The Empire State Railway Museum (ESRM) in Phoenicia has been cutting down trees in preparation for installing new track near High Street, sending neighbors into a flurry of anxiety and speculation. Museum official Dakin Morehouse said the project has nothing to do with absorbing Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR) rolling stock, now that CMRR has withdrawn a planning board application for a use variance to establish a rail yard on its adjacent property.
Morehouse said the new rails will allow the museum to consolidate the location of unsightly cars the public has complained about, facilitate driving trains into the maintenance barn, and will support the ESRM’s steam locomotive, recently trucked up from Kingston to stand outside the train station as a museum exhibit. However, if CMRR loses its lease on the county-owned tracks, ESRM will need extra rails to accommodate the cars now standing on the siding in Phoenicia. (ESRM, a non-profit that runs the train station museum, and CMRR, a for-profit corporation that operates two tourist train rides, are separate entities that collaborate on some projects.)
Morehouse insisted that contrary to rumor, the CMRR trains from the Cornell Street yard in Kingston will not be brought to Phoenicia, since the cost for transport would be prohibitively high. However, he referred to the possibility that, if the lease is not renewed, CMRR will build a track on their own land for cars currently sitting on the county rails in Mount Tremper. CMRR president Ernie Hunt did not confirm this statement, explaining that CMRR, which has submitted a proposal to the county for continued operation of its two tourist lines, will wait and see if the proposal is accepted before deciding what to do about the cars.
“If we are going to be the operator on the railroad,” said Hunt, “we will go back and approach this issue again. If we do end up as the operator, we’ll sit down with the county and come up with a master plan for everything.”
Hunt said CMRR has received offers to buy its stock if the lease goes down, and they will probably either sell the cars or store them temporarily on their property. He added that the recent application for a use variance for the land was related to a “long-term plan for the railroad. I think if we are the operator, we want to sit down with county, and the discussion might include that [property].”
Shandaken Zoning Enforcement Officer Warren Tutt said he had visited the ESRM site and informed museum officials they were required to submit an application for a floodplain development permit before proceeding further with the work. By Tuesday, June 7, he had received an application, which he would examine to determine whether the planned construction might pose any hazards to property under flood conditions. In 2011, Hurricane Irene’s floodwaters toppled train cars, tore up tracks, and ruined the railway station’s furnace.
“If they’re storing trains, we have to consider what might happen in a flood,” said Tutt. “We will use the best available data to obtain the best mitigation we can. Any development in a floodplain requires a permit. Only a mailbox is allowed without it, or maybe a flagpole.” Tutt was recently certified as a New York State floodplain manager.
He said a floodplain permit would also be needed for construction on the CMRR property. The neighbors, who fought the CMRR’s application a for use variance that would allow “light industrial” train renovation on the residential-zoned land, fear that with the withdrawal of the application, CMRR will attempt an end-run around the zoning regulations. Tutt said he would have to do more research to determine whether storage of train cars, as opposed to renovation, would violate the zoning regulations, and right now he’s too busy with other issues. When asked whether he would be keeping an eye on the property, Tutt replied, “Believe me, people will let me know if anything is going on there.”
As for the concrete barriers brought onto ESRM property, a source of worry for the neighbors, Tutt said those structures are to be buried underground adjacent to the maintenance barn, to prevent scouring of the ground around the building during a flood. Some of the barriers may be placed aboveground to protect the model railroad site on the other side of the property.
High Street resident Anique Taylor, who had led the opposition to the use variance, commented, “Neighbors are concerned about the museum storing trains in the floodplain. We hope the museum will not undermine their own mission and success by turning their site into a construction site, factory and/or decaying rail yard.”
Morehouse said the new tracks will consolidate the arrangement of cars, many of them in a state of disrepair, and enable ESRM to put two cars in the maintenance barn, thus responding to complaints that the cars are an eyesore. While cutting down trees, ESRM plans to leave up a screen of trees between the future tracks and the road or put in new plantings that will block the streetside view of trains brought from their current location farther east along High Street.
One of the baggage cars may be scrapped instead of being refurbished. Heavy equipment, currently in the parking lot, is needed for the construction work but will be relocated when no longer required. Morehouse said, “Our goal is to get everything inside or compact so we don’t have an eyesore to the town.”
Plans call for the locomotive and a steel boxcar to be developed as museum pieces. “We’ll have a cutaway view of valves and doors open to the firebox,” he explained. “People can get inside and blow the whistle, pull the throttle, shovel coal in. We’re going to get videos in so as they throw the throttle forward, it will show what the engineer sees going down the line. We’ll have a telegraph machine, transmitting into the station. We have original batteries — a beaker with zinc and a copper line hangs in. We’ll have a lot of interactive things in there.”