Gateway Diner takes top honors at Hudson Valley Rail Trail WinterFest Chili Contest

Maggie Schoonmaker, Nancy Ducas and Laura Kelly have attended the Highland Winter Fest for the past four years. Their visit always starts with a walk on the Rail Trail. (Photos by Lauren Thomas)

The Gateway Diner took First Place in the “people’s choice” Chili Contest at last Saturday’s Hudson Valley Rail Trail WinterFest. So if you voted for Pot #2 in the blind tasting, you helped make it a winner! Three Guys Pizza took Second Place, for the contents of Pot #1, and volunteers from the Hudson Valley Rail Trail Association (HVRTA) were in Third Place for Pot #11. There were 15 entries in all, in the centerpiece of the 20th annual WinterFest.

Over those two decades, the event has “never been canceled,” no matter how daunting the weather, according to WVRTA president Peter Bellizzi. “We got off to a rough start, with frozen rain and snow around eight o’clock this morning,” he said. “Last night we got about 50 phone calls from places like Middletown, Putnam Valley, asking, ‘Are you canceling?’ But the sun came out. We got a pretty good turnout,” despite the fact that the temperature was in the mid-20s, not counting the wind chill.


“The Chili Contest is a big draw. The whole idea is to get the community out in the middle of winter to meet and greet,” he continued. “But it’s also about making people aware of the rail trail. Governor Cuomo wants to have the whole Empire State Trail done by 2020… Within the next year we’ll be out to Central Hudson. Then the state will take it across the Thruway and into New Paltz, probably along DuBois, to the Wallkill.” The completed trail system will eventually follow the Erie Canal corridor all the way to Buffalo: a 750-mile run, which Bellizzi characterized as “pretty ambitious.”

Eleven year-old Eva Meyer of Highland

On hand for Saturday’s festivities were the Laudieri family from Glenville, Connecticut, discovering the Hudson Valley Rail Trail for the first time. “We’re big cyclists,” said Chris Laudieri, who was driving through the area for work-related reasons while his wife Regina was checking out what it had to offer on her Rails to Trails app. Their daughter Madison, 5 ½, was more impressed with the free marshmallows than the 15 varieties of chili. “I like toasting them,” she said.

“I like the caboose,” said Madison’s 8-year-old brother Mario. “There’s even a second floor.” In fact, quite a few visitors checked out the inside of the 1915 Pennsylvania Railroad N5 Cabin Car, which is kept on permanent exhibit at the Hudson Valley Rail Trail Depot at 101 New Paltz Road in Highland. The propane stove inside made it a warm place to wait one’s turn for the hayride along the rail trail, and the historic rail car’s walls are covered with artists’ renditions of plans for future expansion of the trail, the Walkway over the Hudson, Johnson/Iorio Memorial Park and other stops on Highland’s ever-growing pedestrian circuit.

Besides chili and marshmallows, there were hot dogs and roasted chestnuts on offer, and for a buck you could pick up a baggie containing all the ingredients for a make-it-yourself s’more. Volunteers from the Highland Rotary Club dished out the goodies, while kids from the local Boy Scout troop organized karaoke and the Interact Club from Highland High School coordinated games. Food was donated by Bagels & Bites, Café Arts, the Gateway Diner, the Gilded Otter, Hudson Ale Works, the Hudson Valley Sausage Company, the Main Street Bistro, Mahoney’s, On a Roll Deli, P & G’s, Sal’s, the Would, Three Guys Pizza, the Underground Café & Ales and the Wagon Wheel Deli — not to mention the Hudson Valley Rail Trail Association volunteers.

Nine year-old Adonis Almonte puts out the fire on his marshmallow

Highland Rotary Club members serve chili (l-r): Bruce Desmond, Sal Sorbello and Sharon Cohen.

Eleventh grader Janique Dunklley of the Highland High School Interact Club entertains the crowd with some Diana Ross on the karaoke machine.