Rail trails have been a big hit since they began appearing 20 years ago, and now they’re expanding into trail networks. Here in Ulster County, the obvious hub for such a nexus is Kingston, a 19th-century transportation center where four railroads converged. All but one have been abandoned, and transforming these desolate stretches of weedy track into a group of interconnected linear parks where people can walk and bike has enormous potential for boosting the city’s quality of life and attracting tourists.
An ambitious effort to do just that has been launched by the Kingston Land Trust (KLT), a volunteer organization that’s working with the Kingston Economic Development Office. The trail network, which would converge in the gritty heart of Midtown, would do two things: create pedestrian walkways separate from trafficked streets and connect the inner city to preexisting rail trails in the surrounding rural areas. Once completed, the network would enable hikers and cyclists to travel from Kingston as far as the Ashokan Reservoir to the west and, heading to the south, New Paltz, Gardiner and, in the future, all the way to Walkway over the Hudson in Highland.
The first step of this plan will be the creation of a 1.5-mile in-city trail that leads from Midtown to the Hudson River Maritime Museum on the Rondout Creek. Construction is due to begin late this year, using funds from $4.3 million in grants obtained by the city. In the meantime, the KLT has been giving free tours of the city’s abandoned rail corridors – now branded as the Kingston Greenline – and other former industrial sites, some of which are now forested and populated by wildlife. Tim Weidemann, co-chair of KLT’s Rail Trail Committee, is hosting the tours, which are scheduled for the third Sunday of each month.
Conversations with Michael Drapkin, co-owner of the Kingston Wine Company, which is located in Kingston’s Rondout, and Peter Wetzler, a composer, musician and longtime Rondout resident, have led to two enticing hiking tour enhancements: After the two-hour walk, participants decamp to the Kingston Wine Company for a tasting and then stroll up to Wurts Street for a concert at the church that Wetzler and his wife, painter Julie Hedrick, have transformed into their home, studios and the Church des Artistes Guest House.
It has been a winning combination: Last month’s tour, which explored the remains of an abandoned brickyard on the Hudson River and the grounds of a former cement works, attracted 45 people, said Weidemann. “It was exciting to show people this stuff and how the Greenline will connect to the promenade AVR [developer AVR Acquisition of Yonkers] is building,” he said, referring to the planned trail that will extend from Kingston Point north along the Hudson River to the riverfront walkway soon to be constructed by AVR, which plans to build a housing development on the cement-works site.
Participants were similarly amazed at the views of the RondoutLighthouse and Hudson River on an earlier tour that traced an old rail spur at Kingston Point Park, located at the juncture of the Rondout Creek and Hudson River, Weidemann said. On yet another tour, to underutilized Hasbrouck Park, located on a hill overlooking the Rondout District, “People were just floored by the views. We walked along a ridge in the woods, along the abandoned High Road, and saw an abandoned mule barn. It’s just great to have this stuff,” Weidemann said.
The quality-of-life and health benefits of rail trails have been well-quantified, he noted. “Lots of studies show that because such infrastructure makes people feel more comfortable walking and biking, they do it more,” Weidemann said, whether it’s walking to their job or school, to the city’s shops or simply taking a peaceful stroll or bike ride during their leisure time. Besides the health and safety benefits, there’s also a corresponding economic stimulus. “Creating these long-distance networks that enable people to walk and bike feeds into a hugely growing tourism industry,” he said.
The wine-tasting and concert play up the amenities that will make the urban trails in particular so appealing: Kingston’s own version of Manhattan’s famous High Line (which has been a tremendous success and is fueling a spate of new housing development). Weidemann said that the KLT and the city are discussing enhancing the Kingston Point Rail Trail with interpretive signage related to the railroad, water and dog-walking stations, bike parking and public art. He said that he hopes that there will be art installations along the trail during next year’s Kingston Biennial Sculpture Show; graffiti art demonstrations and installations are another possibility. A trail network rooted in Kingston could also encourage car-free tourism, particularly attractive to visitors from New York City (many of whom don’t have cars); a person could take the bus to Kingston, stay at one of the city’s B & Bs, dine in its restaurants and bike to the waterfront for kayak paddles or sails on the Hudson River, as well as bike for miles into the countryside without having to contend with traffic.
