Wallkill Valley Rail Trail History

New York

At a Glance

Name: Wallkill Valley Rail Trail
Length: 21.3 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Fishing, Horseback Riding, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Ulster
Surfaces: Asphalt, Cinder, Dirt, Gravel
State: New York

A Brief History

The Wallkill Valley Rail Trail follows about two-thirds of a former railroad corridor originally built and operated as the Wallkill Valley Railroad (WV), first established directly after the Civil War. Any hopes of the WV to continue extending its initial route were quelled by bankruptcy and takeover by the much more successful New York, West Shore & Buffalo. In time, both properties fell under the ownership of the New York Central & Hudson River, later shortened to simply the New York Central System (NYC). The massive NYC became one of our country’s most powerful railroads and competed fiercely against its rival the Pennsylvania. Over the years, the former WV became little more than another NYC branch and was even less relevant with the formation of Penn Central in the late 1960s. Following the collapse of Penn Central and emergence of Conrail, the property was abandoned in the late 1970s, creating today’s Wallkill Valley Rail Trail.

After the Civil War, the frenzied pace of railroad construction continued across the United States as it had done before the conflict broke out. New York was especially active; it already had an expansive rail network that continued to grow through the latter 19th century. By the 1860s, there was one primary route running north from New York City, the Hudson River Railroad, which had completed its initial main line (142 miles) between that point and Albany in 1851. The road would fall under the control of Vanderbilt, godfather of the mighty New York Central, in 1867, which was also around the same time efforts were underway to construct a secondary route on the west side of the Hudson.

In 1866, the Wallkill Valley Railway was incorporated to serve agricultural interests and farmers south and west of Kingston. At the time the closest railroad connection available was via the Erie Railroad at Montgomery. Originally built to wide-gauge (6-feet), and operated by the Erie itself (which, after a decade, gave up its interest), the WV proceeded quickly with construction. The work began in 1868, pushing north to New Paltz by 1870 (about 18 miles). Much of the capital available for the project came by local support and bonds. A few years later, rails had reached Kingston, covering a distance of nearly 33 miles. Unfortunately, the WV fell into receivership in 1877 from which it emerged as the Wallkill Valley Railroad.

The system never proved itself a particularly profitable endeavor, and still having financial troubles, its owners devised a way to line their pockets and get out from beneath the struggling road. Predecessor interests in what became the New York, West Shore & Buffalo (NYWS&B) were proposing to build their railroad up the Hudson to Albany from the New York City/northern New Jersey region. WV’s owners, realizing what the NYWS&B was attempting, began purchasing the best property for a right-of-way along the river. As a result, the NYWS&B interests were forced to buy out the Wallkill Valley, acquiring it in 1881 for $1 million. According to the Ulster & Delaware Railroad Historical Society (NYC&HR), this price was more than six times that paid during bankruptcy for the WV assets.

In late 1885, the NYC&HR acquired permanent control of the New York, West Shore & Buffalo and reorganized it as the West Shore Railroad. From this point, the former Wallkill Valley became just another branch in the massive NYC&HR system. During its peak years of service, the corridor transported a great deal of freight, including lumber, fruit, various vegetables, and milk, among other products. It also hosted passenger trains until service was dropped in 1937.

The West Shore Line for many years remained an important artery of the NYC’s system, acting primarily as a freight route and relief valve during times of derailments or heavy traffic. While passenger trains normally used the Hudson Line across the river, the West Shore was generally ideal for freight movements because it offered an open right-of-way with few obstructions. By the post-World War II period, particularly during the mid-1950s, traffic began drying up and so did the trains. Sections were gradually abandoned after 1957.

The Wallkill Valley Branch soldiered on and remained in service through the Penn Central merger of 1968 (formed through the union of the Pennsylvania and New York Central). But after this ill-fated conglomerate went bankrupt on June 21, 1970, it eventually brought down most of the northeastern railroad network with it, forcing the government’s hand in creating the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) to sustain service throughout this part of the country. Conrail officially began service on April 1, 1976, and began abandoning large sections of trackage it deemed redundant or unprofitable. Initially, the Wallkill Valley Branch remained in use but was abandoned itself only a year later in 1977. The tracks were pulled up along most of the corridor between 1983 and 1984.

Railroad attractions include:

Adirondack Scenic Railroad and Utica Union Station in Utica

Alco Brooks Railroad Display in Dunkirk

Arcade & Attica Railroad in Arcade

Catskill Mountain Railroad in Mt. Tremper

Central Square Station Museum in Central Square

Cooperstown & Charlotte Valley Railroad in Milford

Delaware & Ulster Railroad in Arkville

Empire State Railroad Museum in Phoenicia

Fingers Lake Railway in Geneva

Martisco Station Museum in Marcellus

Maybrook Railroad Historical Society Museum in Maybrook

Medina Railroad Museum in Medina

New York Museum of Transportation in West Henrietta

New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn

North Creek Depot Museum and Saratoga & North Creek Railway in North Creek

Oyster Bay Railroad Museum in Oyster Bay

Railroad Museum of Long Island in Greenport and Riverhead

Rochester & Genesee Valley Railroad Museum in Rush

Roscoe O&W Railway Museum in Roscoe

Salamanca Rail Museum in Salamanca

Trolley Museum of New York in Kingstown

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