Hopes and challenges abound amidst Ulster County’s ambitious plans to transform the county-owned Ulster & Delaware railroad tracks into a system of interconnected rail trails and tourist train operations. After years of controversy and negotiation over the valuable property that is the 38.5-mile rail corridor, the county is moving forward with requests for proposals to operate the two short stretches of existing tourist railroad, which will persist and even slightly expand.
Meanwhile trail engineering firms are bidding on conversion of the 11.5-mile section of the railroad right-of-way that passes through lands owned by New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) along the north shore of the Ashokan Reservoir. I was given a peek at those tracks on April 6.
Butternut Creek meanders along a low-lying area between Route 28 and the raised bed of the railroad in Shokan, maybe a mile west of Winchell’s Corners, and then plunges under the tracks, through a huge culvert, to empty into the reservoir at Butternut Cove. Standing on the tracks, I can see Butternut Cove through the trees, its placid waters reflecting the graceful mountains on the far side of the reservoir. When the Ashokan Reservoir Trail opens, hopefully in about two years, hikers, cyclists, and cross-country skiers will be able to legally enjoy this view for the first time in the century since the New York City reservoir was created.
I’m here with special permission from DEP, obtained by Maxanne Resnick, recently appointed executive director of Woodstock Land Conservancy (WLC), and Kevin Smith, chair of WLC’s board of directors. East of the cove, we have to step off the tracks to bypass the gap above the culvert, where about 30 feet of rails, shorn of their wooden ties by floodwaters, are suspended in the air, since the underlying rail bed was also washed away. Filling in this gap is just one of the many obstacles engineers will face when they convert the corridor into rail trail.
The state has awarded the county a water quality grant of almost $330,000 just to address the problems at Butternut Cove. The DEP has promised another $2.3 million for renovating the Ashokan section of the rail trail. Those figures, plus additional Federal and state grants, add up to $9.1 million for development of the Ashokan trail and portions of the Hurley and Hudson Valley rail trails to the south, forming a network that will meet at Kingston, linking to the Kingston Greenline, a linear park traversing the city.
Smith, also vice president of Friends of the Ulster County Rail Trail, has been involved in years of research and advocacy while the county and Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR) negotiated over the use of the tracks. The debate has been arduous and often bitter, involving litigation brought against Ulster County by CMRR regarding the company’s current lease and operations, formation of a special legislative committee, hiring of independent consultants, and multiple professional inspections of the tracks.
“Considerable concessions were made by the railroad and by the trail advocates,” says Smith, “We’re really stoked about the planning process now underway.” In December, the county legislature voted unanimously to adopt the recommendations of studies suggesting that in order to maximize the public benefits, the bulk of the corridor should be made trail-only. The trail will be open 365 days a year, without permit or fee — even within DEP property — and unlike most Catskills trails, which meander, traverse, and scale mountains, it will be accessible to people in wheelchairs, people pushing strollers, and cyclists. The tourist train operations at Kingston and Phoenicia, which have proven successful at bringing in riders on weekends, May through October, will continue to run, designated as either rail-only or rail-with-trail, provided ways can be found to deal with the constraints of the corridor in certain areas.
Many of the volunteer members of CMRR want the rails left in place, hoping some day to revive train service from Kingston to Highmount. But the trail, at least on the section along the reservoir, will require removing the rails, which the all-volunteer CMRR force has not been able to maintain over the 30 years of its lease of the county-owned tracks. They have cleared brush, replaced ties, and repaired intermittent flood damage in the sections where they operate, but they have lacked the resources to address the remaining 30 miles, which had became largely overgrown with trees, while many drainage ditches along the tracks have become clogged with plants and debris.
In the past year, with the lease heading toward expiration this May 31, railroad volunteers have been clearing brush and trees from the corridor. CMRR is submitting a proposal for continued operation of the tourist railroads in the hope of renewing its lease, in which it had agreed to restore one mile of track per year. However, rehabilitation, even for a walking trail, demands more extensive work than simply removing trees.
While the steel rails are in fine shape, the wooden ties are rotting, and water and root systems have undermined parts of the rail bed that support the ties. Along the Ashokan, I find that walking over the ties, which jut above the bed in most places, is difficult even with a cushion of late snow. The surface is too corrugated for either hikers or cyclists. Comprehensive inspections of the corridor in 2014 and 2015 determined that approximately 700 ties per mile would have to be replaced if the tracks were put back into service for trains, even at the 15-mile-per-hour speed limit permitted for excursion trains.
