When West Hurley filmmaker Tobe Carey started making a documentary about local railroads, a year and a half ago, the project looked like an uncomplicated history leading up to a charming account of current-day tourist lines. Then the conflict broke out over railroads versus rail trails, Catskill Mountain Railroad versus Ulster County executive Mike Hein, and the film suddenly had to grapple with the story of the ongoing controversy in all its bitterness.
The filmmaker will not take sides, and the movie may be completed before the battle is resolved. But train buffs will find plenty to like in the nostalgic portrayal of Catskills railroads, depicted through photos, film footage new and old, songs, and interviews.
Carey, who professes no particular personal interest in trains, is known for his documentaries on local subjects, including Deep Water, about the making of the Ashokan Reservoir; Catskill Mountain House and the World Around, about the heyday of the Catskills resorts; Sweet Violets, about the Rhinebeck violet industry of the early 1900s, and others. When friends suggested he tackle railroads, he was reluctant, knowing the scope of the topic was vast and might take up three years of his life, as the Mountain House film had done.
However, the idea grew on him, and now Rails to the Catskills is well underway. The first public showing will be on October 13 at 2 p.m. at the Maritime Museum in Kingston, although the version presented may not be the final cut.
Carey pieces together a history that begins with the Rondout & Oswego, begun in the late 1860s, its Ulster County section designed to convey Pennsylvania coal from the Delaware & Hudson Canal to the port at Rondout on the Hudson River.
A plethora of local lines were built, then renamed, as they failed, changed hands, and were resuscitated. The Rondout & Oswego became the Ulster & Delaware, which delved into the mountains and was nicknamed the Up & Down. The Ontario & Western connected Oswego with Weehawken, by way of the Catskills, and was called the Old & Weary.
“There was a belief that wherever the railroad ran, financial success would follow,” notes Carey. “Railroads were key to industrial development.”