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Catskill Mountain Railroad

I am only able to say we "won the war but lost a major battle". The Catskill Mountain Railroad is divided into two separate segments of operating track. One (the East End) is based out of Kingston, NY. The West End is based out of Phoenicia, NY.

Initially, the County and trail people's main thrust was to kill off ALL railroad usage on the East end, ripping up the rails for a trail. We started running "Polar Express" each winter. The first winter, 2013, our revenues went from about $100,000 gross for the year (without running Polar) to just over $1,000,000.00. Now we were in the big leagues. We kept reclaiming track and pushing westward up from Kingston. The County and trail people were trying everything to stop us. We got clear out to the Ashokan Reservoir, despite their claims that the track was beyond all use, etc. At the same time, it became increasingly apparent that to build the rail trail heading west out of Kingston would require re-negotiating easements over something like 33 privately owned parcels of land. The easements are "railroad only". We ran Polar again last winter, having added two more coaches, and did even more business.

Meanwhile the county, aided and abetted by the (then) mayor of Kingston (the guy who had a city of Kingston dump truck parked across our tracks at one point), succeeded in getting us kicked out of our railroad yard in Kingston. We had a certificate of occupancy, and the place HAD been a railroad yard since the 1890's, but politicians prevailed. So, we moved out of our yard and up the line, still running Polar.

The County suddenly realized there was no killing us, at least on the Kingston end of the line. So, the trail nuts and politicians went after the West end of the line. They contacted some flea bit outfit called "Rail Explorers", who run pedal powered track car excursions. Pay 65 or 75 bucks a head to go pedal on the tracks. Rail Explorers initially approached us, wanted to work with us if we were awarded the renewed lease on the west end. The County convinced Rail Explorers to bid independently of us, and awarded them a permit to operate on the West End. They also forbid Rail Explorers from utilizing any trains. Rail Explorers had wanted to have our railroad provide a train to shuttle their pedal customers back, as the line is a descending grade running East from Phoenicia, and an ascending grade going back. County said no. At the same time, there is a really bad washout from Hurricane Irene on the West End that the County had refused to address, despite having a FEMA grant to repair it. This washout blocked access to more track with a location along a secondary road. While we had the lease, the County would not access ANY of the FEMA grants, including a 1 million dollar grant to fix a collapsed steel trestle. Now that Rail Explorers is on the line, the County is suddenly accessing FEMA grants.

The plan is for Rail Explorers to be up and running in mid summer on the West end. They will run as far as the repaired area of the track, and use a bus to get their customers back to the point of origin. They will also use a pickup with high-rail gear (track guide wheels) to drag their pedal cars back.

The County has given us until 12/15 to get ALL our equipment off their track on the western portion of the line. We own a railroad yard property in Phoenicia, so are laying more spur tracks and switches to do this. As if this isn't bad enough, this nutty woman- an elderly artist/author- whipped the neighbors into a complete frenzy against our railroad and railroad yard, claiming we were an "industrial blight", going to poison the environment, detract from property values, etc. Meanwhile, on the street this old bag lives, there are semi-finished houses in perpetual alteration, unregistered vehicles in yards, and old cars and trucks under rotting tarps.

This past summer, I welded together a flat car for our last passenger service on the West End. I was in the Phoenicia Yard with an old Lincoln welder driven by an Onan engine with the pepper-pot mufflers. I burned rod for quite a few days and the welder made a nice racket. I was welding, burning, grinding, and making plenty of noise. Interestingly NONE of the neighbors, let alone the nutty old artist/author showed up to see what was going on.

So, as it stands, we are done running trains on the west end, but going strong on the east end. We "saved the rails", but lost the right to run trains on the west end. Well, nothing is forever, and we have a few more tricks up our sleeve.

Rail Explorers is setting themselves up for failure. Instead of using the station and parking area out on NYS ROute 28 at Mt Tremper, where there is high visibility on a major road, they are going to base their operation out of a trailer in the railroad museum's property in Phoenicia. Hard to find, not real visible. The Rail Explorers people are off in la-la land, writing us emails like nothing is wrong, and asking us to tidy up our railroad yard so their customers can have a "nice experience".

