Restoring the Mount Beacon Incline Railway

Would the restoration of the Mount Beacon funicular be good for the region? It depends who you ask

I’ve lived near the base of Mount Beacon for five years now, but believe it or not, I’ve never seen what’s at the top: the reservoirs, the monument to the Revolutionary War, the wheelhouse, the fire tower. Because I suffer from the chronic pain syndrome fibromyalgia, it’s impossible for me to manage the steep switchbacks of the 1,611 foot mountain. I have only heard how, from a height greater than that of the Empire State Building, hikers can see as far north as the Catskills, and as far south as New York City. The view, they say, is breathtaking. 

There is hope, however, that one day a funicular will take me up there. The people at the Mount Beacon Incline Railway Restoration Society are working hard to make that happen.

mount beacon incline railway trolley cars
On top of the world: A pair of trolley cars travel down Mount Beacon

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Funiculars — incline railways that are a cross between a train and an elevator — have been around for hundreds of years. The first Mount Beacon Incline Railway was built in 1902 by men and mules through the dead of winter. It opened on Memorial Day to great success, providing not just a nature break for residents of the surrounding industrial towns (as well as for steamboats full of folks escaping New York City), but also dining, dancing, and gambling in the casino, and a stay at the Beaconcrest Hotel. Through the Roaring ’20s, tourist business in the city of Beacon thrived. The banner year of 1926 saw 110,000 passengers riding the rail.

Then, in 1927, disaster hit in the form of a fire. The casino and the hotel burned to the ground, although the funicular kept running. Throughout the succeeding decades, more than three million people rode the railway, but it never recovered the ridership of its early days and closed after a fire in 1983.

The first Mount Beacon Incline Railway was built in 1902. Through the Roaring ’20s, tourist business in the city of Beacon thrived. The banner year of 1926 saw 110,000 passengers riding the rail

Plans to restore the Railway started in 1996 with Steve Gold, then campaigning for a City Council position. “When I saw how Main Street was depressed and boarded up and nobody was going there, I wanted to do something to help the city. When I asked people what they liked about Beacon, they’d smile and say, ‘The Incline Railway.’ ” Rebuilding and reopening the funicular, Gold thought, would bring needed dollars into the city, and residents could revisit the mountaintop of their youth.

Ellen Gersh, a Beaconite who grew up at the foot of the mountain and has now returned to her childhood home, remembers riding the railway with her grandmother. “There were no windows, and the ride was so steep, you thought you were going to be thrown out of the car. For my sister, a daredevil, it was a thrill.” The casino at the top was a hot spot for her parents, who walked to the base station, took the ride up, and danced all night. “You could hear the music from my house,” Gersh says.

First on the agenda for Gold’s new group was to save the mountain from developers, with help from the Scenic Hudson Land Trust, which bought the land before 47 new houses could be built on it. Since then, the nonprofit has built a Web site, held fund-raisers, and worked to raise public awareness. 

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railway opening memorial day 1902
Crowds gather at the opening of the railway on Memorial Day in 1902

According to Mike Colarusso, recent past president of the society, a funicular and upper and lower visitor centers will live in the footprints of the old rails and buildings, with some differences. “With the old one, you’d ride to the top, stay at the hotel, and dance until 2 a.m. This will be a dawn-to-dusk facility, so it’s dark at night, and quiet.” The old facility at the top, he says, dumped human waste into an open ditch down the side of the mountain. “We’ll use mulching restrooms, filter gray water, and reuse it for plantings. The facilities will be LEED-certified educational and museum centers. There are some things we don’t want to replicate.” 

In 2011, Colarusso, a senior research analyst in the Army’s office of Economic and Manpower Analysis, had a market analysis and business feasibility study conducted. It showed ridership was predicted to be about 192,000 people per year, yielding an annual profit of $540,000. Profits would be reinvested in maintaining the railway. Jobs created in the region would be in the hundreds. In 2013, the society received a $100,000 New York State Capital Projects grant, its first six-figure grant, which will go toward creating a business and operating plan. According to the 2011 study, the whole project would take 18 months and cost $20 million. But Jeff McHugh, who took over as president of the society in June, says that more recent projections indicate that the cost of the project will go beyond that figure. Further complicating the society’s efforts is the fact that New York State Parks announced last winter that they will be taking over the land on Mount Beacon from Scenic Hudson, and incorporating it into Hudson Highlands State Park. “Getting approval by New York State Parks to proceed with our plans is our next big milestone,” says McHugh. “Then we will be focused on building our board of trustees to help us accomplish our funding goals.” 

Residents who live near the mountain worry about the traffic, the noise, the litter, the land management. Tim Parsaca, vice president of production at Madison Square Garden, owns a house at the foot of the mountain. “My opinion of the railway is tempered by my proximity. I live here. The mountain is my backyard and I’m on it four days a week. I’ve seen what’s happened as tourism has grown.”

mount beacon railway artist rendering
An artist’s rendering of the proposed visitors center and restaurant to be constructed at the summit of the mountain

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Parsaca works at the Garden, where 20,000 people a night, he says, can leave an incredible amount of trash. The numbers are not the same, but he’s worried the effect will be. “People are people. The stairs make wider trails, causing erosion on the mountain, and much more garbage. In a year, you have 100,000 more people going up there that have to go to the bathroom, that leave stuff.” He points out how, on game nights, the traffic to Dutchess Stadium shuts down Route 9D in Wappingers Falls. He worries the same will happen to the area surrounding the mountain.

But, says Colarusso, “development doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Think of Storm King Art Center, or Boscobel. They thoughtfully integrated the visitors’ experience into the natural landscape. If I lived close by, I too would want to know more. We share everything, all our plans, studies, and numbers, with the public on our Web site.” They have also made a short film about the project, called Excelsior.

As someone who can barely walk one mile, I envy hikers like Parsaca who can take advantage of the mountain’s beauty. I understand his desire to keep nature pristine. But I also understand the desire to make the mountain more accessible to everyone, as well as boost the local economy. I hope one day they can create a plan, and a ride, that will satisfy us all.

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