Kaatscast: the Catskills' premier podcast!
Sept. 13, 2022

Empire State Railway Museum: Catskills Rails Then and Now

Empire State Railway Museum: Catskills Rails Then and Now

In our last episode we took a ride on the old Ulster & Delaware rails with Rail Explorers, a pedal bike experience in Phoenicia, NY. This week, we're at the neighboring Empire State Railway Museum, at home in the historic 1899 Phoenicia train station since 1983, for a look back at Catskills railroad history. Curator Tom  Comito tells us about the 1913 peak of travel on these tracks, restoration projects underway, and the museum's evolving relationship with rail tourists.

Many thanks to our sponsors:

Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway
Hanford Mills Museum
Briars & Brambles Books
The Mountain Eagle 

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Transcript

Tom Comito  0:04  

Welcome to the Empire State Railway Museum. We've been here since 1983. But we have a history that's much longer and quite a bit interesting.

 

Brett Barry  0:12  

That was Tom Comito, our tour guide and curator at the Empire State Railway Museum in Phoenicia, New York. This is Kaatscast. Join us as we step back through time and see what life was like in an early 20th century Catskills train station. The Empire State railway museum can be found along the 52 mile Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway, following New York State Route 28. Through the heart of the central Catskills for maps, itineraries and links to area restaurants, shops and accommodations, visit scenic catskills.com Kaatscast is also sponsored by Hanford Mills Museum, explore the power of the past. As you watched the water we'll bring a working sawmill to life, bring a picnic to enjoy by the mill pod. For more information about scheduling a tour or about their new exploration days, visit Hanford mills.org or call 607-278-5744.

 

Tom Comito  1:12  

Well come on in. There are a number of U&D stations that are still in existence. Another great example of a restored station is in Haines falls on the branch line that went to the mountain top and that's owned and maintained by the mountain top Historical Society. And it's very similar to this when you get into all wainscotting, dark wood and whatnot. So this is the waiting room very typical of a small town railroad station at the turn of the century. All of the photographs and artwork that you see on the walls here are all related to this railroad, uh, railroads of the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson Valley region.

 

Brett Barry  1:53  

The Ulster and Delaware railroad was particularly well documented, thanks in large part to rail fan photography, a popular hobby in the 1930s and 40s. The Phoenicia station was a prime location for pursuing that pastime.

 

Tom Comito  2:07  

There were a number of photographers nationally, one of them, Gerald M. Best was an original member of the Empire State Railroad Museum. He was nationally known as a historian and photographer, and he produced what I'll call the seminal book, there's been a number done, but his was the first one he published in 1972. Railroad to the Catskills the story of the Ulster and Delaware, it's sold 1000s of copies, and it really is what put the railroad on the map nationally. And the other thing is, is that the railroad had a particular charm. And it penetrated the Catskill Mountain Railroad entirely. There were railroads around the periphery of the Catskill Mountains, but the U&D was the only one that actually cut across that completely. So the railroad becomes photographed and documented all out of proportion to its length. It had a charm. And it was easy to get to by the railfan photographers that really were centered around the New York metropolitan area.

 

U&D was a railroad that was begun in 1868 under the name Rondout in Oswego, why Oswego because after the Civil War, and the era in this country, called the railroad fever era, where every town wanted a railroad, there was this belief that Oswego would become the great port city of the lakes, it didn't turn out that way. So the name was changed to Rondout in Syracuse that lasted about six months, and then the railroad reorganized and got realistic and saw its western terminus is oneota. The original length of the railroad when it was finally completed in 1901, was 109 miles from Kingston to owning on it, but what happens in the meantime, is the hotel industry really flourishes.

 

Brett Barry  4:06  

Many of those hotel tourists found themselves right here at the Phoenicia station, the central hub for a connection to the Northern Catskills and its Grand Hotels. Tom showed us around the waiting room. 

 

Tom Comito  4:19  

If you were waiting for his you know, passenger to come in on the train or you were waiting for a train to take out bought your ticket at the window, waiting for your train and away you went. We have a few artifacts here. There's an old Lincoln pin coupler assembly that's before the automatic coupler came into widespread use at the turn of the last century, costs a lot of arms and legs and fingers of the old brakeman this bell, the whistle, the headlights the marker lights, while part of the steam engine that's undergoing cosmetic restoration in the car barn.