Notably, since our railroad yard is our own property, we can do with it what we like within the permitted uses. So, my immediate plan is to start organizing motorcycle events, specifically, poker runs and charity runs ending with pig roasts in our railroad yard. The flatcar I repaired has a nice chain-link fence and handrail on it, and will make a dandy stage for bands as well as for such other events as may just occur spontaneously (such as wet tee shirt contests). We do have a backhoe and gradall on the property, so digging a pit for mud wrestling might also happen. I intend to invite any clubs, groups, or lone riders who care to come, and encourage them to arrive on bikes with loud pipes. I also am talking to local tattoo artists about a body art show, and to local bands about a "battle of the bands". The lousier and more dischordant and amateurish the bands, the better.

No admission will be charged, since we do not want to officially "run" an event for profit. Any proceeds go to charities. If the doings get rowdy and the people at Rail Explorers feel intimidated and unwelcome, or their customers give them some bad press, too bad. Rail Explorers thinks we are going to help them, and be on call to do track work, fix their equipment, or show them what they need to know. When they worked with the Adirondack Scenic RR, they had an agreement WITH a railroad. Here, no such agreement exists and they had no qualms about cutting us off from our track by going along with what the County wanted. Meanwhile the County Exec is hyping the fact that he is making us the "greenest county" in NY State, and cites his efforts to build a network of trails.

So, we will lay our equipment up on the west end, and keep on running on the East End. Time will tell if Rail Explorers can succeed by themselves on the West End. They have political pull from the County Exec, who will probably not hold their feet to the fire if they cannot meet their lease payments or fall flat. As for some of us, the idea of having wild pig roasts and having hordes of motorcycles with loud pipes and loud bands in the railroad yard has us carrying on like the guys on Animal House. The old bag who kvetched in public meetings that we were ruining the neighborhood and spoke of a "sweet residential neighborhood" and "sweet little town" is in for a surprise. As it is, in summer, the motorcycles are usually lined up on Main Street in Phoenicia in front of Brio's and the Sportsman's Bar. Phoenicia is a sort of destination for a lot of people on motorcycles. May as well take advantage of that and have some fun.

Polar Express starts running this weekend in Kingston, so this is our real moneymaker. We actually paid off $620,000 in legal bills that were necessary to keep our railroad alive. The County Exec is not talking about how much his side spent with private law firms trying to get rid of our railroad. We don;t know the half of it. A group called "Save the Rails" has sprung up, and is a real firestorm. The County asked that any of us on the Catskill Mountain RR please distance ourselves from "Save the Rails". Save the Rails has a lot of popular support and is turning into an activist group. What we do know from a kind of "follow the money" is that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr is in the mix. RFK, Jr, is in the mix, and is getting well heeled trailheads down in Manhattan and Westchester to fund the County Exec's campaign and this trail project. Add to it that Chucky Schumer, the Senator for NY, is the political godfather for our County Exec, and Chucky Schumer had said the County Exec needed a "signature project", so pushed for this rail trail. Into the mix we have Bill deBlasio, the mayor of NYC. NYC watersheds are partially in our county, and our railroad line runs right on easement lands along the Ashokan Reservoir. NYC is faced with the prospect of building a federally mandated filtration plant for the New York City water supplies, which will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. The alternative is to have heavy releases of water from Ashokan and from the Shandaken Tunnel. The releases from Ashokan create downstream flooding and the tunnel releases create high turbidity levels in the Esopus Creek (a once fine trout stream, now messed up by the high turbidity levels). deBlasio kicked in $180,000 for the county exec's re-election last year. NYC Department of Environmental Protection (which has control of the watersheds) gave a 2.5 million dollar grant for the rail trail to our county. Needless to say, the County exec and his henchmen are not saying a word about the high turbidity levels in the Esopus, nor are they paying any attention to issues downstream of Ashokan Reservoir. The grant for the rail trail and the campaign contribution were dirt cheap compared to building a filtration plant.

It is a real political mess. That we stayed alive at all is something we have to take some consolation from. Some of us are pretty burned out from years of this fighting. Some of our stalwarts are getting older, and are starting to have health issues. One guy, who really poured his heart and soul into our railroad doing track work, died this past spring of pancreatic cancer. I gave a eulogy for him. Another guy whom I thought of as invincible suddenly had prostate issues (he's fine now, but realizing he has to slow down), and another lady who was still going strong at 92 doing book-keeping and similar for us had a mild stroke. We still have a good core group of volunteers, and they keep coming out to work on our railroad. It is for them that I will load up a welder and tools and go to work on what otherwise can seem like a losing proposition.

