108 Garfield Ave., Madison, N. J. 07940
'How much does it cost to ride the train, Mister?' Turning around I saw a boy standing before me clutching a large inflated inner-tube. He was dripping wet and shivering just a bit in the cool autumn breeze. Thinking to add some humor to my reply, I said, 'It's a dollar and a half one way or two dollars round trip for adults, but for kids it's a dollar one way, both ways or any way.' He listened without any sign of emotion other than to blink when the dollar was mentioned. Sensing an impending moment of financial embarrassment I quickly added, 'See Dave, the conductor, over there. He might be able to arrange a loan if you are willing to let us keep your inner-tube for a while.'
With that I strode off to climb aboard the engine. It took a while to coax the ancient Ford industrial gas engine to run again. But, glancing back I noticed the conductor tossing the tube into our baggage car knowing that a deal had been made as the Catskill Mountain Railroad 'Tubers Special' began another scheduled run to Phoenicia along the banks of the Ashokan River on the tracks of what once had been the Ulster & Delaware Railroad.
In the summer of 1916 the U&D scheduled three passenger trains each way between Kingston (New York State) and Oneonta to handle the influx of summer visitors to the hotels and lodges in the surrounding mountains. But all of that is gone now. For a while the line was operated by the West Shore Division of the New York Central following pressure from the ICC to keep the line open. With the advent of Con-rail, it became a part of that effort to maintain train service in the northeast. But by 1976 even this subsidized venture came to a halt and the road was closed down seemingly forever. In fact, passenger service survived only until 1954.
The tracks from the Oneonta end back to Arkville had been torn up by the summer of 1981. And for a while it looked as if the end was approaching for the remainder of the track back to Kingston. This too wavered and the future hung by a thread until finally the Ulster County officials under the urging of area citizens interested in the tourist based economy finally purchased about 40 miles of the remaining trackage. There was a momentary flurry of activity while an impact statement and other evaluation efforts were produced in the hope that an entrepreneur would take up the torch and run a tourist operation out of Kingston. But, that too failed.
With Ulster County owning the property this established a base from which two groups would put together their respective programs for instituting service again over the old U&D. We shall examine the first of these to go into operation, the one headed by Kent Reeves of Cold Brook through whose property the tracks run.
It began with the formation of the Catskill Mountain Railroad. But that was only the beginning of the trauma that was to follow for it seemed that just as one hurdle was overcome some agency would find another way to halt the development.
One of the first things to be decided was just what kind of an operation it would be. And where would it operate since the division of the property for the Reeves venture was from Kingston to Phoenicia. To add to the difficulty of future operation there was a Washout north of Cold Brook which had the effect of isolating the Phoenicia end in so far as getting heavy rolling stock over the line from a connection that could be re-established with the West Shore at Kingston. Then too, just how much expenditure would the tourist trade and its short season support? Doing a market survey for this type of operation has its difficulties.
While studies were going on in the Reeves Real Estate Office to try to reach a conclusion and to establish a program others were busy doing what they could with limited manpower and practically no money to get the track into a degree of operability. It was the Kingston Model Railroad Club that was in the forefront of this work. Week-end after week-end was spent in clearing brush and shoring up the worst of the water damage along the track.
When this group started out for a day's work with their own personally restored vintage equipment it certainly seemed as if the old common carrier had not really gone out of business.
Five of the Kingston Club members formed the Track Car Department within the club and completely restored a 1915 Buda track car. This veteran of early rail service with its twin cylinder air cooled engine and unique combined torque converter and reverse mechanism had more than enough power to pull work cars of tools and supplies up the 2% grade out of Kingston. The Buda, it will be recalled, has a massive flywheel against which a small diameter flat faced wheel is held by the reversing system mechanism. This power take off wheel in turn is carried on a splined shaft that runs transverse to the face of the flywheel on a diameter. There is an opening in the center of the flywheel that is neutral. On either side of this the splined shaft is driven in either forward or in reverse by holding the small wheel tightly against the flywheel face.
STEPHEN LATHROP aboard his Fairmont M-9 running along a section of right-of-way yet to be cleared of its growth of brush and weeds. It was here in the fall that an encounter with a black bear was had. The bear resented having trains in his domain
Steve Lathrop was usually there with his restored Fairmont model M-9G in its bright yellow and black paint scheme. Some years before it had been sold for junk by a mid-western railroad to an equipment dealer. After many hours of labor amid blood, sweat and tears the M-9 was to run again and the fun of running it was to be the only pay anyone would get out of the operation in its early poor days.
The members of the Kingston Model Railroad Club had followed a somewhat similar route in rebuilding their TC-115 as a club project. It too participated in the track rehabilitation work.
Meanwhile, back at the Real Estate Office conferences were constantly being held with State and County officials. There was insurance to be considered and other official business to be handled. But all the while there was the usual money problem that always plagues any volunteer operation or organization. A steam locomotive and a couple of passenger cars would have been just great. And, the track could handle it from Kingston to Cold Brook. But that takes money, people with know-how and availability of equipment-on site.
Watching the track crew work and taking a few rides over the line was to be the chrysalis from which the final program idea was born.
On August 7, 1982, in a festive ribbon cutting ceremony the first train in revenue service on the Cats-kill Mountain Railroad pulled out of Mt. Pleasant for Phoenicia with Steve Lathrop as engineman and Dave Williams as conductor. President Kent Reeves was busy with the State and County dignitaries aboard that inaugural trip. That first train which was to be the market testing facility was somewhat unique.
