A foreign man of storied history devoted his life to the American railroads. My great grandfather, Nicola Fragapane, was born on September 25, 1885 in Alcara Li Fusi, Sicily. He migrated to the United States at the age of 17 in 1902. Nicola fell in love and married Teresa Devita on April 27, 1911 at the age of 26. They had three daughters, Angela, Josephine and Joan. The family lived and grew up on the East side of Cleveland, Ohio where Nicola was employed at Nickel Plate Road before New York Central Systems (NYCS) bought them out.
Nicola’s younger years were greatly influenced by a period known as the Gilded Age when the production of iron and steel increased dramatically. Western resources like gold, silver, and lumber also contributed to the demand for improved transportation. Thus, railroad development boomed and trains began moving these commodities from the West to the East.
Mr. Fragapane was well known around Whisky Island and Collinwood Yards where, as a section foreman, he assured that the switches and tracks stayed clear. The majority of his crew was comprised of Sicilian immigrants like himself. Nicola was employed by NYCS for 29 years and 7 months, faithfully giving service to that which he loved most. Mrs. Fragapane was quoted as saying, “His work was his hobby for his whole life”.
A fond memory that my father, Richard DeGaetano, has of his grandfather revolves around Nicola and his beloved pipe. He would arrive home from the tracks in his work overalls, sit down in his chair with my father on his lap, and indulge in smoking his pipe. My Great Grandfather would strike his match to light his pipe, and my father excitedly got to blow it out as a young boy. He thought that was the neatest thing ever, and my grandfather would erupt with laughter. To this day, the aroma of cherry smoke still conjures up memories of my father’s grandfather.
Although the memories of my great grandfather are vague, his passions for trains and the railroad have passed down to his grandchildren. My father has spent countless hours building an HO-scale, railroad-themed train room. Many of the prized pieces on his track are of the New York Central System, all in memory of his grandfather.
Nicola passed away at the age of 69 in 1954, but his certificate of work commemorating his long service with NYCS hangs proudly in my father’s train room. Though part of that past is becoming more distant, his life’s work and few but precious stories continue to be passed down and etched into the minds of generations to follow. Through this strong devotion to family, Nicola Fragapane’s memory and his service to the railroad will never be forgotten.
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