In This Place: March 26, 2014
“No Passengers: This Train is Headed for the (Grave) Yard
by Trish Adams
Most times, significant historical transitions come and go and people don’t notice until years or even decades later that an epochal shift has had a huge impact on their lives and their communities.
That is not the case with the demise of the railroad — and especially its passenger service — among our villages and towns. Indeed, old and young alike seemed acutely aware of the immense role the railroad played in Catskills industries and its quality of life. Nostalgia was rampant before the last passenger train had left the station.
The death of the train also begs important “chicken and the egg” questions: Was the death of the train the main factor that so diminished the enormous summer vacation trade? Or was the decline in that trade — shifting swiftly to automobile “motel” travelers — what helped kill the train?
It is probably a more complex anthropological interaction between train, automobile, and the secession of the “grand” hotel vacation to a more quotidian but far further flung collusion of motels and the interstate system. Even the invention of air conditioning and theme parks played a part — questions too ambitious for a weekly newspaper column.
I will always recall the date — March 31, 1954 —that Roxbury (and probably most local villages served by the NY Central) lost its passenger service because my life partner was born the very day before. It has always been a poignant reminder to me of the Catskills that our generation can only experience in old photos, fading memories and the occasional rail ride excursion. This week marks the 60th anniversary of the last passenger trains in our area. Please don’t tell my wife I just gave her age away.
Let’s get on board with the mother of all “excursion” trips, Clarke Sanford and 1,400 others aboard the legendary Rip Van Winkle Flyer as she makes her “farewell tour.” Such was the voracious demand for tickets that almost a dozen cars had to be added to the train. People dressed up and stood to greet her passage as if there were royalty on board. It was the train herself that was the queen of their hearts.
August 1, 1952
‘Bandits’ Held Up Sunday’s Rip Van Winkle Flyer in a Bit of Pageantry
by Clarke A. Sanford
Sunday afternoon I rode to Stamford and back on a reincarnation of the Rip VanWinkle Flyer, famous U & D train of 50 years ago. The train was 16 cars long, hauled and pushed by two mainline and two mountain branch diesel locomotives. Included [on board] were the mayor of Kingston, many New York newspapermen and a large number of railroad enthusiasts.
Fifty years ago I often rode the Rip VanWinkle Flyer to Stamford, with my bicycle in the baggage car. The bicycle was put off and I got off at Stamford. From there I road the bike to Oneonta. There were two reasons for this. First, the railroad stopped at Bloomville and there was not good highway from Bloomville to Oneonta. Second, even at two cents per mile the pennies counted and a young chap could save by the 26-mile pedaling to Oneonta where I went to school.
This Sunday brought many pleasant memories of those days. I doubt I have been on a train of this branch in three decades. One thing on the train bothered. Objects were on the wrong side of the road. Thirty to 40 years of automobile driving have put the Halcottville pond on my left when I drove past going toward Grand Gorge. Roxbury village had crossed the valley.
Fifty years ago there were six daily passenger trains on the U & D each way during the boarding season. At Arkville 12 to 15 men were employed, in addition to train crews. It was a real job for train dispatchers at Kingston to shuttle the trains on the single track road. The peak of the U & D was 1913 when it carried 676,342 passengers, who paid an average of 56 cents per trip. The freight traffic for that year was 754,435 tons.
Sunday’s excursion was a surprise to everybody. Most expected it would be a three-coach affair with a few old-timers aboard. But when 1,400 passengers clamored for tickets there was a surprise on all sides. The train was run as part of Kingston’s 300th anniversary. A bit out of Kingston the train was “held up” by mounted horsemen, as part of the fun. The train robbers secured a mail bag. But Uncle Sam was not disturbed by the theft.
The train stopped at Phoenicia, Arkville, Grand Gorge, where passengers were taken on. It was an enthusiastic, jolly, orderly crowd, who thoroughly enjoyed the excellent mountain scenery on an ideal summer day.
At Stamford it seemed the entire village had turned out. We were greeted by the Stamford school band, by the mayor of the village, school buses and scores of cars to offer free rides around the community. Many went.
All along the line folks in Sunday garb had waited to see the train pass. They waved hats and handkerchiefs to take part in the excursion atmosphere of the day. In the old steam days there was never a 16-car passenger train on the U and D — not even for the Oneonta fair.
The line was authorized in 1866 as the Rondout and Oswego railroad between Kingston and Oneonta, a distance of 107 miles. This went into bankruptcy and was reorganized as the Ulster and Delaware. In 1900, after numerous branches were constructed, it reached Oneonta, having used Bloomville several years as a terminal.
The New York Central bought the U and D, sometimes nicknamed the Up and Down railroad, in 1932.
Grade between Kingston and Stamford are the steepest in the New York Central system. The tracks go up 1,466 feet in thirty-three miles, from 423 above sea level at Stony Hollow to 1,889 above sea level at Grand hotel —the highest point.
The train — even the glamorous Rip VanWinkle flyer — was such a staple of mountain life that it seldom made the news unless there were schedule changes, a wreck or someone was killed. We’ll save those dramas for a column of their own, and note here just a few of the bumps along the way.
July 27, 1906 Stalled in Tunnel
Passengers on the Rip Van Winkle flyer had a rather unpleasant experience last Saturday afternoon. In the centre of the Weehawken tunnel, something happened to the emergency brakes and they became set. The train was stalled in the tunnel for 10 minutes before the trouble could be remedied. The tunnel filled with smoke, the air was foul and sultry and in the cars it was stifling. Another train was scheduled to leave the Weehawken station five minutes after the flyer and this added to the unpleasant sensation of the passengers on the stalled train. Fortunately the other train was signalled and after a 10 minutes’ wait that seemed ten hours long, the flyer proceeded and reached Arkvllle on time.
