Trains are as much a part of American history and mythology as baseball, cars, and jazz. Though their apotheosis was long ago, the railroads still churn with activity across the country, and no more so than here in the northeast. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, its busiest route, currently handles more than 2,000 commuter trains, 300 Amtrak trains, and 60 freight trains every day. And Amtrak is putting tons of money into improving that service. It plans to add high-speed trains that will replace its Acela fleet and is expanding into the historic James A. Farley Post Office Building, across Eighth Avenue from Penn Station in Manhattan, creating the Moynihan Train Hall, a new station named after former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Both those advances are on track to be up and running in 2021.
That’s the future of train travel in the Hudson Valley, a future that would have been impossible to imagine back on September 24, 1831, when train history was made on what was known then as the Great Western Turnpike on the outskirts of Albany. On that date, the very first steam-powered passenger train in the country left from the spot that is now called the Point, at the juncture of Western and Madison avenues, on its first journey down 16 miles of track to Schenectady. But the people who made that history likely remembered it less than fondly.
The train was operated by the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, organized in 1826, which was the first railroad chartered in New York State and one of the first in the country. According to a history written by the Upper Madison Group, “a sizeable crowd gathered at the junction to watch the historic excursion. The M & H rail cars were full of city and state officials. A blast of a tin horn, and they were off.”
They were off with a jolt; the train cars, which were really stagecoaches connected by chain, “lurched forward with enough force to throw the passengers from their seats and send their hats flying.” The black smoke from the chimney included burning embers of pitch-pine, “which showered down on the dignitaries.” One of the riders, Judge J.L. Gillis, noted that passengers had to raise umbrellas to protect themselves against the smoke and fire, but after one mile the umbrellas all burned and the passengers engaged in “a general melee…each whipping his neighbor to put out the fire.” Along the route, the train spooked the horses of those who came to watch, “sending spectators tumbling in every direction.”
From this noisy, smoky, smelly, life-threatening beginning, Hudson Valley train travel never looked back. The two sides of the river had their own train histories, says Tom Comito, curator of the Empire State Railway Museum, in Phoenicia. He provided some of the highlights.
In the city of Hudson, the Hudson and Berkshire line arrived in 1842 from Chatham Four Corners. “It is the first railroad to the east side of the river valley. It becomes part of the Boston & Albany Railroad,” Comito says. A short segment is still in use from the river up the hill to the ADM — formerly Archer Daniels Midland — mill in Upper Hudson.
In 1847, the renowned civil engineer John B. Jervis surveyed a train line from the west side of Manhattan to Rensselaer that became the Hudson River Railroad (HRR). “The route is the only water-level break in the Appalachian Mountain chain,” Comito says. “It is still considered one of America’s finest track structures.” The track made it to Rensselaer in 1851, “but didn’t make much money until a bridge was completed to Albany in 1866,” he says.
That bridge was built by Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who became president of the HRR in 1867. Vanderbilt also built a connection from Spuyten Duyvil to Mott Haven to connect with another railroad he owned, the New York & Harlem, to get to 42nd Street in Manhattan. In 1869, Vanderbilt changed the name to the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad as he expanded his railroad empire to Chicago. It remained part of the New York Central system until it became Penn Central, and is now controlled by Metro North and Amtrak.
“Proceeding north from Manhattan, the next railroad to come into the Valley from the east was a line from Connecticut by way of Hopewell Junction to Beacon Landing,” Comito says. It arrived in about 1880 as part of the Central New England Railroad. “It barged freight across the river to a connection with the Erie Railroad at Newburgh. The line is still there, owned by a Metro North subsidiary, but is dormant,” he says.
At Poughkeepsie, the bridge that is now the Walkway Over the Hudson was built in 1888 by financial interests from Philadelphia who controlled anthracite mines and wanted a route around New York City to New England. “They lost control rather quickly and it was picked up by the Central New England,” Comito says. It became part of the New Haven line in the 1920s. Known then as the Poughkeepsie Bridge, it caught fire in 1974, ending commercial rail service on it. (Passenger trains last crossed it in 1929.) “During World War II the bridge was of great strategic importance, carrying freight from the west to the port of Boston by way of Danbury to Hartford and New Haven,” he says, carrying up to “an astounding” 50 trains every 24 hours.
