Nancy Roberts was headed to Pearson, Georgia, to live with her daughter and “grandbabies,” when a train accident in Indiana caused an abrupt reroute of her journey.
Roberts’ unplanned layover in Charlottesville’s Amtrak train station did, however, offer a silver lining — or at least a green lining. On Monday morning, she got to watch three area garden clubs decorate the station for the winter holidays.
“It’s very lovely,” said Roberts, as at least half a dozen women worked together to install an artificial tree and place real evergreens into practically every open spot of what’s officially called Charlottesville Union Station.
“This is the happiest group of ladies I’ve ever seen,” continued Roberts, as the group put up wreaths and tied pieces of pine, fir and magnolia with jute-covered wire at the brick building on West Main Street.
“We cut our own greenery and hang it up,” said Anne DeMaso, the president of the Charlottesville Garden Club. “We’re garden clubs; that’s what we do.”
One of Monday’s workers was Katya Spicuzza, who started this tradition about 20 years ago after she struck up a conversation with a previous station master who, Spicuzza said, regaled her with stories of how her Minnesota hometown would lavish decorations upon its train station.
“She said everything was decorated by the town — everything,” said Spicuzza.
Charlottesville, however, was a different story.
“It was a very sad train station,” said Spicuzza. “And I said, ‘I can do this.’”
So Spicuzza began decorating.
“I did it for four years, and then it was too much, so I enlisted the three garden clubs.”
The present and past presidents of the Charlottesville, the Rivanna and the Albemarle Garden Clubs were on hand Monday to continue the tradition.
The work won the favor of Kailen Mayfield, a University of Virginia student who hails from New York City. He was eyeing the greenery morning after getting off a packed early-morning Northeast Regional that brought him back to Charlottesville after Thanksgiving break.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Mayfield. “It’s great to get everyone into the holiday joy and spirit.”
The festive atmosphere comes at a celebratory time for passengers, who have returned to the rails after some lower traveler numbers in 2020 and 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
September ridership on the state-supported Amtrak services has climbed 38 percent over the same month in 2019, according to new figures from the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority.
“We’ve not only recovered from the pandemic, but ridership has picked up to the point that we’re setting records again,” said Meredith Richards, the president of the Virginia Rail Policy Institute.
Richards, who lives in Charlottesville, helped press state leaders to launch two new trains that began on July 11: one along the Interstate 95 corridor to Norfolk and one coursing through the Piedmont.
The new round-trip through Charlottesville offers a southbound trip to Roanoke leaving Union Station at 10:32 a.m. and a northbound trip departing at 7:01 p.m. to such cities as Washington, New York, and Boston.
This new service augments a pair of long-distance services, the Cardinal and the Crescent, and a state-supported Northeast Regional train that launched in 2009. The data show that the number of passengers travelling on the state-supported Piedmont routes spiked 65 percent compared to pre-pandemic figures.
For Richards, who yearns for services to eventually reach Richmond and Tidewater as well as the greater Blacksburg area, the greenery is helpful.
“It’s a wonderful way to welcome people to Charlottesville this season, and it gives a warm feeling to our historic station,” said Richards. “And it’s a great service to the train-riding community, which has really grown over the past year.”