The next Greenline tour is scheduled this Sunday, August 17 from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. It will traverse the in-city Kingston Point Rail Trail, currently under development, which curves from behind the Rondout Savings Bank on Broadway through various neighborhoods down to the Hudson River Maritime Museum. From there, the walk travels another mile-and-a-half along East Strand to the trolley tracks extending to Kingston Point, which offers terrific views of the lighthouse and Hudson River. The railway, which has been cleaned up by volunteers to the point where it’s passable (the Phase One construction this year will involve removal of the rails and ties, grading of the surface and ultimately installation of pavement), passes through a tunnel, over a high trestle crossing Route 9W and then over three lower trestles near the Rondout Gardens housing development.
At 11:30 a.m., the tour will arrive at the Kingston Wine Company for a tasting. The wine will be “a thirst-quencher, light and crisp and dry with moderate alcohol levels,” according to Drapkin. Specifically, he plans to pour either a Garnatxa, a white grape variety from northern Spain, or a Jacquere, a white grape variety indigenous to a path of land in the Savoie region of southeastern France.
Participants might want to take a lunch break at one of the restaurants in the Rondout before attending the concert, scheduled for 3 p.m., at the church. It will feature Wetzler playing an improvisational work on the piano and a sampling of Bossa Nova-style songs by Stephen Johnson, accompanying himself on guitar or balalaika, which he plans to record in Cuba. (Wetzler and Johnson are both members of the genre-breaking band the Repeatos; Johnson has recorded extensively in England and in the US, while Wetzler plays both classical and jazz piano and has composed several film scores. Repeatos member Ellen Reyes, who plays violin and B-vox, might also be on hand.)
Besides the Kingston Point Rail Trail, the KLT and the city are also working with the Open Space Institute on a preliminary plan for creating a one-mile link from Midtown Kingston to the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, which heads south to Rosendale, New Paltz and Gardiner from Rockwell Lane, off Route 32. The study will define route options, which may consist of a trail tracing the original rail spur or a wide sidewalk along Route 32.
Another link being considered is an extension of the Ulster County Rail Trail Project, which is proposed by the county on the upper part of the Ulster & Delaware Railroad, currently used by the Catskill Mountain Railroad Company. The U&D railway runs from Cornell Street parallel to Broadway, passing through tunnels under Downs Street and Albany Avenue out to the Hurley Flats, past the Ashokan Reservoir and eventually into Delaware County near Belleayre. A third rail trail link, which is grassy and tends to flood but is otherwise perfectly passable on foot, follows the abandoned Ontario & Western railway. The trail begins behind the Super 8 Motel on Washington Avenue and connects with the Hurley Rail Trail at Route 209.
Weidemann, who runs Rondout Consulting, which does management and strategic planning for nonprofits and municipalities, moved to Kingston with his wife 13 years ago and got interested in its abandoned industrial infrastructure while the couple was working as caretakers of the Immanuel Lutheran Church on Livingston Street. Sharing these hidden sites with people on the tours “is fun,” he said. Plus, the addition of the wine-tasting and concert is indicative of the kind of creative, productive connections that naturally occur in the city, he added. “Michael got really excited when we came up with the concept of the Greenline tours, and so did Peter. Since we’ve got a bunch of people together, we figured, why not come and listen to music in the church? It just evolved and shows the possibilities when you bring people together to see, taste and hear the great things Kingston has to offer.”
Kingston Land Trust Greenline Tour, Sunday, August 17, 9:30-11:30, free, Kingston Wine Company, 65 Broadway, Kingston; wine-tasting, 11:30 a.m.; concert, 3 p.m., Church des Artistes Guest House, 79 Wurts Street, Kingston; https://sundayhikes.eventbrite.com. For more information on the Friends of Kingston Rail Trails, visit https://www.facebook.com/KingstonRailTrails/info.