Taking their audience back to an era when trains helped shape the Ulster County towns they served, local authors Stephen Ladin and Glendon Moffett spoke to an audience of about 120 history and train buffs at a recent program of the Town of Lloyd Historical Preservation Society (TOLHPS) in Highland. Presenting a slideshow of photos from their new book, “Ulster County Railroads,” published by Arcadia Publishing, the authors offered anecdotes that focused on the relationships among the railroads, the landscape, the people who lived in the area and those who rode the trains.
If you go down to the Hudson River in Highland now, you can still watch freight trains speed by 27 times a day on the county’s only still-operating railroad line. But that’s a far cry from the festivities along the river in the early 20th century when passenger trains on the West Shore line brought fans to watch college regattas on the Hudson River and viewing bleachers were installed along flatcars. In a sidenote, the authors pointed out that after beating Harvard in 1897, Cornell was never invited to race against Harvard again. But that didn’t stop it from racing and winning against other schools in later years.
Today’s rumbling freight trains also fail to tell of when, en route to Hyde Park, Franklin D. Roosevelt used to get off the train in Highland and onto a wheelchair ramp built just for him in the days when his disability was still kept a secret.
One slide showed a West Shore Railroad season pass issued to Daniel Smiley in 1891, when he became manager at Mohonk Mountain House. The pass, from the collection of TOLHPS trustee Vivian Wadlin, intrigued Ladin and Moffett, railroad detectives at heart. “How did he get from the Hudson River to the Mountain House?” they asked themselves. Eventually they found the answer stamped on crates he had used for transporting his belongings, now stored in the Barn Museum at Mohonk Mountain House. In a photo, a big crate shows he got off at Kingston and took the Wallkill Valley Railroad to New Paltz, from where he traveled by carriage. But a smaller one reveals he sometimes used the Highland stop, from which he probably rode the New Paltz-Highland trolley.
As skiing grew in popularity in upstate New York, influenced by the 1932 winter Olympics in Lake Placid, the railroads caught the trend. One slide in the presentation showed a snow-covered hill, known then as Simpson Ski Slope, outside Phoenicia. A chartered train stopped alongside the hill and served as transportation and overnight accommodation for many of the skiers dotting the broad slope.
By the 1970s, the railroads were deserting the region as cars and trucks siphoned off much of their business. In a poignant photo, an engine carries a large poster proclaiming “Farewell, last train serving the Catskills 106 years, May 23, 1870 Sept. 28, 1976.” Still, while that train service may be long gone, the presenters noted that one young man in the photo was on his first day on the job and continues as a railroader to this day.
TOLHPS sponsors programs of local historical interest most months of the year, usually on the first Monday at 7 p.m. at the theater in Vineyard Commons in Highland.