Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
Aug. 30, 2022

Rail Explorers

Rail Explorers
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From the late 19th- to the early 20th-century, passengers could board an Ulster & Delaware train in Kingston and ride straight up through the Catskills, to Oneonta. These days, you can still experience a 4-mile stretch of that track, between Mt. Tremper and Phoenicia, with one small caveat. You have to pedal! Rail Explorers has repurposed a few such stretches of track nationwide, including in Rhode Island, Cooperstown, Las Vegas, and the Catskills. Join us as we pedal a "quad explorer" (the "Cadillac" of the fleet) on a scenic "River Run" tour above the Esopus creek.

We'll hear from Catskills division manager Casey Farrell, tour guide Fatima Duque, and Empire State Railway Museum curator Tom Comito. Lots more from Tom in our next episode, so stay tuned!

Many thanks to our sponsors:
The Mountain Eagle
Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway
Hanford Mills Museum
Briars and Brambles Books

--- Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/kaatscast/support


Fatima  0:03  
So to start off this bike that I'm currently standing on, this is our four seater quad this bike weighs about 1000 pounds. Let's see two bikes behind me there's our two seater tandem bike weighs about 600 pounds. And I bring these numbers to your attention to emphasize the fact that these are not toys. These are not bumper cars, they're actually very heavy pieces of machinery, and I would just like to make sure that we are treating them as such.

Brett Barry  0:27  
That's our guide Fatima with a pre tour rundown at Phoenicia, New York's rail explores two and fourth person pedal powered rail vehicles that utilize a four mile stretch of railroad track between Phoenicia and mount Tremper. On today's Katz cast, we pedaled those rails and got a whole new perspective on this historic stretch of track. If history is your passion, check out the Hanford Mills Museum and explore the power of the past as you watch the waterwheel bring a working sawmill to life. Bring a picnic to enjoy by the millpond. For more information about scheduling a tour or about the museum's new exploration days, visit Hanford mills.org or call 607-278-5744. We are also thrilled to welcome a new sponsor to the podcast. Briars and brambles books that 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. Back in Phoenicia, Fatima gave our group a few more pointers.

Fatima  1:49  
Chipmunks Oh squirrel will definitely jump onto your rail. If they do try not to squish them. They like to hang out on the rail so throw up that brace signal, let them clear on through 

Brett Barry  1:58  
And then, we were off. Despite the large group on our tour, once we pedaled away from the station, we were mostly on our own, with plenty of distance between the lead vehicle in front of us and the next rail bike behind us. The gentle descent out of Phoenicia made for effortless pedaling. And within moments we were in the woods and then on the edge of the Esopus Creek. Route 28 parallels the tracks for a short stretch, but the experience from the rail bike is completely different from the more familiar car drive by with Creekside sights, sounds and smells, invigorating the senses. At about the halfway point, we stopped at the route 28 rail crossing in Mount Tremper and checked in with the rail bike behind us to Cedar with New York City residents. Ted and Maria at the controls.

Ted  2:53  
We're from Bronx, New York. And I haven't been in the Catskills in years. Oh my god. It's been forever since I've been here. It is lovely. It's good to be back. Well, we're looking to do something during the summer more of like a staycation or something. And with the way air flights are going these days is just yet we were able to find this alternative just to get away from the city. And she actually found this little expedition, if you want to call it that has seemed seems great. So far. It's really good.

Maria  3:27  
It's an opportunity just to be outdoors. Yeah. And then being away from the city. There is no outdoors. So it's just I just needed to find a way of getting into nature somehow. And you know, that's that's what I like to do.

Brett Barry  3:41  
What was your? I asked Maria what she thought of the ride so far?

Maria  3:47  
Is not bad actually, you know, being a fluffy person myself plus size. I was pretty intimidated. only am I gonna be able to keep up? I'll find out for sure on the way back. But so far, so good. I would definitely recommend this to anybody. Sounds good.

Ted  4:02  
We'll probably have our family come here. You know her sister our nephew. Yeah, there's a try, you know, before the summer's over. So this is this is really cool. It's really, really cool. I like it. I really do.