So along the reservoir, the ties and rails are to be removed, and the rail bed in some sections will require new ballast and surfacing. Sections of rail, switches, and railroad structures will be kept and marked with interpretive signs to chronicle the history of the Ulster & Delaware Railroad and the tracks over which the last passenger train ran the length of Ulster County in 1955.
After hiking back to Route 28 from Butternut Cove, we drive a few miles east from Shokan and pause at the tiny, disused railroad station by the side of the highway in Ashokan. The nearby gate to DEP property will likely be one of three major trailheads along the Ashokan Reservoir Trail. The DEP has promised to fund the trailheads, which will include parking areas, sanitary facilities, and kiosks. Ulster County’s agreement with DEP ensures that pedestrians and cyclists will be able to access the trail from other locations along the corridor.
The DEP has to replace the dividing weir bridge across the reservoir in the next three to six years and has committed to including a dedicated bicycling and pedestrian lane, offering the town of Olive, cut in half by the reservoir, a safe way across for non-vehicular traffic.
Down the road from the station, the little plaza that currently hosts a pizza parlor and chocolate shop is about to become a hot piece of commercial real estate. “People who want to take a break from hiking can go there to eat, shop at stores, rent a bike, take a side trip, and sight-see,” says Smith. “We’re at the beginning of an exciting phase in planning the Ashokan Reservoir Trail. There will be opportunities in the coming year for people along Route 28 and in Boiceville, Shokan, Glenford, and West Hurley to get involved and give input that helps connect trail and town in the best possible ways for businesses, schools, community organizations, residents and visitors alike.”
According to a county document on the expected benefits of the trail, the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) analyzed the economic impact of 14 multi-use trails throughout New York, including the Town of Hurley Rail Trail, in 2008. OPRHP estimated the Ulster County trail could bring in $2 million per year to local businesses, create 40 full-time jobs (or the equivalent), and generate an unspecified amount of sales tax revenue. Opportunities will open up for such businesses as bicycle tours and bike rental concessions.
At West Hurley, across Route 28 from the post office, we walk along the tracks parallel to the Woodstock Dike. A little to the west, we encounter a meticulously constructed stone wall with a curved capstone. It’s known as the “Chinese wall,” apparently a reference to the Great Wall of China, although this wall is barely waist-high, long and straight, alongside the tracks. Near its end, we step onto the expanse of the Glenford Dike, with a spectacular view of the reservoir.
From West Hurley, the trail will connect to another segment where CMRR runs a tourist railroad leading into the city of Kingston. One issue still to be worked out is how to make rail-with-trail possible along this route, which in turn leads to the Kingston Greenline, already under construction, a linear park that goes all the way to the Hudson River beach at Kingston Point. Cyclists and pedestrians will be able to travel through Kingston and its surrounding areas, bypassing the surface street system and connecting to uptown shopping areas, a boon for the carless.
“The Land Conservancy believes we need to develop more sustainable communities and economies,” says Smith. “The Ashokan and Kingston trail projects are great opportunities to help accomplish this. We know that when people have trails and protected paths close by, convenient and safe, they use them much more and that their health is demonstrably better as a result.”
The Kingston Greenline also addresses social justice issues, said county executive Mike Hein, providing safe access from low-income neighborhoods of midtown Kingston to the supermarket at Kingston Plaza near the Stockade.
Further links are envisioned to make the trail part of a network that includes the Wallkill Valley and Town of Hurley rail trails, to the south, and the Hudson Valley Rail Trail, which leads to the Walkway Over the Hudson and the Dutchess Rail Trail, east of the river. “This will be an interconnected trail system second to none,” stated Hein. “There’s nothing like it in proximity to the 22 million people in the metro New York area. And tourism in Ulster County is a half-billion-dollar industry.”
Heading west from the reservoir, there are problems that will be addressed at a later time. The tourist railroad running from Mount Tremper to Phoenicia is in good shape, but there are places with no room for a trail alongside the tracks. The Boiceville trestle washed out in Hurricane Irene, and several others have been damaged or removed as flood hazards. A gap in the hamlet of Shandaken will be addressed when the state replaces the highway bridge this year, with plans to add a pedestrian deck underneath. Along High Street in Phoenicia, there are two spots where the rail bed has washed into the creek. Still, there’s hope that the rail trail will eventually extend all the way to Highmount. Even if the trains can’t make it there, maybe the hikers and cyclists will.