We are still in the fight, and as we see it, no politician is in office for life. Last election time, there was a back room deal to try to get the Democratic county exec to run for re-election uncontested. The Republicans had made a back room deal with the Democratic committee, and tried to keep a Republican challenger off the ballot. Our youngsters got out the petitions, and the County exec and his goons had attorneys contesting every signature. Nevertheless, the Republican challenger got on the Republican ballot line with NO help from her own party. She had maybe $20,000.00 raised from grassroots efforts. She came with 3,000 votes of beating the incumbent county exec. He spent $200,000 on his campaign with a lot of it coming from the Mayor of NYC and from wealthy trail/bicycle advocacy groups. Three years left on his current term, and we will see if we can help the same Republican challenger, and maybe get her own party to back her for a change.

It's a long way from burning rod on a hot day in Phoenicia Yard, welding on old equipment, to the political arena. I'd stand up to stretch and get a drink of Gatorade on those hot days and wonder why I was knocking myself out. My wife knew that the fight was far from over, and instead of telling me I was beating a dead horse or somesuch, she'd check to be sure I had a cooler with Gatorade and send me off to work on the railroad. I sweated off 10 lbs in three days this past summer. Welding is solitary work, and a man can do a lot of thinking inside his shield.
It was hard not to be feeling the overwhelming odds against us, so I'd burn rod and find ways to divert my mind.

The whole feel of our community has changed since we first moved here in 1991. Back then, deer hunting was a big event.The grocery store in Phoenicia had a "steelyard" butcher scale hanging out along the sidewalk to weigh the buck deer for a cash pool for the heaviest buck.
Now, if you mention "gun", the new breed of inhabitant is looking at you strangely and if you drove into town with a deer on your pickup bed, you'd be vilified. Back then, the regular citizens scrabbled to get by, working at things like logging, contracting, and trying to get on with something like the NYS DOT or County. People hunted and trapped, minded their own business, helped their neighbors in real ways, and considered the railroad as a valuable piece of our history. The new breed considers the railroad as a polluter, danger to the public safety, and sees no value or attraction in having running trains in the area. Thirty years of work that our people put into keeping and saving that railroad means nothing to this new breed. Times have changed, not necessarily for the better.
Hi Joe,
I'm curious how things are going with the railroad, any updates?

I'm hoping you're still going strong and fighting to keep the railroad up and running.

I will try to set it out in some kind of readable manner without getting political:

The County Exec has moved ahead with removing a section of the track for the rail trail. This lies within an easement on NYC Watershed lands. That easement was for "railroad use only" and dated to about 1910. An agreement was worked out with NYC Watershed whereby the County had to formally declare the line as abandoned prior to removing track. Therein beings the latest twist in the tale. As they say: "It ain't over til the fat lady sings". The pro trails people were congratulating the County Exec, and when this latest thing hit the papers, they cried foul and said "the other team left the stadium and the lights are out... game's long over...." Easy to say, but there is quite a twist to this, and now it has become a Federal matter. Where the County Exec could control the local agencies, and had some weight with state government, now he is up against a Federal Agency and he has a serious challenge on his hands.

The line was never formally abandoned when Penn=Central ceased operating it in 1976. By the 1980's, the County spent 450,000 to open a mainline connection and we actually were moving revenue freight cars off what was then Conrail's mains. The customers for this ceased to exist by the later 1980's.

Meanwhile, as terms of the Catskill Mountain Railroad's settlement with Ulster County on the initial legal action, CMRR agreed NOT to contact the Surface Transportation Board- a Federal Agency. The County knew there was a chance, with the line having never been formally abandoned, that they could be held liable for its upkeep until a formal abandonment proceeding with hearings was had. If this came to pass, ANY railroad operator expressing an interest would be allowed to take over the line. Knowing this, the County sought to stop CMRR.

A new Not-For-Profit corporation arose called the Ulster & Delaware Preservation Society along with the group Save The Rails.org. U & D was the original name of the line way back when. U & D was not bound by any agreements with Ulster County and got some railroad attorneys on the matter. The railroad attorneys advised that the way to really nail the County was to let them have the removal of the tracks start. Then, file a notice of action with the Surface Transportation Board. This is exactly what happened. U &D's local railroad attorney served the County with notice of this action, and the County denied having been served, turning the contractors loose with excavators with demolition shears. We approached the contractors to buy some rail and joint bars at better than scrap price. The contractor told us he was legally bound by his contract with Ulster County from selling us anything, and furthermore, was contractually obligated to cut every joint bar in two. Talk about "scorched earth".

