“This trestle marks the beginning of the Hudson Valley Rail Trail. It is dedicated to Claire and Ray Costantino, whose vision transformed an old, abandoned railbed into what is now an 8.75-mile linear park that runs from Walkway Over the Hudson to the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail. Before you is a paved passage through varied terrain and experiences that you will not soon forget.” So reads the new brass plaque affixed to the recycled steel gateway now marking the place where the Walkway and the rail trail converge, on the western edge of the entryway plaza on the Highland side of the former railroad bridge.
The new gateway was officially dedicated on Saturday, October 19 in a ceremony featuring a number of those who were instrumental in the trail’s creation and many members past and present of the Board of Directors of the Hudson Valley Rail Trail Association (HVRT). Also looking on, on that perfect autumn afternoon, were not a few random Walkway users who fortuitously happened upon the scene, clicking away with their cameras and chattering amongst themselves in several languages.
Few could have anticipated what a magnet for tourists from all over the world this spot would become, back in the mid-1990s when three active members of the Highland Rotary Club — Ray Costantino, John Canino and Everton Henriques — were brainstorming their next community service project and came up with the idea of turning the abandoned New York, New Haven and Hartford Line railbed through the town into a pedestrian and bicycle trail. “Ray remembered a rail trail that he and Claire had walked in Lake George,” current HVRT president Pete Bellizzi recounted at the dedication ceremony.
The idea caught fire among other club members and spread throughout the community, although no one was keen on spending tax dollars on the project. But when a now-defunct fiber-optics communications company announced plans to install high-speed Internet cable lines connecting the New York State Thruway corridor with Poughkeepsie via Routes 299 and 9W and the Mid-Hudson Bridge, Costantino — by then having been elected Lloyd town supervisor — proposed that the company utilize the right-of-way under the old railbed instead. A deal was negotiated in which the company paid the Town of Lloyd $400,000 for an easement to do this, still saving itself half a million dollars by significantly shortening the route, according to Bellizzi.
That $400,000 fee became the town’s match for grants available from the New York State Department of Transportation, and work got underway to improve the rail trail after the excavation for the cable installation was completed. “We just dug in and said, ‘We’re going to do this project,’” Costantino related. “I was told that if I paved the rail trail, I wouldn’t get reelected. I went ahead and paved it anyway.” He gave much of the credit for his determination to his wife: “Claire never followed; she was out front.” “If you know Claire, you know she doesn’t give up,” agreed Henriques. “She kept pushing Ray.”
As it turned out, no local property taxes were spent on developing the trail; support came from a series of state grants, individual donors and volunteer labor. The first 2.5 miles, extending from the Highland hamlet to Tony Williams Park, was paved and opened to the public by 1997. Eventually Ulster County got into the act, supporting the third phase of the project, from the firehouse to South Street, and New York State provided funds, machinery and labor for the most recent phase, bringing the trail all the way into New Paltz and its connection with the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, River-to-Ridge Trail and points beyond. “Ray was a visionary,” said Herb Litts III, county legislator for District 9, which includes western Lloyd and eastern Plattekill. “He was way ahead of any other town. The governor hadn’t even gotten his idea for his Empire Trail, but I think he got it here.”
Litts went on to tell of his family’s own involvement in the rail trail project: The uprights of the new memorial gateway, supporting a steel arch with a cutout of the HVRT logo and the legend “Hudson Valley Rail Trail,” are repurposed sections of towers that once carried power lines from an electrical distribution facility in Highland over Illinois Mountain to New Paltz. “In the 1960s or ‘70s, Central Hudson decided to replace the towers with monotube poles. They contracted with my dad to take the towers down the mountain,” said Litts. “Dad bought them for scrap.” The pile of steel girders lay for decades on the Litts family property on North Chodikee Lake Road, slowly shrinking as the family donated them to fire departments for siren towers or sold them to cable companies. The sign over the dock at Bob Shepard Highland Landing Memorial Park was another donation, and pieces of an I-beam were used in an Eagle Scout project creating a footbridge over a small stream visible at the foot of the embankment where the new HVRT gateway stands. “Herbie’s father was the original recycler,” joked Ray Costantino.
That dwindling pile of scrap metal may be called upon once more as work on the rail trail nears completion, said Litts: “They want to do another arch at the other end, on 299 across from Lowe’s.” Asked what else remains to be done, Costantino said, “There are some improvements here we can make, in the area in front of the caboose.” He and Claire are envisioning a display of historic railway memorabilia to complement the 1915-vintage caboose, which had formerly been used as an Ulster County Chamber of Commerce visitor kiosk before being sold to the Town of Marlboro. The Costantinos bought it back and donated it to HVRT, and it’s now an added attraction at the beginning of the trail, its original interior affording glimpses into life on the railways a century ago. Little kids find it irresistible.
All along its length, the Hudson Valley Rail Trail offers plenty of other incentives to explore, from vistas of Illinois Mountain to fishing opportunities in Black Creek to seasonal festivals such as the annual Winterfest Chili Cookoff. But at the western terminus of the Walkway over the Hudson, where the rail trail begins, visitors can now also enjoy a reminder of how it all began.