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!
Wonderful family trip!!
We took the Polar Express with our grandchildren and family on the day after Thanksgiving!! What a wonderful experience. It was magical. The train cars are beautiful, decorated for the holidays and spacious.
The whole experience was well run, well organized and good for anyone young and old!! Some families came in their pajamas!!
The staff on the train were friendly, personable and looked like they were having as much fun as the passengers! The young ladies dressed as cooks were from Kingston & Onteora High Schools. They were amazing!! They went around to all of the families and spoke to the children, took pictures and made sure everyone was having a great time!!
Santa was the best!! He looked great, talked to each family and posed for pictures. This will be a very special memory for years to come.
We plan to make this an annual tradition. Thank you to everyone at the Catskill Mountain Railroad for creating such a special experience!!
romara711 (from tripadvisor.com), Peekskill, NY
November 28, 2016
The crew / elves are entertaining all trip…
Fun time with the whole family
We went in early December, and booked the trip for the evening @ 7pm. Better at night so the kids can’t see out the windows especially if there is little or no snow. The crew/ elves are entertaining all trip and provide great chocolate cookies and hot chocolate. Santa comes on board too. Everyone gets a jingle bell (and if you still believe – it rings!)
bigdipper47 (from tripadviser.com), Bohemia, NY
January 17, 2017
…hands down one of the best Christmas rides we’ve ever taken.
The Polar Express was awesome!
We had an awesome time on the Catskill Mountain Railroad – we rode for the first time on The Polar Express and we were not disappointed! The staff and crew were amazing and this was hands down one of the best Christmas rides we’ve ever taken. The ride overall was a quick ride at slow speeds, so don’t expect an express – but the experience was top-notch overall.
The only downside that I can think of was the lack of bathrooms on the train itself – most rides we take have those as well, but this is well advertised when you order and board, so it is not a surprise.
We’ll look forward to riding this railroad again!
Rob H. (from tripadvisor.com), Keymar, Maryland
November 26, 2017
Children smiled from start to finish as did the adults!
This Polar Express ride was fantastic. The crew was very engaging and the children smiled from start to finish as did the adults! I found this trip to be way more festive than the one I took in Saratoga several years ago with my grandson. I recommend this very fun holiday activity for families with young children. I was pleasantly surprised.
The train itself is old and slow and the wait outside was a little chilly on a cold winter night, but I still give the whole experience a 5 star. One hint: sit on the opposite side from where you board the train. that’s the side you will see the “North Pole” from.
George626 (from tripadvisor.com), Las Vegas, Nevada
December 21, 2017
The best Santa train ride they had been on
For children, especially my grandchildren, this was the best Santa train ride they had been on and the have been on one every year since they could walk. The crew members entertained the children from start to finish.
vlcnyc (from tripadvisor.com), Staten Island, NY
November 26, 2017
…the kids loved it!
We went on the Polar Express. It was extremely well done and the kids loved it. The customer service was great later on as well after a golden ticket was accidentally destroyed in the washer.
…these trains are really neat…
This is a great attraction , I personally love old things and these trains are really neat. To be able to ride on them is even more incredible. This business draws a lot of Tourism and should be highly supported. The guys and gals that help keep things going there are very knowledgeable and friendly.
…everyone should experience this…
Awesome Experience !!! Truly everyone should experience this, I was here awhile ago (before InterNet); with my young daughter. We both, Loved not only going on bold Trains & original Train tracks. (Foundations & Bridges we’re all installed Only by hand & skilled labor). I definitely would come back, Yearly in the Fall ! Fresh air, inspiring scenery & A Feeling of …..”Going back in time” -. even, with The Train Whistling ?
Nothing like The Polar Express thru the eyes of a child or 2 Grandmas who just wanted to go… Well done !!!!
Long live the rails!
My 2 1/2 year old grand daughter & I loved our excursion on the Easter Bunny Express. She loved collecting the candy and seeing the bunny, friendly fox, & chicks! Long live the rails!
Will be back next year!
Drove up here for the Polar Express experience! All the kids in our family had an amazing time! The young men and women that were performing really did love what they were doing! Just an overall good time great for the family! Will be back next year! Bravo!
Good attitudes and friendly
You will enjoy. Santa, his helpers and all the “performers” are great. Good attitudes and friendly. Reading all of these reviews some good, some negative…. don’t listen to all of the “white noise”. Go book it and try it for yourself. Expect to have a good time if you use your imagination and join in the fun. There’s singing, dancing…. enough fun things to put a smile on your face, unless you’re a miserable Grinch! 🙂
The Polar Express ride was tons of fun for kids and adults
The Polar Express ride was tons of fun for kids and adults. It takes a bit less than two hours, and is non-stop with characters from the movie, not to mention the hot chocolate and cookies. The trip ends with everyone getting a bell from Santa’s sleigh.
My granddaughter can’t wait until next year!
Staff is on point, pay so much attention to the kids, engaging them with song and dance, etc!! This was a Christmas present to my family, My granddaughter can’t wait until next year!
Amazing experience, the train ride was a lot of fun and very educational!