Brett Barry  4:14  
Once all the rail bikes caught up, the crew lowered the railroad crossing gates and we pedaled in unison across to the west side of Route 28. Fatima was still wearing a microphone and you can probably get a sense from her singing how much she loves this job. Rail explorers operates five tours nationwide, including Rhode Island, Boone, Iowa, Las Vegas, and two New York locations. Cooperstown and the Catskills. We spoke with Catskills Division Manager Casey Farrell about the tour.

Casey Farrel  4:52  
My name is Casey Farrell. I'm the Division Manager here at Rail explorers Catskills in the lovely hamlet of Phoenicia and it's a beautiful day toasty warm day.

Brett Barry  5:02  
Are you from here?

Casey Farrel  5:03  
Not Originally, I'm from Rhode Island. But I moved up here in 2014, unrelated to the rail explorers in Rhode Island, but found myself here anyway and started working here. 2019 as a tour guide, and now I run the place.

Brett Barry  5:18  
Tell me a little bit about the staff here.

Casey Farrel  5:20  
Oh my gosh, we're just a big family. Everyone works together super well. Being here is not your typical job. You're responsible for a lot of things people safety. But it's just so fun. Everyone here super positive, very interesting, all different backgrounds. We go through some hard times, sometimes there's some not so nice days. But you know, when we all go through it together just makes the bond a lot stronger. And we're a little family here up in the Catskills.

Brett Barry  5:48  
So there's a lot of work that goes into preparing each of these tours, I noticed just waiting for our tour, there's safety checks on the seats, the seat belts, the pedals, the wheel nuts, everything is sanitized or wiped down. Tell me about all the stuff that happens between the tours,

Casey Farrel  6:03  
we always perform safety checks, you know, our tracks, they do tend to make some noise and the bikes being awesome, beautiful machines, you know, machines don't always, you know, operate the same once they've been used over time. So those safety checks, add an extra little preventative maintenance step that everyone is responsible and kind of the more we're working with the bikes, the easier it is for us to tell. We're using all our senses our hearing, we know what a good bike sounds like, we know when something's off. And we just want to have the highest, you know, customer service standards. Everybody comes here to have a good time no one comes here to have a bad time. So is it safe? And is it fun? That's our motto here at Rail explorers.

Brett Barry  6:42  
And this starting point is really beautiful. There's while you're waiting, nice places to sit shaded areas, there's art installations, there's a really Deluxe looking mobile restroom. So tell me about the space that's available both at the start. And at the end of the tour,

Casey Farrel  6:58  
We have our lovely depot who's our reception, our gift shop, we want them to enter into our space, you know, just keeping everything beautiful. So when you walk in, you're greeted by oh my goodness, look at this area, look at these red chairs. And we've planted all pollinators. So all of the plants that we have will attract bees and hummingbirds. And they're all native species for the most part. So we try and have an awesome welcoming environment. And then you go down the tour. It's a wilderness immersion experience, a lot of our riders are coming from metropolitan areas, and they don't always get the opportunity to be outside in the nature and having them come here and being able to immerse especially at our turnaround, which is right next to the Esopus Creek, we've built a awesome little deck, little lovely seating area, they can hop off, enjoy the views, have a snack, have a drink, we turn them around, and they go through it again. And they always come back like oh my gosh, they learned something about the area or you know why wildlife that was here. Personally, I want my riders and the guests that come I want them to walk away with an awesome memory and having learned something about the area. And when they bring it back. They can tell their friends or family, hey, I did this awesome thing. But I also learned a little bit about sustaining and you know how to keep the area around me clean. And you know, it's we want everyone to appreciate our planet.

Brett Barry  8:23  
And the rail bikes themselves are an eco friendly adaptation to these rails.

Casey Farrel  8:27  
Yeah, so the technology behind the rail bike, it's pretty simple. You know, A. It looks nice, it's super safe, and it's easy. We don't want anyone to come here and have a really hard time. So we want everyone of all ages and all abilities to be able to have an experience using the rail bike technology with the modern electric technology. You know if you won't come back up and and Puffin and totally red in the face and sweating.