 

Brett Barry  4:52  

Tom showed us to that barn adjacent to the museum with that massive steam engine in residence.

 

Tom Comito  4:58  

Last steam engine ran past here in February of 1949. That was the last steam run on the Ulster and Delaware. This was purchased at an auction by two guys, one of them still very much involved here, Earl Pardini. The other one was Kent Reeves, who lived in Boyce Ville and he was one of the founders, one of the people who brought the museum here. And they learned that this equipment was being auctioned off and they went out there late 1983 or 84. And they bought this for $10,000. And Earl, who was at the time a locomotive engineer for Conrail, had the connections and got this thing shipped by rail, all the way from Michigan, to Cornell street yard in Kingston, where they began the process of taking it apart and labeling it because they wanted to restore it to operating condition. Very hard to keep these things running, the dream was that they would restore this operating condition. That didn't come true. In 2016, the Catskill Mountain Railroad had to vacate the Cornell street yard in Kingston that was owned by the City of Kingston. And this engine had to come here because it's owned by the museum, and always was. And we were able to move it because we got a gift from the estate of Dick Wilhelm, who was a former museum president, and it cost the $16,000 to move this thing from Cornell Street, yard and Kingston to here. And there are about four or five of these engines of the same class that also are in existence in the United States, but steam engines today because of their nature, that you don't run them indefinitely. You get them restored over a long period of time. And you pass all your inspections with the federal government because they operate under very high pressure, they generate steam very rapidly. And within a couple of years, they have to go through the whole rebuilding process again, and it's just not enough money to do it.

 

Brett Barry  7:11  

With that prohibitively expensive functional restoration off the table, museum volunteers are moving ahead with a slow but steady cosmetic restoration. So future visitors can see firsthand the grand tour of this mammoth engine. Back in the museum, we continued our tour through Catskills railroad history,

 

Tom Comito  7:31  

This window right here was the baggage section. And if you were expecting a package, while parcel shipments went by railway Express railway Express was the ups of the day, the FedEx of the day, and you would come to the window here and you know, for receiving your shipment or making arrangements to ship something out. And you'll notice that this is all like an old bag because it was all cash back then. So that's where the baggage man was, we step in here. This was the ticket agents office. And this is where the business of the railroad was conducted. The railroad well up into the 1920s operated by telegraph, and that's how the communication was the signal would go out from the main dispatcher in Kingston, and he would want to send an order to train water, you called it a track warrant, it gave the conductor and the engineer the right to the track that eliminated what we use called cornfield mates. In other words, head on collisions in the middle of the cornfield, they would begin the transmission by two letters. And every station had a call letter, finish with PA, the telegraph message would begin with pa copy order. 19, order 19 is a form and the dispatcher would transmit it Morse code, the operator would copy it, he would send it back to be confirmed, it would be copied on what they called flimseys, which were carbon paper. And that would be handed up to the train crew. It sounded like this. We do this. It gets a lot of attention from our visitors. We tell them it was the texting of the day. This diorama here was made by a member and it's a very accurate depiction of what it looked like out this bay window at the peak of railroad activity about 1910. The peak year for the Ulster and Delaware railroad was 1913. Approximately 615,000 tickets were sold that year. Passenger fares not every one of those embarked or disembarked at this station, but the majority of them at least pass through We're here on trains. This station itself during those years was the busiest station on the railroad west of Kingston.

 

Brett Barry  10:10  

Walking through this old station transports you to another time, the pristine woodwork original artifacts, even the gloomy acoustics set the stage for a brief time travel through a station that's largely unchanged from its bustling past. A century ago.

 

Tom Comito  10:28  

Pretty much exactly the sink is original. Believe the clock is all of the woodwork. This heat register is original there was a there's an old coal furnace it's still down in the basement there would fire it would call and the heat would come up you know by convection that work but it wasn't the hardly what we consider to be central heat today.

 

Brett Barry  10:48  

Looking down onto that diorama, a meticulous three dimensional model town complete with this station trains and tracks and nearby Phoenicia buildings, you start to get a sense of the important role this place served in getting passengers and cargo to from and within the Catskills for so many decades. Tom pointed out one of the miniature trains on the table. 