Two other lines passed through Poughkeepsie from the northeast: the Newburgh, Duchess and Connecticut; and the Poughkeepsie and Eastern. “They were marginal lines of the Central New England Railroad, built in the 1870s and are gone by 1938,” he says. Another line went to Rhinecliff via Red Hook and Pine Plains, and was abandoned during the same period.
The first railroad to come to the Hudson Valley from the west is the Canajoharie & Catskill, in 1838. “The intended western terminus was never reached. It lasted only four years, but still it was the first,” Comito says.
The Erie Railroad arrived in Piermont in 1841, built by the industrialist Henry Pierson (for whom Piermont is named). “The pier built out into the river can still be seen and may have been last used by embarking troops from Camp Shanks in World War II,” Comito says. Passenger service to the village ended in the 1960s.
The proposed Saratoga and Hudson line began at Athens in 1864, but never got very far. It came under the control of the West Shore line and was abandoned in 1888. The only trace of this railroad is just north of Athens, Comito says. “Driving down a road through hayfields toward the river, a side road running off to the left has brick row houses that look like they were lifted out of the Bronx. They were built for the railroad’s employees and are still occupied, many of them by artists,” he says.
After the Civil War, “railroad fever” took over throughout the nation, as every city and town clamored to get onto a rail line between 1865 and about 1900. The West Shore Railroad, which ran from Weehawken, tunneled under the Palisades from North Bergen to Haverstraw and then emerged in the Hudson Valley and ran along the river to West Park and on toward Albany “never more than a mile or so from the river and sometimes in sight of it,” he says, was part of that fever.
Construction began in 1880, but was plagued by money problems from the start. The line fell under the control of the Pennsylvania Railroad, “and that was not good news for the New York Central,” Comito says. “The Pennsylvania was the largest railroad in the U.S. The Central was the second. They were bitter rivals.” When the Pennsylvania got into the Hudson Valley, “the Vanderbilt people went ballistic and got a charter from the state of Pennsylvania and started grading a railroad across that state, called the South Pennsylvania Railroad.”
The financier J.P. Morgan didn’t like this one bit. “It was bad for the stock market and bad for his bank, ” says Comito. “He called a meeting of the two railroad presidents aboard his yacht, the Corsair, anchored in New York Harbor, on July 10, 1885. He told the two presidents, George Roberts and William H. Vanderbilt, to come to terms or [they weren’t] getting ashore.” Roberts gives up the West Shore; Vanderbilt stops construction. The grading and tunnels he left behind are now part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. And the West Shore Railroad today is a freight line owned by CSX and sees more than 30 trains per day between Selkirk and North Bergen, N.J.
Three other railroads served the western shore. The Wallkill Valley Railroad came up from New Paltz to Kingston from around 1872 until 1977. The New York Ontario and Western arrived in Cornwall in 1903, and was abandoned in 1957. “The major railroad is the Ulster & Delaware, beginning right out on the river at Kingston Point in 1868, purchased by the New York Central in 1932 and in service until 1977,” he says.
The three-foot-gauge Catskill Mountain Railway, which began in 1882 and ended in 1918, ran in summers only, for vacationers heading to the mountain hotels. Today, the Catskill Mountain Railroad operates out of Kingston and does themed events such as the Polar Express and The Great Train Robbery.
Passenger railroads achieved their peak mileage in 1915. That plateaued through World War I into the 1920s, then decreased during the Depression and plateaued again through World War II. “After that it began a sharp decline as people got cars, then in the 1950s highways were built. By 1972, the long-distance passenger train was dead,” Comito says. In 1971, the Congressional Rail Passenger Service Act established Amtrak to consolidate the U.S.’s existing 20 passenger railroads into one.
In 1976, the U.S. Congress created Conrail to handle freight trains. “The Penn Central was bringing down all other lines because it was in such bad financial shape,” Comito says. “For once, Congress did something right.” They installed a new management team, which turned the company profitable, then divided it up. In 1980 CSX was created to manage freight shipping in the eastern half of the U.S., including New York State and New England.
Will the trains of tomorrow be even better? Time will tell, of course. But at least we won’t be showered with burning embers or lurched until our hats are sent flying.