COPAKE FALLS—The Harlem Valley Rail Trail is slated to receive $375,000 from the $90 million allocated for parks and historic sites in the 2014-15 state budget. The money will go towards the development of a 1.2-mile section of the trail in Copake Falls and will connect the Copake Falls Station to Orphan Farm Meadow. This will be the first new section constructed in almost a decade.
The project is being led by the Harlem Valley Rail Trail Association (HVRTA), along with various state, county and municipal agencies. The trail has been acquired, constructed, and opened piece by piece, and the three completed parts are not contiguous. The HVRTA has been working on this project for over 25 years and hopes to eventually reach Chatham. As of today, about 15 miles of the trail are paved and open to the public, with another 1.3 miles open but unpaved.
An uninterrupted trail from the Wassaic Metro-North Station in Dutchess County to Chatham would cover 46 miles, and a New York Times article from 1989 reported that in the late 1980s about 20 miles of rail right-of-way in Dutchess and Columbia counties was purchased for use as a public park from James Metz for just over $1 million.
The HVRTA does not own all of the rights-of-way for its proposed route, and Lisa DeLeeuw, executive director of the organization, says that it is difficult to determine how much land still needs to be acquired in order to complete the project. The “routing and surveying” of the remaining 18 miles—a section that would run from Chatham through Ghent, Philmont, and Craryville to Hillsdale—”is being done on a different grant,” she says. If these studies determine that the project will run into land along the tracks that would be difficult or expensive to acquire, the trail might be rerouted.
The Harlem Valley Rail Trail runs north from the Wassaic Metro-North station along the abandoned route of the old New York and Harlem Railroad. The track reached Chatham in 1852 and connected to another track that had arrived coming south from Albany in 1841. Under the ownership of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, the route was then folded into the company that would become the New York Central Railroad.
The merger of New York Central with the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1968 was a financial failure. The resulting company, Penn Central, filed for bankruptcy in 1970. By then, rail industry was in a severe contraction and the stations between Chatham and Dover Plains. The last passenger train left Chatham for Grand Central Terminal in New York City in 1972. Freight service was discontinued in 1976 and the tracks to Wassaic were torn up. Freight trains still regularly pass through downtown Chatham without stopping on a different rail line owned by CSX.
The HVRTA website, hvrt.org, notes that Chatham has converted roughly one mile of the old railbed into a rail trail. It’s the asphalt sidewalk that runs along Route 66 from the Chatham Plaza strip mall to the parking lot of Charron’s Market at the intersection with Route 203. North of Route 203 on the median between the sidewalk and the parking lot of Destino Cocina Mexicana restaurant grass covers what may be the last of the tracks once used by the New York and Harlem Railroad.