 

Tom Comito  11:12  

This is a passenger train here it stopped at the station is going to pick up passengers it's going to head to Kingston, where they will change trains and either go down to Weehawken and across the New York City, or they may go up to Albany, and from there they'll get on a train and head west anywhere West. This particular arrangement here is called a transfer system. What would happen is standard gauge boxcars, railroad cars would come in off of the U&D. And they would move them on to this transfer apparatus here. And the wheel sets which are called trucks would drop out and the horse would pull the car on this cradle, and three foot gauge wheel sets would be put in place and these standard gauge freight cars would then wobble and oscillate because the center of gravity changed up to the mountaintop where they would be offloaded or deliver their freight and then back down.

 

Brett Barry  12:09  

That narrow gauge line built by the U&D in the late 19th century, enabled train travel up through the Stoney clove notch toward Hunter and Tannersville

 

Tom Comito  12:19  

In 1883 U&D creates a subsidiary, the Stoney clove and Catskill Mountain Railroad and they build a narrow gauge three feet between the rails standard gauges, four foot eight and a half. And it branches off right up here that crosses the Esopus at Bridge Street and it heads up parallel route to 14 and it goes up through the notch and it divides on the other side of the notch and one line goes to Hunter and the other line goes to Hanes falls and Tannersville this line generates the majority of the passenger traffic and its standard gauge and at 99 because it outgrows the capacity of the three foot narrow gauge. What happens is after the First World War, the state begins to improve the highways in the region and it becomes accessible by private automobile. So winds up the peak traffic year is actually 1913. During the 20s it begins to really fall off at a dramatic rate and then the depression hits and the line up through the notch is abandoned in 1940. But Passenger Service continues on the main line between Kingston and Oneonta until 1954 freight service continues until the end of September 1976

 

Brett Barry  13:37  

Phoenicia station and the tracks to it went dormant until 1982 When the Catskill Mountain Railroad, a Kingston based tourist train moved up. The Empire State railway museum founded two decades prior made its home at Phoenicia station, in 1983,

 

Tom Comito  13:56  

The museum was associated with Catskill Mountain Railroad, and they brought in revenue in the form of customers and went through various changes the famous tube train tubing operations, Harry Jameson in particular town tinker bought school buses and he transported his tubers instead of the train picking them up and bringing them back. Then the Catskill Mountain Railroad went scenic, and would run back and forth. And this all goes on until the 30 year permit that the railroad had with the county of almost the biggest county of Ulster owns this track that expired and the permit to operate was given to the rail explorers. And we formed an association with rail explorers. They are the ones that bring in the majority of our visitors today 

 

Brett Barry  14:45  

We profiled rail explorers pedal powered rail bike operation in our last episode,

 

Tom Comito  14:51  

They are using the track by permit which they pay a hefty fee for to the county of Ulster the land that their parking facilities are on is owned by the museum and they pay us a rent for that. And it helps to keep us going, I would say 80 to 85% of our visitors are customers of rail explorers.

 

Brett Barry  15:16  

Are you personally happy with the balance that's been struck on this line?

 

Tom Comito  15:20  

I accept it. Because that's, that's, it's what's keeping the rails here. I don't want to get into the politics, or even my own opinion about, you know, rail versus trail. But now, I accept it as a reality and it's helping certainly helping the museum to keep going.

 

Brett Barry  15:46  

As those old U&D tracks continue to serve new and diverse populations of Catskills visitors. The 1899 Phoenicia station is a well preserved monuments to their past, and the museum that inhabits that space offers visitors a unique glimpse into our collective railroad history. The Empire State Railway Museum is located on lower high street in Phoenicia, New York, and it's open weekends Memorial Day through Columbus Day. This episode was recorded by Jared Lyman and written by Alison Aaron. For local history books check out Briars and Brambles Books, the go to independent book and gift store in the Catskills located in Windham, New York right next to the pharmacy just steps away from the Windham path open daily. For more information visit briarsandbramblesbooks.com or call 518-750-8599. Thanks also to the mountain Eagle Kaatscast is a production of Silver Hollow Audio. Please be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and head on over to kaatscast.com for lots more. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening. And we'll see you again in two weeks.

 

Transcribed by https://otter.ai / AA