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Youngwood railroad museum faces uncertain future

| Tuesday, May 8, 2012, 5:58 a.m.

Al Hopfer doesn't want to see his life's passion reduced to eBay bids.

The 83-year-old CEO of the Youngwood Historical and Railroad Museum said financial and managerial problems have forced the museum's board of trustees to ask for help from Youngwood Borough Council.

"We don't have a ramrod to keep the museum going," said Hopfer, of Hempfield Towers, who is confined to a wheelchair. "There needs to be management. We wonder what the future will hold for the museum."

David Smith, a member of the museum's board of directors, Steve Cheran, president of the museum, and Daisy Aller, Hopfer's stepdaughter, approached council seeking assistance for the struggling facility earlier this month.

Hopfer said the railroad museum has sputtered without a permanent manager since 1999.

George Edward Neat Jr., 29 a Herminie resident who was hired as manager in 2003, was charged last December by Westmoreland County detectives with theft and receiving stolen property, accused of embezzling $5,770 from the museum between Jan. 20 and June 25, 2004.

"He appropriated funds for his own use and that put us in a deep hole financially," said Hopfer. "We maintain the utilities easy enough and there are still loyal people who send us their membership dues. But we have no one to open the museum on a regular basis."

On March 11, Neat was sentenced to two years in the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, or ARD, program by Westmoreland County Judge Rita Hathaway and ordered to pay restitution of $5,770. Court documents show that Neat can finish the program in one year if all the terms of the probationary sentence are completed.

Entry into the ARD program is not an admission of guilt. Upon successful completion of the program, Neat can apply to the court to have his record expunged.

But that's just a footnote in Youngwood's storied railroad history.

Railroads roared into Youngwood in 1871 when the Southwest branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad came into being. Hopfer's father was a switch tender at the railroad.

"I was raised in a railroad family," Hopfer said. "My uncles were railroaders. I enjoyed watching the trains and hated to see the railroad industry dissolve in Youngwood."

The borough's rich railroad history began in 1872 when construction started on the 24-mile mainline track from Greensburg to Connellsville. The Southwest Pennsylvania Railroad opened for business on April 1, 1873.

By 1901, the Pennsylvania Railroad authorized the construction of an engine house, turntable, and engine facilities at Youngwood.

The company located a 75-foot turntable and a 15-stall roundhouse between the Sewickley Branch and the mainline, about 1,500 feet from a passenger station that was completed in 1902 and became known as Youngwood Depot. The museum occupies the former depot.

"It was the busiest railroad depot in the state outside of Pittsburgh," said Hopfer. "All the museum's artifacts are originals. Since the early 1960s, Youngwood lost its railroad emblem. The automobile and the government were Youngwood Railroad's nemesis. And I'm the only one standing between holding on to the museum and those who want to sell it.

"These artifacts will just be sold on eBay," Hopfer said.

Smith said the lack of volunteers has made keeping the museum open an almost impossible task.

"We are willing to turn the museum over to Youngwood Borough with no strings attached," Smith said. "Council is interested in what it costs to operate each year. So we're gathering together financial statements so they can see what's involved."

Mayor Joan Derco said council would like to save the museum, but there's no extra money to be wrung from the 2005 budget.

"Council President Tom Young formed a committee to look into the feasibility of saving the museum," said Derco, who is part of the committee. Other committee members are Councilmen Lloyd Crago, Kris Long and Chris Kolbosky.

"We didn't know what was going on at the museum until the trustees came to our agenda meeting. We haven't had a chance to meet with the museum trustees to get any other information from them," Derco said.

Hopfer said he believes the museum should go to council, if members agree to take it.

"The museum is to help educate the public about the past," said Hopfer. "But unless you have the doors open you can't educate anyone. People have said sell it, but that's not the answer. It's Youngwood's legacy."

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