Back On Track
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, thousands of tourists journeyed up to the Catskills via railroad for fresh air and luxurious accommodations. Now, the Catskill Mountain Railroad’s enthusiastic volunteers are working to restore the line so they can i
Back On Track
The Catskill Mountain Railroad, which already chugs through six scenic miles in Ulster County, has plans for a major expansion. All aboard!
By Otto M. Vondrak
Photo by Tom Healy/Catskill Mountain Railroad
Tourists have been flocking to the Catskills for generations. Lured by the fresh air and the grand hotels, many of these travelers arrived by train in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The region’s first tracks — extending from Kingston and eventually on to Oneonta — were laid in 1866 by the Ulster & Delaware Railroad. For years, the line did a brisk business ferrying city-weary New Yorkers to the region, but improved highways and the decline of the hotels led to the cancellation of passenger service in 1954. After freight service ended in 1976, the tracks lay idle.
But several groups, including the Catskill Mountain Railroad, have been working feverishly for years to restore the line in hopes that tourists will once again visit the area by rail. Currently, visitors can enjoy a 12-mile round-trip alongside the scenic Esopus Creek. But now, with help from a dedicated group of volunteers, the railroad is on track for a major expansion across Ulster County.
In 1979, the county purchased the section of track running from Highmount (at the Belleayre Mountain ski center) to downtown Kingston with the intended purpose of reviving tourist train operations. But it was local train enthusiasts who really helped jump-start the railroad’s revival by forming the Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR) in 1982. The following year, the CMRR leased this 39-mile route from the county. CMRR President Earl Pardini, a Big Indian native who was part of the last crew to take a train from Kingston west to Stamford (then the end of the line), has been involved since the beginning; he and Harry Jameson, the president of Town Tinker Tube Rental in Phoenicia, both recognized the railroad’s potential to attract more tourists. Almost immediately, the line began transporting happy campers and tubers the 2.8 miles from Mount Pleasant to Phoenicia and back again.
Around the same time, additional locomotives and coaches were brought in to Kingston, in hopes of providing expanded service. The economic setbacks of the late 1980s, however, put these plans on hold. With a shortage of funds and volunteer help, the CMRR concentrated on maintaining the existing operating section of the line; in the meantime, the 22 miles of track from Mount Pleasant to Kingston became overgrown. In 2004, a grant allowed the restoration of the public crossing over Route 28, extending the ride three miles south to Cold Brook. Momentum again seemed to be building in the railroad’s favor, but then a 2005 flood slowed progress.
Despite years of hard work, only six miles of the route had been opened. Some people began to take a hard look at converting the railroad corridor into a recreational trail. A January 2006 article in Kingston’s Daily Freeman said it all: “Trail Plan Could Mark End of Line for Railroad.” It seemed like the dream of reopening the railroad might be slipping away.
Enter Ernie Hunt. A pension fund manager from New York City (with a weekend house in Tannersville) and longtime train enthusiast, Hunt was already active in the Ulster & Delaware Railroad Historical Society. The organization works in conjunction with the
Delaware & Ulster Railroad (DURR), which currently runs a seasonal excursion from the county line in Highmount west to Arkville and Roxbury in Delaware County. Alarmed by the possibility that the railroad renovation might fall through, Hunt joined the CMRR brush-cutting crew in February 2006 to help clear overgrowth from the tracks. But perhaps most importantly, he brought some other rail enthusiasts with him and started E-mailing and posting news about their volunteer activities on-line. The result? “We started getting more people every week as word got out about what we were doing. In that first year, our volunteers doubled from about 40 to 80,” says Hunt.
Around the same time, Harry Jameson volunteered to become the railroad’s chairman and helped navigate the difficult public relations campaign involved in bringing a rail line back to life. Many local residents soon came out in favor of keeping the railroad. Eventally, a compromise was reached: a new rail trail will run alongside the tracks in a mutual relationship with the railroad.
Currently, CMRR has approximately 115 volunteers who maintain the 39-mile corridor year-round, clearing trees, trimming brush, repairing tracks, and restoring trains.
“Everybody comes from different walks of life. I’m in the financial world, there are other guys who work on cars, we have a couple of schoolteachers, a chef. One guy even comes from Virginia, and someone else comes from New Hampshire every four or five weeks,” says Hunt, now the railroad’s volunteer coordinator. “It’s a great bunch. Doing this, you really can see that you’ve gotten together and done something productive. I think that is one of the most satisfying parts of it.”
In fact, the entire CMRR operation is run by volunteers — from the folks selling tickets to those renovating old equipment. And while the general laborers can get to work pretty quickly (after signing a liability waiver), the folks who run the trains go through extensive training. “It’s a long process, it takes a couple of years,” says Pardini, an engineer who does much of the training himself. “It’s a selective type of thing. Not everyone can do it.”
As a new generation of tourists discovers the Catskills, promoting a “green” mode of transportation like the CMRR will help reduce the number of automobiles entering the park each year, and will also boost regional tourism. Track work is progressing nicely, according to Hunt, despite the fact that approximately one in every three railroad ties needs to be replaced. The next big step for the railroad is helping the county to secure another grant so that repairs can be made to the Boiceville Bridge. If that happens, the line can be extended and the public can once again see the spectacular views of the Ashokan Reservoir — something that hasn’t been possible since the 1950s. “I think that once we are able to get a train down to that area, there will be a much greater draw,” says Hunt. “Ultimately, we want to run a dinner train from Kingston up to the reservoir.”
Much sooner — hopefully this year — the railroad hopes to launch children’s special events and holiday passenger rides from the Kingston Plaza up to Washington Avenue, about a one-mile ride. “When Ulster County purchased the old U&D line, it bought a diamond in the rough,” says Jameson. “The CMRR is working hard to polish it into one of New York State’s premier tourist attractions.”