One of the most scenic recreational corridors in the Northeast is the Catskill Mountain Trail, located within New York’s beautiful Catskill Mountains. This also held true when trains still plied the route between Kingston and Oneonta, and the railroad was dubbed the “Most Scenic Rail Line in the East.” It wound its way through the mountains, passing lakes and skirting the banks of the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers. Its history traces back to the mid-19th century, and eventually the rail grew into a system covering more than 100 miles. During this era, the railroad was a popular means of transportation for tourists from New York City and other points along the Atlantic Coast, who were looking to vacation in the Catskill’s many resorts, parks, and cottages. As the years went by, freight and passengers stopped using the rails and highways reached the area. Soon after the creation of Conrail, the new carrier ended rail service on the remaining section of the line in autumn 1976. Today, the western section is now the Catskill Mountain Trail, while other sections still run excursion trains.
The history of this rail corridor through the Catskills dates back to 1866, with the chartering of the Rondout & Oswego Railroad. The railroad was chartered to build a line from Rondout (now a part of Kingston) along the banks of the then-busy Delaware & Hudson Canal due west to connect with the Albany & Susquehanna Railroad (which later became part of the Delaware & Hudson Railway). By 1870, the route had been completed 32 miles to near Shandaken (a few miles west of Phoenicia). During 1872, the property was reorganized as the New York, Kingston & Syracuse, and by December of that year was opened to Stamford, 71 miles from Kingston. In 1875, the system became known as the Ulster & Delaware (U&D), following receivership, and for the time being, a western outlet was put on hold while other expansion occurred.
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By then, the U&D recognized the growing tourism into the Catskills, thanks in part to its new service into the region. In 1881, it began construction on a branch north of Phoenicia known as the Stony Clove & Catskill Mountain Railroad. This 3-foot narrow-gauge line ran north from Phoenicia to Hunter, with a short extension built as the Kaaterskill Railroad, extending east to Kaaterskill. Opened in June 1883, it reached a number of resorts and social clubs; in 1899, the route was upgraded to standard-gauge. There was also some freight traffic along the branch, consisting mostly of sawmills and tanneries. Soon after the line was put into service, the U&D had a connection to New York City via the New York, West Shore & Buffalo Railroad (later, New York Central’s West Shore Railroad), giving the traveling public a direct rail connection into the Catskills.
During July 1900, the U&D finally opened its western connection when it began service to Oneonta, New York, where it established an interchange with the Delaware & Hudson. This gave the railroad a system of 107 miles, along with the 21.7-mile branch to Hunter and Kaaterskill. Aside from the road’s booming passenger business, which included first-class accommodations such as parlor service, it also moved a varied amount of freight, such as dairy products, timber, and coal to New York City, ice from the lakes, Catskill Mountain bluestone, and general agriculture. Despite the U&D’s picturesque route and being the only railroad directly serving the Catskills, its system was riddled with stiff grades (as high as 4.4%) and sharp curves.
Passenger traffic began declining by the 1920s, when paved highways were built through the mountains. Additionally, a number of the once-popular resorts slowly began to close their doors. In 1931, the Ulster & Delaware fell into bankruptcy and was acquired by the New York Central a year later, when it was designated the Catskill Mountain Branch. During 1940, the branch to Hunter and Kaaterskill was abandoned; all remaining passenger service ended after March 31, 1954. By then, the line’s freight traffic was also declining when creameries, farms, and sawmills either shutdown or switched to trucks. The big blow to the corridor’s status as a through-route came when the D&H stopped interchanging coal at Oneonta. This shift led the NYC to abandon the line from Oneonta to Bloomville.
When Conrail began operations on April 1, 1976, following the failed Penn Central debacle (created through the NYC, Pennsylvania, and New Haven) that brought down most Northeastern railroads, the new carrier shuttered remaining service on the Catskill Mountain Branch in September 1976. Surprisingly, much of the original route survives today thanks to the efforts of two men, Donald Pevsner and William Buckley Jr., who succeeded in gaining public support for local county governments to purchase and preserve sections of the line. Today, roughly 57 miles remain in place, with segments still in use by three different excursion operations—the Catskill Mountain Railroad, Delaware & Ulster Railroad, and Trolley Museum of New York. Other sections remain dormant and unused, but hopes remain to one day return it to service. The rest of the route, from Roxbury to Oneonta, is abandoned because the Catskill Mountain Trail uses the right-of-way from Roxbury to Bloomville (about 26 miles).
New York is home to several railroad attractions. Aside from the three aforementioned excursion trains, these include the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and Utica Union Station in Utica; the Chester Historical Society in Chester (preserved Erie Railroad depot); the Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley Railroad in Milford; the Empire State Railroad Museum in Phoenicia; Hyde Park Railroad Station in Hyde Park; Maybrook Railroad Historical Society Museum in Maybrook; and the Roscoe O&W Railway Museum in Roscoe.