There is a fight going on in Ulster County, NY, with the county planning to rip up the tracks and build a rail trail while their tenant, a tourist railroad, has a lease and operates seasonal theme rides that generate hundreds of thousands of dollars within the local economy. Amid suits and counter suits the big picture is being overlooked.
With one side claiming a Tourist Railroad is most important for local tourism and another claiming it’s the Rail Trail that will bring more tourists, and with neither side proposing a clear path to compromise, perhaps it is time to determine what is best for the future of Ulster County by reviewing our past.
The Ulster and Delaware Railroad ran from Kingston Point to Oneonta, in Delaware County, with a spur up to the Greene County communities of Hunter and Kaaterskill. It was an important element in the original development of the tourist industry in the region. The U&D, as it was known, was among the first all season routes into the Catskills, bringing tourists in to fill the huge mountain houses and resorts built to accommodate them. Trains also carried in supplies to enrich the quality of life in the rural Catskills and carried out freight, such as dairy products, bluestone and lumber, to high paying urban markets. In this way the train fulfilled the dual purpose of meeting the needs of the folks who sustained the tourists as well as the tourists themselves. It was a successful and necessary part of rural life in the Catskills.
Beginning with the first hardy tourists, hiking has been a popular outdoor activity in the Catskills. For well more than a century, Catskill hiking trails attracted urban dwellers, which led to the trails being expanded and improved to accommodate even more hikers. The whole Hudson River School of Art was built around the vistas and scenery these trails now lead to. Parks and campgrounds were established even as boarding houses multiplied, all to house the growing number of urbanites who wanted the healthful quality of life the Catskills offered and the idealized nature the artists immortalized. Most arrived by train.
Summering in the Catskills became so popular that the Friday evening train into the region was called the “husband train” as more and more men secured their families in the cool Catskills away from the heat and sickness of New York City summers, traveling by train to spend weekends with their wives and children in “the country”. The same trains also carried freight both ways.
Times changed. After WW II, automobile ownership became commonplace and a vast network of highways was built to accommodate them. Passenger train service into the Catskills ended in 1954. Freight transport followed suit by 1976. Today the only way to get people and goods in and out of the Catskills is to drive. Perhaps now, with all our crumbling infrastructure and highway congestion, it is time to revisit passenger train service into the Catskills.
We currently have the first generation in our memory to rely more on public transportation than automobiles. Millennials are driving 25% less than their age group did just eight years ago. (AARP) They simply don’t feel the need to get their driver’s license, or the attraction of car ownership that their parents did. Yet it is their parents’ generation that is designing their transportation future, and that generation is committing them to a future automobile lifestyle that, for the youth, is fast going out of favor.
Consider this: Discovery Land Company just announced they are investing upwards of 1 billion dollars in Silo Ridge, (siloridge.com) a gated community of 250+/- multi-million dollar homes in Amenia, (Dutchess County) NY. That includes an equestrian center, hiking trails, gardens, tennis and golf courts, and full indoor recreation facilities. They plan for an all-inclusive lifestyle for today’s moneyed Manhattanites, much as the summer folk of a century ago sought in the Catskills. All this is just a short two hours into the rural countryside of upstate New York.
The reason Amenia has more of an attraction than say, similarly situated Phoenicia or even Margaretville for that huge investment and all those jobs, is that Silo Ridge is the last stop on the Harlem Line (Wassaic Station) of the Metro North Railroad. This new urban exodus is planned by train!
In comparison, the millions that may be invested by Crossroads Ventures in the luxury resort/residence complex called the Belleayre Resort at Catskill Park (belleayreresort.com) is in a place only accessible by motor vehicle. Besides the congestion on Route 28 caused by delivering all the building supplies and then all the necessities for life in rural Ulster County by tractor trailer trucks, we’ll have all the SUVs delivering the people – every weekend! That’s if Belleayre Resort ever gets built and they still want to drive!
Imagine the success Ulster County could have if, when the generation that doesn’t want to drive has the money to invest in second homes and resort communities, they could consider Ulster County and the legendary Catskills as a place of recreation and putting down rural roots. We already have the name recognition and the recreation in place. We just need a way to access them for people who don’t drive.
If we keep the tourist railroad that draws people and money to our region, and add a passenger/freight train to run up the Route 28 corridor to Belleayre Mountain, our quality of life improves as the traffic diminishes and the investment in a rural lifestyle skyrockets. Jobs for future generations and an expanded tax base to pay for needed services will surely follow. (As an example, Silo Ridge is expected to generate $63 million just in property taxes during the first ten years.) That’s a win/win situation anyone would desire.
Want to add a third “win”? Simply extend the rail trail along the existing train tracks to the Ashokan Reservoir. Connect it to the Ashokan Campus and to a “Water for New York City” interpretive center near the fountains. Finally the Rail Trail has a destination, and it is within Ulster County! Further transport into the Catskills would be by train, easily set up with a station nearby.
You know this is true – hikers will not take a rail trail to their weekend homes, but people riding the train will. Instead of planning for the next 5 or 10 years, we should be planning for the long-term future well-being of Ulster County and the region by promoting passenger (and freight) service from Kingston into the Catskills by train.