Brett Barry  8:57  
Remember that effortless pedaling I described on the ride from Phoenicia to mount Tremper. Well, that downward grade is of course, an upward grade on the return trip. But these rail bikes are equipped with electric assist technology making it a very doable ride in both directions.

Casey Farrel  9:17  
The county does own the tracks the Empire State Railway Museum, which is our neighbor next door. They've also kindly allowed us to use their rail yard after our first year they actually let us check in in their station, which was really nice. And then we kind of upgraded a little bit and expanded because we expanded our fleet because the demand started going up. But we have an awesome relationship with them. We helped maintain their grounds you know their guests come over to us we send our guests over there so we have a great relationship with our neighbors.

Brett Barry  9:45  
And the feeling is mutual over at the Empire State Railway Museum. Just a few steps from the rail explorers check in.

Tom Comito  9:51  
I would say 80 to 85% of our visitors are customers of rail explorers. Just the same as 80 to 85% of the visitors when the railroad was running, my name is Tom Comito. I'm the curator. I'm also on the board of directors and I've been a member of the museum for probably about 15 years, we formed an association with rail explorers. They are the ones that bring in the majority of our visitors today.

Brett Barry  10:22  
The Empire State railway museum occupies the historic 1899 Phoenicia station, and as a destination unto itself. We talked with Tom Comito, about the history of that station, and about the tracks that once serviced passenger and freight trains later, the Catskill Mountain Railroad. And now rail explorers. You can hear all about that history and the museum that's preserving it in our next episode, so be sure to tune in next time for that conversation with Tom. Back at real explorers, Casey Farrell told us about some of the other short stretches of historic track. Now in service to rail explorers, rail bikes.

Casey Farrel  11:02  
First one where our headquarters is is located in Newport, Rhode Island, that's a Rhode Island division. Then there's our Las Vegas division, which is in Boulder City just outside of Las Vegas. And that one's cool because those tracks are actually they built those tracks specifically for the Hoover Dam to build that. So the guests that ride there, that's some really awesome history that they learn about. Then there's us. We have the old Ulster Delaware line, and then an hour and 20 minutes away from here is our Cooperstown division. They have a north and south route now. So when the train goes north, they can go south and when the train goes south, they can go north a little glad I don't have to deal with training. We got bears, so that's good enough.

Brett Barry  11:48  
What's the breakdown between locals and tourists?

Casey Farrel  11:51  
The general populace of our riders are from further away. We do have some local things down the works. I can't disclose them right now. But we are planning on doing some local days or local discounts in the future, which I think it's necessary for the community to know you know, what we have here, with what's in their backyard, what we offer and you know, as part of that community, I think it's important to share and experience and we're not all that bad. So, but yeah, there is stuff in the works and I'm excited to share it when when I'm allowed to.

Brett Barry  12:25  
How many people do you have working here?

Casey Farrel  12:27  
Um, at the moment, I think I have 18 And we're hiring all the time because we got our kids that go back to college in August so we're always strapped for for workers. So if anybody knows anybody you can contact me or show up at the station and I'm happy to happy to chat.

Brett Barry  12:47  
Back on the Catskills river run we'd stopped at the Mount Tremper Terminus and stretched out at a quiet spot overlooking the Esopus Creek, while staff turned our rail bikes around for the ride back to Phoenicia with the electric assist and the rhythm of the tracks under our wheels. The four mile return trip was a meditative journey on this scenic stretch of railroad track that's been here for more than 150 years. Rail explorers is open through October and you can book a tour at railexplorers.net This episode was recorded by Jared Lyman and sponsored by 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 sceniccatskills.com Thanks also to the mountain Eagle Hanford Mills Museum, and briars and brambles books for their support. Don't forget to join us next time for Catskills rail history with the Empire State railway Museum's Tom Comito Kaatscast is a biweekly production of silver holo audio. Please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. You can join our mailing list, leave us a voice message or make a donation at kaatscast.com. Until next time, I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening. And we'll see you again in two weeks.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai / AA