Empire State Railway Museum is polished up


Diorama with model trains depicts the 1900 Phoenicia train station. (Photos by Dion Ogust)

The Empire State Railway Museum (ESRM), the former Phoenicia train station, has undergone a major sprucing up and reorganization as it prepares to serve as the terminus for the Rail Explorers rail bikes, which were chosen by Ulster County to take over the Phoenicia run of Catskill Mountain Railroad (CMRR). The museum reopens Memorial Day weekend, as Rail Explorers launch their local operation, offering rail bike tours from Phoenicia to Mount Pleasant and back.

“Clutter had accumulated over the years,” said Paul LaPierre, a board member of the all-volunteer, non-profit ESRM. We were standing in the stationmaster’s room, which had become a repository for items that have now either been moved out or, if they have historical value, placed prominently on display. The room is being restored as closely as possible to its condition in the years when an estimated 40 trains a day went past the bay windows that gave the stationmaster a view up and down the tracks.


On the built-in desk in front of the window is a telegraph apparatus with a key that kids will be able to press and print out messages in Morse code, thanks to a hidden computer. Two jars contain the materials for the wet-cell battery that once powered the telegraph machines. An antique wooden telephone, complete with crank, trumpet mouthpiece, and separate earpiece, hangs on the wall. LaPierre, a furniture maker by trade, plans to build a ticket rack like the one shown in a photo of the room taken when the railroad was active.

The only divergence from the past is a long diorama, which was brought out from a corner to sit on top of flat files in the center of the room. The model reconstructs the busy rail yard of 1900 and is placed so viewers can look out the window and visualize the items shown in miniature in the diorama: trains, rails, ties, trees, a nearby hotel, a bridge about to convey a horse and cart over the tracks toward town, and many other details. 

Paul LaPierre in refurbished Empire State Railway Museum.

The model includes the original station, long since demolished but then located closer to Bridge Street, with narrow-gauge tracks running on one side of the building and standard-gauge tracks on the other. Ulster and Delaware Railroad trains ran from Kingston to Oneonta on tracks of standard width, explained LaPierre. When the tourist boom required trains to go up through Stony Clove, tracks of a narrower width were built to accommodate light trains and tight curves for the steep, winding trip north. Passengers bound for the Greene County hotels arrived in Phoenicia and switched trains by simply crossing the platform. In 1899, the Stony Clove tracks were widened to standard gauge, simplifying procedures, and the new station was built farther east.

LaPierre pointed out a tiny bluestone yard on the diorama. There the tracks dipped down so the stone from nearby quarries could be easily loaded onto trains on their way to the Rondout and then onto boats bound for New York City, where the stone would be used for sidewalks. The trains also carried milk from local farms. “There were stations every few miles for farmers to put out cans of milk that were shipped to the city,” said LaPierre. “The empties were brought back at night. This went on until the end of the Second World War.”

Near Bridge Street, the diorama shows a circular structure that LaPierre identified as a turntable pit, with machinery enabling a locomotive to be turned around for the trip back to Kingston. It is slightly misplaced on the model, which does not go past Bridge Street. In real life, a small section of the turntable pit’s stone wall is still visible alongside the tracks west of the street.   

The waiting room has also been opened up, thanks to a thorough cleanout job. The wooden walls and graceful vaulted wooden ceiling have been scrubbed, and they gleam with a new coat of shellac. Wooden benches line the walls. In the center stands the original heat diffuser, a waist-high structure that conveyed warm air from the furnace into the room. It is surrounded by an elaborate grill, which a museum board member took home, dismantled, wire-brushed, and repainted.

This room will house displays of historic photographs and will provide an ideal setting for an already scheduled lecture series, with railroad historians speaking on the third Saturday of each month, June through October. Topics will include vintage post cards; the links among canals, railroads, and the elevated line to the Catskill Mountain House; photographs taken along the Ulster and Delaware line in 1966; and other historical explorations.

Next door in the maintenance barn, built a few years ago, ESRM’s steam locomotive, an 1896 baggage car, and a 1927 caboose are awaiting restoration. When the work is completed, they will be brought out and put on display so visitors can roam through the cars.

CMRR, which still runs its excursion trains in Kingston, no longer has use of the Phoenicia tracks, but LaPierre expects the Rail Explorer venture to give the museum a new lease on life, partly thanks to the company’s marketing savvy. He hopes the refurbished museum will be an attraction even for people who won’t be rail biking but have an interest in local history and the vibrant world of the railroads.

The Empire State Railway Museum is located at 70 Lower High Street, Phoenicia. The museum is open Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The website is currently under construction but will soon be providing information at http://www.esrm.com.