One of the hamlet’s best-kept secrets is the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum. For children, it may be a first glimpse of the railroad’s history. The museum welcomes kindergarten classes each year, and next year, third-grade students will visit, too. They will be returning, having gotten their first look at the museum when they were kindergartners.
“Our core mission is education,” said Bill Burke, of Oyster Bay, the volunteer in charge of the education programs, adding that it’s important for children to experience the museum. “Every day, children should learn something new, and learning should be fun,” Burke said. “They’re the future of our town.”
Smiling broadly at the entrance of the museum’s visitor center at 102 Audrey Ave., Burke greeted Hayley Byron’s class of kindergartners from Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School on Monday.
After taking a seat, the children read the directions on handouts that included an array of colorful trains and artifacts. They would be participating in a scavenger hunt, and some of the items were in the visitor center.
“Get your listening ears on,” Burke said, prompting a few girls to push their hair behind their ears. “Today you will become railroad detectives.”
Most of the children were eager to participate when Burke asked them questions about trains or Theodore Roosevelt, and interested in the railroad artifacts he pointed out. The chidren watched a short film, which explained how a steam locomotive operates, and laughed when Burke suggested that they think of the locomotive as a “big, noisy teakettle.”
Then they roamed the museum, some playing with the Brio train set, others peering through plexiglass as an electric model steam locomotive raced around a track.
Axel Petrara, 5, said he loved trains. “I like how they can carry things like a truck,” he said. “I take the train to the city to visit my dad.”
Byron said that the visit was an excellent learning experience. “Before coming here, we compared trains of the past to now so the children could see the differences,” she said. “I try to integrate interdisciplinary learning, and make connections with the world around the children.”
Before they arrived, Byron had asked them what they wanted to learn at the museum. Letting them decide, she said, is another type of learning experience. “It encourages critical thinking and makes them accountable for what they’re learning,” she explained. “We’ll follow up later.”
After exploring the visitor center, which is serving as a temporary museum, the children walked to the nearby station, accompanied by John Lavalle, of Oyster Bay, who also volunteers at the museum. The station, which is being rehabilitated, was once a commuter rail station that Theodore Roosevelt frequented when he traveled between his home in Sagamore Hill and Washington, D.C., as did world leaders who came to visit the president.
The museum will eventually be moved to the station, which is on the south side of Theodore Roosevelt Park and dates back to 1889. The hope is that it will be completed in a couple of years, Burke said. He and the other volunteers have been working to obtain grant money to complete the rehabilitation of the building, which is listed on the Registry of Historic Places.
Inside the station, Lavalle had the children gather around a bust of Roosevelt. “We only have one photo of what this building looked like on the inside,” he said, pointing out the original lead glass windows and door frames. “This building is a teaching tool that will help you learn about the past.”
Then it was time to walk to the railyard, behind a metal fence at the corner of Bay and Bayview avenues. It contains a collection of the museum’s vintage train cars. The children gleefully climbed aboard cabooses — one wooden and the other steel — a switch engine and a diesel cab.
Asked what part of the museum she enjoyed most, Avery Girard, 6, was quick to answer. “I liked the model train that was moving by itself,” she said. “I don’t have one at home, but I’m going to ask for one for Christmas and for my birthday.”