena, historians say, and today the Selkirk Yard now owned by CSX is a major employer and revenue generator in Selkirk, where the original Ravena railyard relocated in 1924.
The yard was built in Ravena in the 19th century by industry pioneer New York Central Railroad, which was eventually acquired by industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1867.
For the local area, the freight and two passenger lines originally based in Ravena were powerful forces in the village’s evolution.
“Ravena exists because of the railroad,” Ravena Coeymans Historical Society Trustee John Bonafide said. “It’s where New York Central located a roundhouse. There have always been a couple of railroads running through the community, New York Central being the most prominent. Its line dates from the late 1800s and that is what actually gave rise to Coeymans Junction, which is now Ravena.”
A roundhouse is a building where locomotives are stored and serviced.
Originally named Coeymans Junction, the village was renamed at the behest of the local post office.
“It was because of the railroad that Ravena happened. Originally, we were called Coeymans Junction — the problem was that there was a lot of confusion between Coeymans Junction and Coeymans Landing, and the post office made them change it from Coeymans Junction to something else, and that is how the name Ravena came about,” Ravena Coeymans Historical Society Vice President Roger Wilber said.
But the origins of the name “Ravena” are steeped in ambiguity — historians have long argued about where the name came from.
“It’s a real mystery — we haven’t been able to figure that out at all,” Wilber said. “It was changed in the 1890s.”
What isn’t a mystery is the impact of the original railyard on the village.
“There were people working in the brickyards, which were the Coeymans residents, and in the western end of the town was the farming community and a lot of the mills,” Bonafide said. “Ravena grew up as the railroad community, so the men who moved to Ravena — or Coeymans Junction — tended to work the railroads, and that is what gave rise to Main Street and all the housing. Everything you see here really revolved around the business of the railroad in Ravena.”
The railyard that is now on 1,250 acres in Selkirk, according to “Conrail’s Selkirk Yard: A Visitor’s Guide,” was originally in Ravena where a residential development now sits.
“Before Selkirk Yard, the yard was in Ravena by where Magnolia Circle is today,” Ravena Coeymans Historical Society President Joseph Boehlke said. “It was the major hub for the Northeast United States until it moved to Selkirk in 1924. But it was here from the early 1880s to 1924 when it outgrew this area.”
In addition to freight service transporting goods around the country, the Ravena yard also had two passenger stations, with trains ferrying passengers between Albany and New York City. One of the stations was off Railroad Avenue in the village, and the other was where the village garage is now located, Boehlke said.
The West Shore Railroad Station, built on Railroad Avenue in 1883, offered eight passenger trains daily heading north toward Albany, and nine going south towards New York City, according to the permanent railroad exhibit on display at the Ravena Coeymans Historical Society Museum.
“This came to an end when the rail business was moved to Selkirk in 1924,” according to the exhibit. “A new station was built about one-quarter mile south of the old station in Ravena. The old station was taken down a short time after that.”
The railroad drew many new residents to Ravena looking to make their living via the railroads.
“It was a major employer in the town,” Boehlke said. “The railroad is how Ravena grew.”
A large portion of the newcomers drawn to Ravena by the railroad were immigrants from Italy and elsewhere, Wilber said.
The railyard moved to Selkirk in 1924. The move came three years before the rail industry marked its centennial in 1927, according to CSX, which now owns the Selkirk Yard.
Originally sited on 700 acres when the Selkirk Yard was built by New York Central Railroad in 1924, the facility was rebuilt on an expanded 1,250 acres in 1968, and has seen upgrades through the years since that time.
The yard remains a vital hub for CSX in the Northeast and is one of three major terminals for the company in New York state, with the other two based in Syracuse and Buffalo, according to the CSX website. It is the largest yard of its kind in the region.
The company has been in operation nationally for 193 years and employs 19,282 workers across the country. The CSX transportation network transports goods across a 20,000 route-mile network of tracks, with 1,642 trains operating daily, according to the company website.
Many of those trains pass through the Selkirk Yard, which remains a major hub for the railroad. The company generated more than $10 billion in revenue in 2020, according to CSX’s most recent annual report.
The Selkirk Yard saw the sixth highest level of volume of all CSX yards and terminals across the country in 2020, handling 597,966 railcars and intermodal containers throughout the year, according to the 2020 annual report.
In 2018, the Selkirk Yard processed the third-highest amount of volume for the company that year, behind CSX’s Chicago terminal and a yard in Waycross, Georgia, according to the 2018 annual report.