The U & D railroad attorney in NY got a Washington firm of railroad lawyers and they got in touch with the County, who by that point had also retained a firm of Washington railroad attorneys. The Washington firms talked to each other, and the firm representing the County told the County they had no case for removing the line and were going into deep waters if they persisted. That firm advised the County to SETTLE things ASAP with U & D. The County refused to settle and kept the contractor going full bore at the ripping out.

The U & D attorneys presented a package to the judge for the STB, showing where the county LIED about a lot of things, and we even had one of our young people take a drone video of the line to show where the County was misrepresenting things. It's all on the judge's desk as we speak.

Meanwhile, the County answered the notice of action with 816 pages of information, none of which supports their case that the line was abandoned formally. The mere fact the COunty had PAID 450 K to put in a mainline switch and some other improvements in the 1980's blew that idea out of the water, along with lots more.

So, we are sitting back and waiting to see what comes forth. I can only chuckle at the consternation that must have hit the County Exec and his stooges right after the New Year. They were ballyhooing the start of construction of the rail trial and figured they'd killed CMRR and the matter was finally done with. Instead it was more like "Happy New Year... here... take this...and you are served..."

It's pretty obvious the County Exec has planned to make a run for it, ripping out track before the legal hammer from STB stops him. By removing the rails for scrap, there is nothing to put back. Should the action go against the county, they could be required to put the track back, which would cost millions. The County Exec seems to want to get things to where he has enough track ripped out for the trail, and then maybe settle if the STB leans on him, giving us two good chunks of railroad to run on.

As for me, I can say I had enough of the fighting. My gut and mind and domestic tranquility were taking major hits. I resigned from the Board of Directors of the Catskill Mountain Railroad. 33 years is long enough and the constant battles were not doing me or my family any good. I did agree to stay on to handle engineering matters and things like machine work or heavy locomotive repairs.

Our president is a sharp guy, he is a graduate Civil Engineer, who went back to school and got an MBA from Harvard. He wheels and deals Manhattan commercial real estate, and he is the consummate strategist and handles the whole thing like a chess game, always quite a few moves in front of our opponents. My guess is he figured he'd have to apparently lose a lot of battles (and rails) to "checkmate" the County. Meanwhile, our revenues are at record highs, and life goes on. The chunk of rail that was ripped out amounts to a few miles. We have a landlocked chunk up at the West End. The County has leased it to some arrogant yuppies who were supposed to open a "rail bike" business. 65 bucks a head to pedal your ass off down the track. The local community raised hell about this use, then rail bike people realized there was an ascending grade to get their rail bikes back to the starting point... and failed to materialize last season... and failed to materialize at a meeting in our town to get the necessary permit for this season. The County is kind of saying that if the rail bike people fizzle out, we will be back running trains on the west end as well.

Life goes on, and younger people with stronger constitutions for the fight can stay in it. It looks like our railroad is here to stay, despite the County Exec's best efforts. Now, if we could get him indicted for malfeasance in office of something like it.... I'd rather be changing cylinder heads on the 539 Alco diesels, filthy as sin with the black gunk that old diesel locomotives seem to generate, but doing something meaningful and good rather than this other stuff. Turn me loose with a surveyor's transit to shoot line and grade, or to inspect an old bridge, and let me climb around on the iron and I am fine. I suspect I will be doing all of this before too long, which is fine by me. We'll have enough track to keep us running trains with respectably long runs, and just enough track to maintain and keep in good condition. Clearing large culverts on high fill sections over miles of track (which is what the section thru the Ashokan lands is) is a job we could live without, so let the trail happen there.
Thats good new of sorts. Ive been getting to deal with my own version of legal hell for the last year and a half or so. Not fun so can appreciate that you'd rather work on an engine than deal with the BS.

So would I.
Thanks for the clarification. I know I can go off on tangents that do border on being political, so accepted the notice from Greg Menke and figured I had it coming.

As if things are not getting crazy enough on the Catskill Mountain Railroad, the president of the railroad had quietly been out beating the bushes for revenue freight customers. Our last business in moving revenue freight cars over our tracks was back in the mid 1980's and ended about 1987, after which the connecting switch with the (then) Conrail mains was removed.

