The full house at the recent Town of Lloyd Historical Preservation Society program was testament to the love of railroads shared by many people. Local historian John Duda promised to focus on small, unique railroads in New York State – including rail lines in Ulster County.
If Duda’s first slide surprised audience members, they didn’t have long to wait. That slide featured the New York Central’s Empire State Express, described by Duda as “the most famous train in the world.” But Duda’s grin and quick disclaimer make his intentions clear. This was NOT, he emphasized the kind of railroad he would be talking about!
Most of the smaller, specialized railroads he described dated back to the early 20th century, an in-between time in the history of transportation. Horse-drawn wagons no longer satisfied the needs of travelers or carriers of goods. But at the same time, cars and trucks hadn’t taken over that role for the average family or local business. What was ready to fill that crucial role? Trains – and local lines started popping up all over, even one that was only five miles long.
Speaking in Highland at the Vineyard Commons Theater/Meeting Room, Duda first described what was perhaps the most unique railroad of all. Known as the Harriman Inclined Railroad, and operating from 1904 into the 1920’s, it was totally private. Tycoon Edward Harriman bought many acres of land in the Monroe area, and built a home there high up on a mountain. First, he needed the railroad to transport workers and goods to the hilltop. When the house was ready, he, his family and guests all rode the train to the house on the mountain top. Although Harriman died soon after the house was built, his family continued to travel to the house by train for years to come.
Duda, in describing Harriman, noted that naturalist John Muir, “not exactly a friend of too many tycoons,” called Harriman “a man to admire.”
Sticking to the topic of inclined railroads, Duda next described the Mount Beacon Inclined Railway. Opening in 1902, it carried over 60,000 passengers in its first year of operation. Even then there were many day-trippers coming up from New York City to ride its steep incline – an average of 65 percent grade, with some sections as much as 74 percent, “a phenomenally steep incline, requiring cables to support it.” The Mount Beacon line continued to operate until 1978, inspiring Duda’s question to the audience: “How many of you rode it?” he asked, and hands shot up in response throughout the room. Duda noted that efforts are currently underway to restore the line.
The Mount Beacon line was not the only steep inclined railway. Ten years before the Beacon line was built, the Otis inclined railroad was constructed to transport guests up to the Catskill Mountain House. It competed for tourists with the Stone Cove and Catskill Mountain Railroad, a narrow gauge that also took passengers into the Catskills, operating from 1882 to 1922. In those years another hotel in the area began luring customers. The Hotel Kaaterskill, was built by a dissatisfied Catskill Mountain House guest, who requested a special diet for his unwell daughter and was refused. He said, “I’ll fix you. I’ll build my own hotel,” and literally within a year he had the Hotel Kaaterskill built.
Duda continued his description of railroads in the Catskills with the story of the Ulster and Delaware Railroad In the early 1880’s, when its owners decided they’d like to get in on the action and built their own line up to the Hotel Kaaterskill.
It wasn’t just tourism that brought the railroads to upstate New York. Duda made clear that industry played a big role, especially – in the early years – logging. When the Fenwick Lumber Company, which originated in West Virginia, built an inclined railroad in the Catskills in the early 1900’s, the easy lumber had already gone. Harvesting the remaining timber at a much higher elevation was difficult, especially bringing the cut lumber down. For that, they needed an inclined railroad, not for passengers, just to get the logs down. An earlier company had tried some kind of log chute, Duda said, but it just didn’t work.
They actually went up both sides of Hunter Mountain, Duda explained, up one side and down the other. “You’d come up from Route 214 from Lanesville, NY, what was then the hamlet of Edgewood, and down the other side to what is now Route 42.” They had to anchor the cables, Duda pointed out, because the incline was so steep.
Duda went on to describe a railroad famous for two things: It was only five miles long, yet it maintained its independence for its entire life. Many small railroads had difficulties with large companies muscling them out, but this one – the Middleborough and Schoharie Railroad - survived, sharing some facilities with the Schoharie Valley Railroad, another tiny railroad, both operating independently but cooperatively.
Duda kept his audience rapt with what he called “weird railroad history.” “When you get into the history of railroads in New York State, you find some pretty outrageous events,” he said. One of these happened in 1869 along what was still the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad, which had just managed construction from Albany to Binghamton. In Binghamton they met up with the Erie Railroad. From Binghamton the Albany and Susquehanna wanted to extend into Pennsylvania to make money off the coal there.
But the Erie didn’t take to kindly to this because they were making money from the Pennsylvania coal. What transpired was that both companies hired train loads of armed thugs to travel up and down the line from Albany to Binghamton taking over stations that had been held by their rivals. Jay Gould, characterized by Duda as “one of the big robber barons,” was on the Erie side but, “he got sort of thwarted,” Duda said. It ended up in the courts, but first the New York governor described the situation as being in a state of insurrection, and he sent in the troops. Finally, the Albany and Susquehanna folks prevailed and won the judgment, but, said Duda, “They were so exhausted by the whole ordeal that they very, very quickly sold out to Delaware and Hudson.”
Delaware and Hudson, Duda reminded his audience, were the canal people, but by the 1890’s they were realizing that canals were losing out to the railroads, so they wanted to get in on the railway action. It was a friendly takeover, Duda explained. “The Albany and Susquehanna wanted to be taken over by the D&H. They did not want to be taken over by Jay Gould and his Erie.”
In the late 19th and early 20th century small railroads continued to be built throughout the state to move produce from the towns and goods and industrial materials into them. Duda told how one line, near Pleasant Valley, was rescued from an expensive renovation project by a paint job done by a movie company. New York State inspectors expressed concern about the condition of some wooden trestles until the trestles got treated to a brand-new shiny paint job, and they looked strong again. The inspectors thought a repair job had been done and gave them high marks.
As he promised, Duda closed with the story of one rail line close to home. Not even a little bit outrageous, but close to the heart of local Highlanders was Duda’s description of the New Paltz, Highland, and Poughkeepsie Trolley Line that provided transportation for locals to get down to the river, across it to the shops of the “big city,” or into the bigger town of New Paltz.
The line ran for nine miles and took 45 minutes, so it wasn’t very fast, but it served its communities well. Duda noted that the Lloyd Historical Society was focused on a trolley project, led by Vivian Wadlin, and, with the placement and auction of model trolleys, has been reminding locals of that particular part of their town’s history.