The proposed Belleayre Resort project in Highmount + the proposed Water Discovery Center in Arkville + the Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR) + the recently adopted Scenic Byway designation for Route 28 = economic benefits for Ulster County, according to Father John Nelson and a group called Explore the Catskills. Nelson, the black-frocked Episcopal priest who presides over Woodstock’s Church on the Mount, is spearheading the effort of Explore the Catskills to convince New York State to support construction of the water museum and persuade Ulster County to extend the railroad’s lease on the county-owned tracks for one year.
At Explore the Catskills’ third organizational meeting, held at the Boiceville Inn on March 12, Nelson presented the rationale for the plan to an audience of about 25, most of them railroad volunteers eager to hear his message of preservation. West Hurley architect Joseph Hurwitz described his design for the water museum, a project begun 12 years ago but shelved as economically unfeasible. Both men feel the time is ripe for movement on both fronts, now that the Scenic Byway may make grants available, and the controversial Belleayre Resort has cleared a number of approval hurdles — although the project is still awaiting the outcome of lawsuits charging insufficiency of the state and local environmental reviews.
“We want to build a coalition with all the people on this corridor from Kingston to Belleayre, where the train can interface with the Arkville line,” said Nelson, referring to the tourist railroad operating in Delaware County, not far from Belleayre Ski Center, which is adjacent to the proposed resort. “That train is running and can get to Bellayre. Our task is to come up with innovative thinking on how to get from Kingston to Belleayre.”
CMRR has long dreamed of reviving train service that would link its two tourist railroad operations, currently running rides during the warmer months, within Kingston and between Mount Tremper and Phoenicia. Obstacles include flood washout of sections of track since commercial service was discontinued in the 1970s, as well as the county’s decision to build a rail trail, which may involve ripping up some of the now disused tracks. CMRR’s lease on the county-owned tracks is due to expire on May 31, while the county’s request for proposals for utilization of the track system is due on March 15. If CMRR’s proposal is not accepted, it will lose its lease. Nelson hopes to convince the county legislature to extend the lease for a year to give Explore the Catskills and CMRR time to develop a comprehensive plan for the tracks.
CMRR president Ernie Hunt, who did not attend the meeting, said Explore the Catskills is operating independently of the railroad, and he has not spoken to Nelson. “The concept of saving the railroad all the way up to Belleayre is a laudable goal,” Hunt remarked. “I don’t think the county has looked at it as seriously as we’d like them to. We do support the legislature’s compromise, but we also advocate keeping the rails in place as much as can be done.”
He said CMRR’s main focus is on the Kingston and Phoenicia operations already in place, since their continued existence is permitted by the county’s rail-with-trail compromise. The county has agreed, while working on the trail, not to tear up most of the rails, except in the area around the Ashokan Reservoir, where New York City is funding trail development across reservoir property, and the stretch west of Phoenicia, where six sections of track, totaling about a mile, have been damaged or washed away by floods.
Nelson, however, feels that extending the railroad is an idea whose time has come. It’s expected that the Belleayre Resort, with 370 rooms and 249 time-share units, will increase traffic on Route 28, which is, said Nelson, “pretty much maxed out as far as asking for more traffic. Years back they wanted to put in four lanes, and it didn’t happen — it’s ridiculous. But we have the train. Many trains have experienced a renaissance — at Napa Valley in California, in Colorado, and there are others being developed in New York. It has the ability to bring a lot of people from Kingston up through one of most beautiful areas with little or no environmental impact,” since most of the rails are already in place. CMRR has, in the past, restored washouts at a relatively low cost with their own resources and volunteer labor. Over recent weeks, they have been clearing saplings and brush from the overgrown tracks west of Phoenicia.
A railroad going west from Kingston needs solid destinations, and the resort plus the water museum will provide attractions for tourists, said Nelson. He envisions tourists, skiers, and hikers from New York City leaving their cars at a Kingston park-and-ride and taking a leisurely train journey into the countryside, with stations added at West Hurley (at the site of the derelict gas station across from Stewart’s on Route 28), Belleayre, and other points along the way. Bike and foot trails would parallel the tracks. Nelson said his group has also talked with administrators of the CSX freight line that follows the west bank of the Hudson River, regarding the possibility of running passenger trains all the way from Manhattan.
CSX representatives revealed that they are building a six-mile railroad spur in Connecticut that will cost an estimated $2 billion. “We have something worth billions if we were to construct it today,” pointed out Nelson. “Several people have approached us about a diner car — that’s a given — and an entertainment car. We could have music, poetry readings, theater. Everyone we’ve talked to loves the idea of preserving what our great-grandfathers built with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. I witnessed some historic things being taken up next to the church — the Meads Mountain Hotel, where Lee and Grant met after the Civil War. That’s why I got involved.”
Water Center makes sense
“A society that tears down the artifacts of its heritage is a society in decline,” declared Joe Hurwitz. He cited examples of historic monuments that were damaged — the Egyptian pyramids, the Parthenon — and some that were saved from scheduled demolition — the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and the railroad bridge at Poughkeepsie, now the hugely popular Walkway Over the Hudson, a rail trail that Ulster County hopes to connect with its growing rail trail network.
Hurwitz said the railroad and the Water Discovery Center make sense because of the recent and future increase of visitors to the area, due to Airbnb rentals, Kingston’s cultivation of the arts, the casino being built in Sullivan County, the planned Belleayre Resort. He hopes the water museum will reach many of those visitors with a message of the urgency of protecting water resources. “Whether global warming is manmade or a natural cycle of events, it’s happening,” he said. “This was our warmest winter ever. A major exhibit in the museum is about warfare. In the future, wars will be about potable water. There’s no substitute for water. Steel can be replaced with plastic or wood, one food can be replaced with another, but you can’t replace water.”
Planned exhibits include descriptions of the nature and chemistry of the water molecule, a full-scale cross-section of the aqueduct that carries water from the Ashokan Reservoir to New York City, an account of the source of the planet’s water — “dirty snowballs,” Hurwitz’s term for the frozen meteors that crashed into the Earth eons ago.
When Hurwitz began designing the building in 2004, he was able to obtain funding to buy a parcel of land in Arkville on County Route 38, near the junction with Route 28. But the recession came along, and public interest in climate change had not yet waxed strong. The museum’s fate is linked to that of the Belleayre Resort, said Hurwitz, stating, “This project only makes sense if that project is built. And a railroad spur will go right by the museum.”
In 2010, the cost for the museum was estimated at $25 million, which he expects to go up somewhat but not too much, due to the recent recession. Financing is expected to come from a combination of government funds and private investment. Nelson and Hurwitz plan to make presentations to the county legislature and County Executive Mike Hein in the coming months.
Explore the Catskills will continue to meet weekly, and fundraising events for the group are planned, beginning with a concert by the Ben Rounds Band and friends, slated for April 2 at the Boiceville Inn.
The group’s next meeting, is at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 19, at Joseph Hurwitz’ Architects office (the former Old Methodists Church) on Route 28 and Van Dale Road.