|WEST OUT OF KINGSTON
by Richard J. Niebanck
West Out of Kingston first appeared in the Spring, 1998 Issue of The Rip Van Winkle Flyer
Gerald M. Best's definitive book, The Ulster And Delaware ... Railroad Through the Catskills (1972), concludes with a vivid account of the author's journey from Oneonta to Kingston in October 1946, over a rapidly deteriorating Catskill Mountain Branch of the New York Central Railroad. Part of the trip retraced a boyhood ramble of his in 1912. In June of 1947, not a year after Mr. Best's sentimental journey, I traveled the length of the former U. and D. in the opposite direction. The following paragraphs recount the trip as best as I can recall it. Inspired by Alton Weiss' 1996 article in a special section of the Oneonta Daily Star, and written with his encouragement, my reminiscence lacks the detail that characterized Mr. Best's account, to say nothing of photos. Nevertheless, I've striven to be as accurate as a fifty-year recollection allows, and I invite any correction or fine tuning that fellow U. and D. devotees are in a position to offer.
At Union Station
It was a hot day in late June of 1947. My parents deposited me at the imposing clapboard structure which the timetable called "Union Station" even though it now served only one railroad, the New York Central. My folks had brought me to Kingston to send me on my first solo journey to my first real job as a farmhand in the Charlotte Valley near Oneonta. I was just a couple of weeks away from turning sixteen. It was the summer when the Mills Brothers' hit, "Across the Alley from the Alamo," was blaring from every juke box; when people were chuckling at Ma and Pa Kettle in "The Egg and I;" when Brando and Leigh were making dramatic history in "A Streetcar Named Desire;" and when Jackie Robinson was bringing in a new era in major league baseball. It was around noon when I purchased my one-way (to keep my options open) ticket to Oneonta. Passengers from the northbound West Shore train were ambling toward the Catskill Mountain Branch train, (I wouldn't learn of its U. and D. ancestry until my arrival in Oneonta), which stood pointed toward the mountains which were just visible through the summer haze. The train was headed by a 4-6-0 Alco-built locomotive, possibly the very one in which Gerald Best had ridden the previous October. A combination mail-baggage car followed the tender. Three coaches completed the train's consist. These I recall as being of the heavyweight variety, vintage the early 1920's--concrete flooring, six-wheeled trucks which were at that time standard equipment on the Central's non-varnish, inter-city runs. These cars were equipped with double-sashed windows. In summer, some of the outside sashes would be raised so as to allow passengers to open the inner ones if they desired. Such was the case the day of my trip. The conductor, wearing a white shirt, dark tie and trousers, and the regulation NYC cap, strode toward the rear vestibule, calling an authoritative "All aboard." A younger trainman, similarly attired, followed him.
With a groan and creak so characteristic of the heavyweights, our train slowly began to move. Taking a seat by an open window on the north or right-hand side of the rear coach, I watched as we passed through a cut and tunnel below street level, then emerging into open fields west of Route 9-W, and heading straight toward the mountains. Although the track was, as they say, "tangent," our pace could only be described as leisurely-a stroll at best. Except for myself, the coach was populated by some twenty or thirty boys, aged eight to thirteen, bound for summer camp near Fleischmann's. A matron in her fifties accompanied the campers, maintaining order with little or no effort, her grandmotherly demeanor seeming to have a charges effect on her charges. Toward Hurley, we began to climb noticeably, first into a piney wood and then along the north bank of the Ashokan Reservoir. The great expanse of water shone in the sunshine of early afternoon.
Along the Esopus
As we left the reservoir behind and entered the narrowing Esopus valley, I walked to the rear platform and took in the sylvan landscape as it slipped by. We soon made the Phoenicia stationstop, a bit longer than the others so as to permit the coupling on of a helper engine at the rear of the train. Several weathered wooden coaches stood silently on an overgrown siding, mute witnesses to a glory that was.
Up Pine Hill
We continued our meander along the Esopus, stopping at Shandaken and Big Indian and then beginning a more serious assault on the great divide between the Hudson and the Delaware watersheds. But no sooner had we begun our ascent than we had to stop at Pine Hill. Numerous passengers alighted from the others coaches, but nobody moved from ours. As we continued our climb, a cloud of worry loomed in my mind. Said I to myself: "If I'm the only one in this coach who's going beyond Fleischmann's, hadn't I better move forward in case they intend to drop the car somewhere along the way?" With that, I went looking for someone who might know. I found the younger trainman hanging out from the bottom step of the forward vestibule. He appeared to be watching the wheels of our car as we inched, flanges screaming, around the righthand curve at the foot of Belleayre Mountain. To my query he replied: "Move up to the first coach. We'll probably drop the last two at Arkville." The helper was dropped at Grand Hotel, the campers and their matron detrained at Fleischmann's, and I moved forward as we eased down the mountain toward Arkville.