July 5, 1912 Boarding Season Began This Week in Full Blast
Hot Weather and National Holiday sent Thousands to the Mountains
Peculiar accident from bottle thrown from car
The rush to the mountains has begun and this week will see many of the resorts well filled. The big rush began Monday and the Ulster and Delaware trains were filled with vacationists eager for an outing in the haunts of Rip Van Winkle. Aboard the Mountain Express that day were two score of young girls from the Mt. Olivet Presbyterian church of Brooklyn, bound for a two weeks’ outing at Kaaterskill. On the same train were also over 80 boys from the various New York churches enroute to Elbridge T. Gerry’s resort at Lake Delaware.
A peculiar accident occurred on Friday. Someone on the Rip Van Winkle flyer had been enjoying a bottle of beer and carelessly threw the bottle out of the train window. The bottle, with the combined force of the throw and the momentum of the train, struck P. Clement a severe blow on his head. The skull was fractured and the injured man was hurried to a Kingston hospital where an operation was performed to relieve the pressure on the brain and it is said that he will recover.
The railroads were so important to the area’s infrastructure that they could not simply discontinue services when they were no longer profitable. Instead, they had to answer to, and receive permission from, the Public Service Commission.
February 12, 1954 No Passengers, Express, Mail on Mountain Branch
Trains will be suspended on 30 Days Notice If Trucks Are Substituted
Passenger service on the Catskill Mountain branch of the New York Central was doomed this week when the Public Service Commission authorized the railroad to discontinue trains 527 and 528 after 30 days notice to the public. Alternate day freight trains will be the only traffic remaining on the 104-mile line between Kingston and Oneonta. Motor truck service is to be substituted to carry express and less-than-carload freight.
The Central requested about a year ago that the trains be discontinued, but the PSC withheld approval when the opposition was expressed and until a study of summer traffic could be made.
At a rehearing granted last fall, testimony was offered by the railroad that passengers averaged about eight per day during the peak months and only about three per day the year round. The railroad’s loss from operation of the two trains in 1952 was estimated at $34,230.
Must Establish Truck Service
The commission’s permission is contingent upon establishment and operation of satisfactory truck service.
The mail service would have the most effect on this area. The contract for carrying mail exists between the federal government and the railroad. Star routes now serve the same communities as the railroad, but carry only first and second class matter. Representatives of the Postal Transportation Service have indicated that they will be in the territory shortly to study at first hand the requirements for an adequate substitute mail service.
Must Have Heated Trucks
The PSC requires that substituting trucks be heated for the protection of perishable shipments and that priority be given express shipments. Freight service will continue for carload and heavy less-than-carload shipments.
Only opposition to the discontinuance of passenger service came from Assemblyman Edwyn E. Mason, who submitted a resolution by the Stamford town board and by former Supervisor John Shultis of Roxbury, who said his community was without other means of public transportation.
Fleischmanns Station Remains
In another action, the commission denied the petition of the railroad to discontinue entirely its station at Fleischmanns. It said the company must retain an agent on duty Mondays through Fridays between June 1 and Labor Day, a period in which the community population is increased nearly tenfold by summer vacationists.
March 26, 1954
When the daily passenger train from Kingston to Oneonta is taken off the mountain branch on April 1 there were be left nothing but a freight train for carload shipments such as coal, feed, lumber, cement and the like.
There has been much speculation whether it will continue long after the passenger trains have been stopped. It would not seem possible that one freight train could support the road. At present there is considerable traffic at Arkville where large quantities of heavy materials are unloaded for the Downsville dam and aqueduct. Both these will be completed this year and the revenue from that source will come to an end.
Should the railroad be discontinued, it would bring extra expense largely to feed dealers all through this great dairy county.
There would be one advantage in such a decision. The present railroad grade would make an excellent right of way for the relocation of route 28 over the present suicide route on the eastern side of the Pine Hill mountain.
Also stopped many years ago was a narrow gauge line which operated from Catskill to Palenville to serve the Otis elevator which carried passengers up the steep grade to the Old Mountain house.
At the present time another railroad, the New York Ontario & Western, which has served the western part of Delaware county for more than 75 years is in the dog house. It has been in bankruptcy for nearly a decade. If it quits and the Central scraps the mountain branch, this great milk county will be without a railroad with the exception of the Erie which runs along the southern border.
The train’s demise also coincided with the loss of whole villages: they will be topics of their own in columns to come.
Two Phases of Mail Carrying History in Delaware Valley Come to an End
As Last Mail from Shavertown Post Office Is Put Aboard Last U & D Train
Pen and ink drawing of Atkins store building, in which Shavertown post office was located, adorns this special cover which was done by addressee, John E. Raith of Delhi.
APRIL 9, 1954: Mrs. Inca Atkin, postmistress at Shavertown for more than 30 years, tosses last packet of first class mail into the pouch held by Floyd Tremper, star route carrier, who served Shavertown on the run between Arkville and Downsville.
Mr. Tremper tosses the pouch containing some of the last mail from Shavertown into the last passenger and mail train on the Catskill Mountain branch of the New York Central. Shavertown post office and train passed into history the same day.
Captions from the April 9, 1954 edition of the Catskill Mountain News.
I welcome ideas for topics, people or events: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hunt the archives at: www.nyshistoricnewspapers.org/middletown. Please, explore them! They are our stories, waiting to be found.