The Mount Beacon Incline Railway was once the world’s steepest passenger funicular. On its opening day in 1902, more than 1,600 people rode its two sturdy passenger cars up 2,200 feet of sheer mountainside track to a scenic location atop Mount Beacon, 1,540 feet above sea level. By 1926, more than 110,000 passengers were riding the railway to the mountaintop every year. They came from all over the region, by railroads that converged on the Beacon/Newburgh area or by steamship from New York City up the Hudson River, where upon arrival a short trolley ride brought them to the base of the mountain.
Engineered by the Otis Elevator Company – which had already designed and built two other successful mountain railways in the region, one in the Catskills and another in Lake George – the Mount Beacon Incline Railway featured technological advancements over its predecessors. The funicular in Beacon was the first to have an electrically driven powerhouse (the older railways were steam-driven), and its cars were equipped with electric lighting and signaling systems.
Those who journeyed up the steep incline were rewarded with not only stunning mountaintop vistas and a natural setting to enjoy, but a casino and a hotel. They are still recalled nostalgically by older local residents like Jean Maselli of Newburgh, who remembers how she took the funicular up the mountain in the 1940s to dance to big-name Big Bands of the day under moonlight on the Hudson. The railway ceased operation in 1978. Destroyed by fire in 1983, the funicular’s ruins are owned and preserved by Scenic Hudson in its Mount Beacon Park.
Now the nonprofit Mount Beacon Incline Railway Restoration Society (MBIRRS) is committed to returning incline railway service to the region, creating a destination attraction easily accessible by Metro North and within minutes of major highways. When restored to operation, the new Mount Beacon Incline Railway will take visitors up the steep incline to a natural park setting, with visitors coming not only for the ride up the mountainside but also for what they’ll find at the top: miles of pristine hiking trails, scenic outlooks and spectacular views – even all the way to Manhattan on a clear day.
An investment of $20 million to build the railway and establish the park areas is expected to generate $30 million in the region annually. The funds are to be raised through private and corporate donations, fundraising events, member support and government grants. The project was recently awarded a $100,000 grant instigated by assemblyman Frank Skartados (D-104th District).
Stacy Dedring, chief communications officer for MBIRRS, says that at this point there isn’t a definite timeline for completion of the project. “There are a lot of things that have to take place first before the site will be shovel-ready,” she says, “getting funding, getting the land transferred to the state – we’re still very much in the middle of the process.” The City of Beacon has to approve the project, and environmental impact and economic development studies have to be completed. “But the state has agreed to purchase the 200-plus-acre parcel at the top of the mountain,” slated to become part of the Hudson Highlands State Park, Dedring adds. “We’re hitting our stride at this point.”
Once the project is complete, the Mount Beacon Incline Railway Restoration Society will step back to become more of a “Friends of the Mount Beacon Incline Railway,” Dedring says, to support and raise funds for the continuation of the railway while the state actually takes over and runs it.
Currently MBIRRS offers interpretive hikes up the mountain from April through October; free of charge and open to the public. The hikes are meant to generate interest in the site, and let people know about its history and its status as a National Historic Register property.
In addition, there is an exhibition on view daily through Sunday, March 9 at Hudson Beach Glass in Beacon that focuses on the plans for the railway restoration, along with the proposed development of the Beacon Greenway Trails that will follow Fishkill Creek as it flows from the town line through the city’s urban center, then down to the Hudson River. The five-week-long “Beacon Re-imagined” exhibition incorporates 3D animation, archival footage and photographs, architectural renderings and ambient sounds to show the vision for Beacon’s future.
There is also a very well-made video on the MBIRRS website (www.inclinerailway.org) that gives the history of the Incline Railway and demonstrates what it could be again; it’s worth watching.