Put the Old U&D Back on Track

Here is a 1990 New York Times article that shows the potential on the U&D as a tourist draw, but frustratingly also shows the county’s unwillingness to develop the corridor.

Also See the Dec 1 2017 comments at the end of this article:


By Donald L. Pevsner; Donald L. Pevsner, a native New Yorker, is a lawyer and consumer advocate.
Published: August 18, 1990

— Imagine you are seated in a rustic railroad passenger car, near a majestic river. The whistle blows, and you’re under way – behind the nostalgic chuffing of steam power. Shortly, the level track gives way to a stiff climb, and the little engine must really work to get you up the grade. You emerge alongside the shore of a pristine reservoir, surrounded by wooded mountains, and skirt its banks for several miles. No roads intrude to mar the timeless beauty of the setting. Then you roll alongside a rushing mountain stream, world-famous for its trout fishing. Deer browse nearby, leaping at your passage.


Soon, a wall of mountains appears in your path. To surmount this obstacle, you traverse a sweeping horseshoe curve – so steep that even short freight trains were once forced to tackle it in two sections, rejoining at the top after ”doubling the hill.” At the summit, the tracks run right by the front entrance of one of the country’s largest ski resorts, and continue down the mountain into a beautiful, rural river valley. The stresses of big city life have been left far behind.

The setting for this journey is not Colorado or California, but begins less than 90 miles north of midtown Manhattan, in Kingston, N.Y. – eastern terminus of the most scenic branch-line railroad east of the Rockies, the Ulster and Delaware . Though you cannot ride the U.& D. today, its passenger trains faithfully served the Catskill Mountains from 1872 to 1954, heading west from the Hudson River at Kingston past Ashokan Reservoir, Esopus Creek, Phoenicia, Pine Hill, Highmount (now the site of state-owned Belleayre Mountain Ski Area), Arkville and Roxbury to Stamford, N.Y., with service extended to Oneonta, N.Y. in 1900. This magnificent little line single-handedly opened up the Catskills in Ulster and Delaware Counties as a major resort area. At its peak, in 1913, it carried 676,000 passengers.

Then began the long, painful slide to oblivion. As regional highways improved and passenger-car ownership exploded, ridership declined. The Great Depression and World War II finished the job, while trucks took away the once-lucrative freight business. On March 31, 1954, the last, sad passenger train left Oneonta for Kingston. In 1965, the line’s owner, the New York Central Railroad, abandoned it west of Bloomville. Finally, the last freight train rolled into history on September 28, 1976, as a New York State trooper stood memorably to attention at a Catskills grade crossing, his hat solemnly doffed and crossed over his heart.

Two years later, Ulster County, spent $1.5 million in taxpayers’ money to acquire the Ulster portion of the line (38.6 miles from Kingston to Highmount, N.Y), with the announced goal of restoring steam-powered excursion trains to the Catskills. And the Delaware County trackage was acquired by the abutting towns, with funds for the purchase provided by the public-spirited A. Lindsay and Olive B. O’Connor Foundation of Delhi, N.Y. The Foundation proceeded, in 1981, to spend an additional $1.7 million to create the ”Delaware & Ulster Rail Ride,” currently running diesel-powered excursion trains on an isolated five-mile line segment.

Yet Ulster County has no plans, 12 years after acquiring the line, to pay the approximately $8 million it would cost to restore it. As a direct result, a suitable steam locomotive and coaches owned by the current line lessee, the Catskill Mountain Railroad Corporation, remain stored in Kingston. The most scenic portion of the U.& D. remains impassable to excursion trains. Further, Ulster County refuses to even entertain the prospect of line renovation for a connection to Delaware County until at least the year 2011.

This short-sighted position robs the two counties of the financial bonanza that would result from a working line with tourist traffic originating at both ends.

When one considers the enormous economic benefits of steam tourist railroads in sites as diverse as Durango, Co.; Chama, N.M.; Williams, Ariz.; and Scranton, Pa., together with the superb location of Kingston, N.Y. – within an easy day’s drive of more than 45 million people – it is difficult to understand or excuse the Ulster County Legislature’s studied inaction.

Consider, for example, 200,000 annual railroad riders spending just $100 each in the two-county region. Given the acknowledged 8-to-1 multiplication of tourist dollars in any local economy, the new visitors would circulate $160 million through the region every year. Just one year’s sales tax revenues would amply pay the one-time cost of the needed renovations.

Clearly, in the absence of a desirable private foundation or corporate support, it is up to Ulster voters to induce their elected officials to promptly restore this irreplaceable historic resource.




—————- Editorial comments by Bill Hutchingson Dec. 1, 2017 ——————————

Past management of CMRR may have had its issues, but it’s obvious that the county had no interest in moving ahead after they spent $1.5 million to acquire the line. Instead, it became a sort of absentee landlord, until it suddenly woke up and demanded that the railroad get out in 2014, two years before its lease expired and without any prior discussion with CMRR. That it allowed the corridor to lay idle after buying it in 1978 is really an act of neglect and malfeasance. Why go to the trouble of buying it and spending taxpayer money to do it if it’s going to essentially sit idle for 30+ years? Pretty darned shortsighted.

It would have been interesting if the county had approached the railroad with the same missionary zeal as it has with the trail by securing grants and working cooperatively to develop what it had instead of arbitrarily destroying the greater portion of the last railroad in the Catskills. The trail movement was in its infancy then, but later on, plans certainly could have been made to parallel the railroad with a trail.

The county could have set up a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) or other plan to leverage new tax revenues attributable to economic activity created by the railroad and used that revenue to leverage bonds, loans or other financing to rehabilitate the tracks and right of way. It also could have pursued public and private grants. Instead, it sat on its hands.

It’s pretty sad to think of what could have been with the right attitude on the part of the county. Now, I’m sure trail supporters will post all manner of “yeah, but” arguments, but I don’t care. As I said, the railroad was not perfect, but the county was not a partner either, even back in 1990. It dropped the ball and THAT is where the problem started.