All Aboard! ‘Observation Trains’ Offered Mobile Views of Crew Races

Stories You May Like

Vintage Scrapbooks Offer Fascinating Windows into Student Life

Once Upon a Time, Beebe Was a Wonderland for Frozen Fun

Alum’s Big Red Memorabilia Collection Captures a Bygone Era

Once upon a time, thousands cheered on the Big Red from packed rail cars chugging along the shore of Cayuga Lake

By Joe Wilensky

More than a century ago, intercollegiate rowing at Cornell was at the height of its popularity as a spectator sport. Beginning in the late 1800s, throngs of Big Red supporters would gather along the east shore of Cayuga Lake. Some cheered from boats on the water—while others watched from coveted seats on the “observation train.”

Imagine dozens of flatbed cars outfitted with open bleachers facing the lake, filled with cheering fans. They’d chug along the shoreline like a moving grandstand, keeping pace with the racing crews from start to finish, with race lengths ranging from two miles to four.

Spectators on a packed observation train take in the view along the east shore of Cayuga Lake
A packed train on Cayuga’s shore. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

As Alan Held ’17—a former Big Red lightweight rower who’s now the archivist for the Cornell Rowing Association—explains, engines were situated at either end, so “after pacing each event, the train would reverse direction and run north to the start of the next race.”

This configuration led professor O.D. von Engeln—author of At Cornell, a popular campus guidebook of the era—to describe the train as “a hydra-headed beast … puffing along down the shore.”

Observation trains could stretch up to 40 cars long. With up to 100 spectators per car, that meant 4,000 fans could ride—yelling, cheering, and waving flags along the way.

For other intercollegiate regattas, the trains plied the rails along Connecticut’s Thames River and the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie.

An observation train ticket from an 1898 Yale-Harvard-Cornell regatta is one of many in the collection of Joe Kirschner ’93
A coveted ticket. (Joe Kirschner / provided)

Rowing enthusiasts often lined up the night before tickets were available, says Eric Langstedt ’01, a former Big Red oarsman who authored The Rise of Cornell Rowing 1871–1920.

News coverage of a May 1901 regatta noted that “ticket sales began at 8 a.m., with 3,000 tickets being sold in less than an hour.”

An observation train is loaded in 1920 at the Fulton Street rail yard in downtown Ithaca in advance of crew races
Boarding the train in 1920. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

The trains nearly always sold out, with the tickets often kept as mementos.

“I don’t think people realize how important Cornell rowing was,” observes Joe Kirschner ’93, a prolific collector of Big Red sports memorabilia. “It put Cornell on the map—they were the king of college rowing for many years.”

Stories You May Like

Vintage Scrapbooks Offer Fascinating Windows into Student Life

Once Upon a Time, Beebe Was a Wonderland for Frozen Fun

These Super Bowl-sized contests were some of the nation’s biggest spectator events, Kirschner explains.

A student scrapbook from 1919 preserves a victorious moment for the Cornell crew—as well as the observation ticket stub from the event
A ticket preserved in a 1919 scrapbook. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Through his own research and the bounty of ephemera in his collection, Kirschner can paint a vivid picture.

Celebrations were held in the days and nights leading up to the regatta, with crowds of 30,000 lining the river for the races and hundreds of boats following along.

“Everyone would be dressed up, they’d have pennants and stuff, and they’d roar, cheer, and sing songs,” he says. “After a huge win, there would be a parade, and the athletes would literally be carried down the street.”

Ithaca’s first observation train, outfitted by the Lehigh Valley Railroad, ran in 1890, when spectators watched Cornell beat Bowdoin; the last ran in 1936.

(Story continues below)

A combination of factors prompted their demise, including railroads no longer wanting to tie up key stretches of track for hours, and wartime constraints.

“To my knowledge, only a few feeble attempts at observation trains took place after World War II, when the trains were taken apart for their metal,” Langstedt says. “It was likely a main cause of the decline in regatta attendance.”

The lake’s “fickle conditions” also played a factor, Held notes; Big Red races are no longer rowed on Cayuga’s open water. A more dependable course was created in the mid-1960s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged a new inlet near downtown Ithaca.

In 1930, an observation train hugs Cayuga Lake’s east shore as spectators and their cars line East Shore Drive
In 1930, a train chugs by cars lining East Shore Drive. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Held is now a manager with the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railway Corporation. Given his particular combination of career and Big Red crew experience, he sometimes feels nostalgic for an era that predated his own rowing days by more than a century.

“Today, rowers in the last quarter of their races on the Cayuga Inlet can be inspired by the cheers of their friends and families as they come past the boathouse,” he observes. “But one can’t help wondering what it would have been like to hear those cheers pace them for the duration of the race.”

Top: Big Red regattas of the 1920s (Rare and Manuscript Collections / Courtesy of Allan H. Mogensen 1923).

Published April 12, 2023


  1. Joseph Kirschner, Class of 1993

    Such a wonderfully vivid article describing this unique era in Cornell’s athletic history. How special would it be if such a scene could be reenacted today. It was an experience almost unique to Cornell.

    The observation trains provided the perfect platform for Cornell fans to watch their champion crews. The exploits of the Cornell Navy made headlines in every newspaper across the nation, and globally.

    Thanks for sharing this with all Cornellians.

  2. Brooke Schumm, Class of 1977

    As a train lover and former rower who walked all over Ithaca’s old roadbeds, I really enjoyed the article and thank you for preserving the memories.

  3. Logan M Cheek, Class of 1960

    Crew as a spectator sport:

    In speculating on a revival, is the railbed still in place? The alternative of course would be a drone video, now used at Henley.

  4. David H Berwald, Class of 1970

    Read The Boys In The Boat to learn more about the halcyon days of crew in America. Cornell was a power.

  5. Steve Drayzen, Class of 1977

    In reply to Logan Cheek’s question, yes the tracks are in place and used by a short line railroad to service the salt mine….it’s a freight only railroad and it’s most unlikely the scenes shown in the article will ever be repeated.

Leave a Comment

Once your comment is approved, your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Other stories You may like