Arkville to Stamford
The head coach was almost crowded, not with children but adults. The atmosphere was relaxed, friendly, with several lively conversations in progress. Being the newcomer to this informal club car, I occupied myself by watching our trainmen uncouple the two, now empty, coaches behind. Soon we were underway again, headed toward Roxbury, Grand Gorge, and Stamford. At the time, I knew nothing of the Delaware and Northern Railroad whose track angled off to the left toward Margaretville and points along the East Branch. The Pepacton Dam (as I was soon to learn) was then under construction, so it must have been that the D. and N. was already a thing of the past. It turned out that the father of a school friend was the engineer in charge of the dam project. I was treated to a tour of the site later that summer. Somewhere outside of Arkville, we stopped for what seemed to be fully thirty minutes, waiting for the westbound to pass. Presently we heard the sound of its whistle, echoing and re-echoing off the mountainsides. Soon it passed, bell clanging, and we were on our way again. I especially recall the splendid view of the valley to the right of the train as we left Grand Gorge.
The Home Stretch
At Stamford, everyone got off, almost. Seeing all my fellow passengers leaving, I concluded that we were at Oneonta, it being about the scheduled time. I was lugging my duffle bag toward the door when I heard someone say,"This is Stamford." I sat down again, feeling very much deserted. After getting used to being alone among all those empty seats, I noticed that the two uniformed trainmen were no longer present. A tall young man, hardly into his twenties, came back to give me a hearty greeting and to inquire as to my destination. Clad in blue jeans and a workshirt, he looked as if he'd just left the farm. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, he returned to the car ahead. Something else I noticed was the terrain: not so rugged, with wider valleys dotted by red dairy barns, herds of Holsteins, and meadows of timothy, or alfalfa, and fields of foot-high corn. The aroma of barnyards seemed omnipresent. "A preview of the summer," I told myself. Although the timetable indicated many stops, we ran as an "express" all the way to Oneonta, albeit at a comfortable thirty-
five, or so, m.p.h. I supposed this to be owing to the fact that it was Sunday and that the only passenger was going the whole distance. 4 Nearing our destination, we crossed the West Davenport Road at grade not once, not twice, but three times in the space of two miles. Then, after passing through Frazier's meadow and crossing Charlotte Creek on Mickle Bridge (beneath which children were enjoying a swimming hole), and then crossing the Susquehanna, we drew up beside the old U. and D. station. "Oneonta!" cried the congenial "farm boy" as he grabbed my duffle bag and quickly ushered me from the train. "You're forty minutes late," said my new employer with a smile.
The Cooperstown and Charlotte Valley
The farm where I worked that summer and the two following, consisted of one hundred acres along the West Davenport Road, land now given over to the housing tract known as "Angel Heights." Parallel to the road on the south, one could discern the remains of what had been the Cooperstown and Charlotte Valley Railroad. Even some of the crushed stone ballast remained. One can still glimpse a bit of the C. and C. V.'s low embankment in the woods to the east of the road now called Morningside Drive. As if that weren't enough, our pasture contained a vestige of the old Charlotte Valley Turnpike, the route of stage coaches before the advent of the iron horse.
The farm lay within earshot of almost constant railroad activity. Less than two miles to the west at Emmons, the West Davenport Road crossed the three-track mainline of the Delaware and Hudson Railroad. Twenty or more times a day, I was treated to the booming bass chord typical of D. and H. engines. After the whistle, I'd listen to the sound of the long coal drags heading north out of Pennsylvania, or to the passenger train rolling down from Colliersville. From the east, I would hear the far less frequent soprano wail of the former U. and D. engines as they approached the three grade crossings on the road to West Davenport. Sadly, their days were numbered. When I returned for work in 1948, they had been replaced by the unmusical blasts of the Diesel horn. Never again was I to ride the former U. and D. whose schedules became increasingly inconvenient. But that one way trip of fifty years ago plays and replays in my memory. And whenever I travel from East Meredith to Oneonta, I sometimes think I hear that whistle echoing and re-echoing among the hills.
from The Rip Van Winkle Flyer, Spring, 1998, No. 30