Our president found one customer, a large chain of lumber yards, who wants to ship lumber from the Pacific Northwest to our tracks for an intermodal connection to trucks. They want to have 75-100 boxcars per year delivered onto our siding and set up an intermodal transfer point. The lumber company is asking the County to re-establish the switch and let us have the business. If this starts to happen, the Catskill Mountain Railroad files for "Common Carrier Status", and things really change in our favor. Federal money to repair the line, and the line becomes "untouchable" by the County for their rail trail.

Our president is what I call the consummate chess player. I am no chess player, but from what I know, the way to win at chess is to be quite a few moves ahead of your opponent in your planning. Often, it means apparently losing most of your pieces, and then a sudden "check-mate" of the opponent happens when the trap is sprung. This has been our president's mode of operation. Our president is also a good poker player (another game I do not play). As in poker, he is a very unassuming, mild mannered man. He is used to this sort of gamesmanship from dealing with commercial real estate and leases in Manhattan, and knows how to hold his cards and bluff and keep a poker face. Between these two attributes, our president has saved the railroad and kept the County Exec constantly finding he can't kill us off.

I dare not get my hopes up about the possible business of moving revenue freight cars, but it sounds promising. I keep busy with engineering work and machine work and welding inspection work. Some of this is done pro bono, just for the doing to help people out, and some is paying jobs. I just rebuilt an adjustable water pump pulley for a friend's 1939 Allis Chalmers B model tractor. It meant making a new pulley hub, and truthfully, I had more time into it than any sane working shop would put into it, but the friend trusted me, and the pulley may as well have been unobtainium. He asked me what he owed me, and I told him the exercise was "therapeutic" given the mess on the railroad. My friend responded with some very choice comments about the County Exec and the legislature and pro trails people, and said he'd keep me in maple syrup. It's this sort of interaction along with the satisfaction in doing these sorts of little jobs that are my therapy. It's hard not to let the events surrounding the railroad get to me, so I throw myself headlong onto these other pursuits. I've been asked to do some mentoring of young engineers and toolmaker apprentices in a local shop, which I think will also go some ways to shifting my focus.

As I told the railroad people, I am on tap to do engineering and machine work, but I am out of the fight. As my wife points out, we have our health- which is priceless- and we have so much else that is good and rich in our lives that I must not let the railroad matters take on a disproportionately large piece of my life. My wife is a very wise and understanding woman, and the mere fact she encourages me to have my machine shop and all else and puts up with a kitchen table constantly having a stack of drawings, calculations and sketches for the latest jobs along with an AISC (structural steel) handbook or a Machinery's Handbook or similar says volumes. As my wife says, it's time to enjoy retirement while we still can. I know when the weather breaks, probably in April, the stalwarts and I will be rebuilding and changing cylinder heads on the Alco RS-1 locomotive's engine. Funny thing is when these kinds of jobs come along, it is a few of us who dive onto them, and the youngest of us is 55 or so. Us old guys seem to be the ones to dig in and do the heavy repairs. Once we get the job going, we feel good and it finds us kidding around and working until the repair is done. That is the part of the railroad I like, being with my buddies and doing a cut-and-dried repair job with a few challenges to make it interesting.
I've pretty much stepped away from the rest of it, which seems to be working for me.
Joe -

Hang in there with the 'Geezer Squad' - at least that is what our similar group here is called. Instead of locomotive repair we do all kinds of work at the church, but good therapy and good company.

Don't ever slow down - worst thing that can happen to a person.

You are fortunate to get 'paid' in maple syrup. Mine comes from the other side of the hill but I have to buy it!

Sorry if I am in the wrong site- However I am trying to help a friend locate a used locomotive turn table in the East. Please redirect me to the correct site or to someone who might be of service? Thanks, bigais, [email protected]
This sounds like the tactics of the Open Space Initiative who stole what used to be Smitty's Bar (Wilbur Smith's) land adjoining the Minnewaska Preserve from the owner: Mike Fink. They went to old deed records dating back a hundred years to question the validity of Fink's ownership. Initially they lost in court, but they just kept going back until they found a sympathetic judge. The law means nothing to these people, their supposed moral superiority supersedes all other's rights.
Hello Joe! I am hoping you and the railroad are in good health. We are planing on stopping there and taking a ride on our way to the Adirondacks. Any updates would be greatly appreciated.