The Lamoille Valley Railroad was to play a part in this venture by selling the Catskill several discarded former Vermont Railroad crew cars and a 40 horsepower Northwestern track car that was to become the 'engine' of the little train that made local history that warm and beautiful August day.
After hours of frustrating labor, the Northwestern was made operational again. It was given a distinctive green, orange and black livery. Its 'sick cow' sounding klaxon horn was replaced with a Freon gas horn with its distinctive though deceptive diesel sound. Two crew cars were given a green and black livery and equipped with safety chains to restrain the passengers that were expected to flock to the station for a ride through the countryside.
The plan was to provide a community service for the Ashokan 'tubers'. One of the activities both summer tourists and the local residents enjoy is 'tubeing' on the swift flowing Ashokan and its white water between Mt. Pleasant and Phoenicia. There is a transportation need to return the people, their tubes or kyacks or rubber boats back to Phoenicia for yet another trip, some three miles up river. Thus the first season's operation was to provide this service with ten round trips on Saturdays and nine on Sundays. This would be a test of the market potential. And, it would be done with a modest capital outlay for the type of equipment that those then working with the venture knew how to operate and to maintain.
The running gear from a third crew car was used in the construction of a special baggage car to carry tubes, boats and picnic baskets. And as it turned out, a place for a fortunate few to ride as the service became so popular that there was not enough seating space for all those that wanted to ride. Interestingly enough, only about a half or less of the traffic was to be tubers. Mostly people just came along for the ride.
When the service closed for the season in late October, over 1500 passengers had been carried. A man familiar with U&D statistics remarked, 'You carried more passengers in your season than the U&D carried in its final year.' But, the bottom line was, it more than met operational and financial goals. Now a modest expansion could be planned.
With that, Reeves began looking for larger motive power although three other and somewhat larger Northwestern track cars were then being negotiated. As it turned out a visit to the Illinois Railway Museum auction in Union, Illinois, determined the expansion step. The Catskill Mountain Railroad logo was soon to be affixed to a 38 ton Davenport gas-mechanical locomotive. The CMRR was headed for the 'big time'.
The Davenport was delivered to the property at Phoenicia where it is undergoing a rebuild. A former D & H caboose #35952 is also now on site and serves as a crew quarters for those that spend their weekends 'working on the railroad'. Its coal burning pot belly stove keeps the crummy cozy as the wind and snow swirl outside in the center of this ski area as well as a summer retreat.
With this heavier equipment it will be necessary to upgrade the track between Phoenicia and Mt. Pleasant. New ties are being installed in the upgrade program . Being a County property it has been possible to use prison labor for this part of the program. Although this may seem like a minimal type operation they do have plans for the future that go beyond the immediate picture. They are following the Federal Railroad Administration rules and specifications for not only the track but the operation of trains as well. An 'official' organization has been established and programs initiated to train and qualify operating personnel.
It is this later step that has had so much personal meaning for me. After having been brought up as a child on the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway where my father was the Superintendent of Operations it was a unique experience to have my son, Steve, Road Foreman of Engines, put me through the qualifying steps as an Engineman on the Extra Board. One evening while relaxing over a good meal at a nearby restaurant, Steve seemed extra quiet. Then it came out. 'Gee, Pop, I'm sorry that I was so hard on you today.' 'Think nothing of it', I said, 'You had a job to do. ' 'Yeah,' he mused, 'but you'll have to admit, you were running too fast.'
I guess that I was. But after loading passengers at Mt. Pleasant with the slightly soggy boy and his tube among the last, we got away about ten minutes late and I wanted to pull into Phoenicia 'on the advertised'.
There is a road crossing just before the old and abandoned U&D station at Phoenicia. Blowing for that crossing is just the notice that a little five year old boy who lives near the tracks needs to be standing at track-side as we pull into town. When I whistle off for the return trip he rushes out again to watch us go by. This has gone on so long now that the crews have given him the honorary title of 'The Yardmaster'.
THE REBUILT BUDA provides motive power for the track crew's work cars. Tools are being off loaded for a group to start work while the work train moves on to the next project.
We don't use the old U&D station but rather pull up to the highway crossing in Phoenicia where there is a passing track to be used later with the heavier equipment. Here the passengers detrain, at least those making the one-way trip, while the round trippers usually hold their favorite seating position. This is where the 'loans' are paid off. The young tuber that we had brought in on this trip leaves his inner tube as security while he hurries across the bridge to appeal to his parents for the price of the trip. So far as I know we have not acquired any inner tubes through default although I understand that there have been some close calls and perhaps a few tubes have made a round trip in the baggage car.
In this initial testing period it has been a 'push-pull' operation. The return trip to Mt. Pleasant is made by backing down the entire trip. This necessitates putting a qualified engineman on the last car. In effect, he is operating the train through flag signals to the engine then pushing on the rear. Although it is a bit awkward and has been the potential for some trouble it finished the season without a mishap. Soon, run around facilities will be provided.
The mighty oak from a little acorn grows. This railroad and its operations will never be a threat to the Burlington Northern or to the Union Pacific. But it is doing three things. First, it is providing a service in the local tourist economy. Then, it is preserving the last vestige of a unique rail line through the Catskill Mountains. And, it is a project that any rail fan or old equipment buff could be pleased with and in which his inner desires to be working on the railroad can be fulfilled through being a volunteer.