The tracks you will be riding on are rich in history, having connected and shaped our communities for almost 150 years. Shipping magnate Thomas Cornell made his fortune operating a fleet of steamboats along the Hudson River, providing vital transportation services for a growing region. Cornell envisioned a railroad connecting the Great Lakes with the Hudson River, carrying passengers and cargo year round and opening up the interior of New York State.
From the Hudson to the Catskills
The Rondout & Oswego Railroad was chartered in 1866, and construction began in 1868. The railroad reached Olive Branch (Town of Shokan) in 1869 and Phoenicia in 1870. The railroad was extended to Arkville in 1871 and Roxbury in 1872, before it was taken over by the New York, Kingston & Syracuse Railroad.
The Ulster & Delaware Railroad took over in 1875, and immediately looked towards expansion. In 1881, a narrow gauge branch was built from Phoenicia up to Hunter. The connecting Kaaterskill Railway was acquired in 1892, extending the line to Tannersville. in 1895, the eastern terminal of the railroad was extended from Rondout to Kingston Point, allowing for a direct connection with the boats serving New York and Albany on the Hudson River. The railroad completed construction to its western terminal and finally reached Oneonta and a connection with the Delaware & Hudson Railway in 1900.
Trains carried vital freight and tourist traffic to and from the Catskills. Bluestone for the sidewalks of New York was quarried here and dairy products from Ulster and Delaware County farms were rushed to the city by rail. As one of the first all-weather routes into the Catskills, the railroad enjoyed considerable success bringing vacationers to the grand hotels and boarding houses by the thousands. In 1913, more than 676,000 passengers rode the U&D to the Catskills.
Between 1908 and 1912, the railroad carried supplies for the construction of the Ashokan Reservoir, part of the system of reservoirs feeding New York City. When the reservoir was completed, nearly 12 and a half miles of the U&D were relocated to an easement on property owned by New York City to compensate for the old route following Esopus Creek that was flooded out.
The New York Central Railroad was looking to consolidate several of its leased railroads in the Midwest, but had been prevented from doing so by the regulatory authorities of the time. The Ulster & Delware had fallen on hard times, due to the effects of the Great Depression and increased competition from trucks as improved roads made their way into the mountains. The regulatory authority suggested if the New York Central acquired the U&D, they would be allowed to also acquire the midwestern properties as well. While the U&D did not fit into the overall plans of the New York Central, they agreed it was a small price to pay to solidify their position in the Midwest. The U&D was purchased in 1932, and it became the Catskill Mountain Branch.
Immediately the New York Central downgraded the Catskill Mountain Branch, reducing speeds on the main line from 60 to 30 m.p.h. The branches to Hunter and Kaaterskill were slowed down even more, until they were mercifully abandoned and dismantled in 1940. The railroad was hoping to eliminate all passenger trains, but World War II put those plans on hold. By 1946, service was reduced to one dialy round trip. In 1954, the U.S. Postal service withdrew their mail contract, and the New York Central was granted permission to end passenger service, with the last train running on March 31.
Freight-only Until the End
The Catskill Mountain Branch continued as a freight hauler through the 1960s. Construction of Interstate 88 through Oneonta severed the west end of the line from its connection with the Delaware & Hudson Railway and service was cut back to Bloomville in 1965. By this time, the major source of traffic was feed and lumber dealers at Arkville, Roxbury, Grand Gorge and Stamford.
After 1968, the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads merged to form Penn Central. The Catskill Mountain Branch was not considered a priority, and the condition of the railroad suffered. Repairs were put off and derailments were frequent. Service was reduced to once a week, though the freight trains often took days to cover the route due to slow speeds imposed by the track conditions.
On April 1, 1976, Conrail took over Penn Central and six other bankrupt railroads in an attempt to rebuild rail service in the Northeast. The Catskill Mountain Branch was not to be included in the new system, so New York State arranged a six-month subsidy to have Conrail operate the line while shippers made new arrangements. The last freight train departed Kingston on September 28, 1976, and did not return until October 2, with every remaining freight car on the branch collected for the final return trip. The switch was spiked shut, and the future of the line was uncertain.
Rescued by Ulster County, Rebuilt by Volunteers
Communities up and down the line called for the railroad to be saved, but there was a serious disagreement with the estate of the Penn Central over price. The famous columnist and media personality William F. Buckley, Jr. toured the line in 1977 and helped draw attention to the cause. An agreement was reached and Ulster County purchased the 38-mile segment from Kingston to Highmount in 1979 to preserve the corridor for future rail use.
In 1983, the Catskill Mountain Railroad was chartered to operate a new tourist passenger operation as well as freight service. Successful passenger trains were started in the popular tourist town of Phoenicia, with a limited freight service operated in Kingston. In 1987, the railroad suffered a major washout at Campgound Curve, which was repaired by CMRR volunteers with help from NYSDOT who rebuilt the bank to protect parallel Route 28. Additional diesels and coaches were acquired with eyes toward expansion.
After years of negotiation, the railroad crossing at Route 28 was reopened in 2004. As momentum was gathering on the railroads side, a catastrophic flood damaged the CMRR’s Phoenicia yard, it’s equipment, and the railroad causing a temporary setback. Volunteers pressed on and focused on extending the Scenic Train from Mt. Pleasant (renamed Mt. Temper) to Cold Brook in 2007. Refocusing their efforts in Kingston, the City Shuttle was launched in 2008, steadily expanding and increasing in popularity each year.
Tragedy again struck in 2011 when Hurricane Irene unleashed devestating floods on the entire Catskill region. Campground Curve was again washed out, and the Boiceville Trestle (Bridge C30) was lost. Significant damage took place in Phoenicia, but the railroad equipment was spared as it had been moved to safe storage prior to the storm. Passenger trains resumed on a reduced schedule just two weeks after, though service to Cold Brook station was suspended due to numerous washouts.
Sadly, CMRR ended more than 30 years of service between Phoenicia and Mt. Tremper when our lease for that segment ended in 2016. We will continue to operate trains out of Kingston, and expand our rides into the heart of the Catskills. Our all-volunteer staff takes great pride in the railroad, and would like to welcome you aboard!