The history of the Stony Clove, Catskill Mountain and Kaaterskill railroads

Contributed photoUlster & Delaware, Haines Falls

Part 2

The Stony Clove & Catskill Mountain Railroad was organized on January 18, 1881. By April, 400 or more men were working on the Clove. The President of the S.C. & C.M.R., Thomas Cornell, had a master bridge builder, a mason, a roadmaster, and a foreman in charge of the men who laid the tracks. History explains it was first a three-foot narrow gauge railroad as it was thought to be cheaper to build and operate. The tracks were later widened to a standard gauge.

Author Gerry Best’s book, “The Ulster & Delaware,” said most of the newly arrived Italians found the climate in the high Catskills not as amenable as southern Italy. It was labor shortages that prevented the expected completion of the railroad to Hunter in1881. Best said, “Many Italians disliked working on the hard rock and returned to New York.” By August of 1881, the line was open for business as far as Edgewood, eight and one-half miles from its start at Phoenicia. Building the tracks as far as Edgewood was a less challenging section; it worsened as the men had to blast out of the faces of the mountain cliffs. It was hard work, often negatively affected by variations in the weather.

As said in Best’s book, “The Italians complained about the icy cold water and refused to bathe. Simultaneously, locals who worked alongside the Italians were enraged by a new type of flea never seen before in the Catskills and was attacking the natives with great relish.” (Silly sentiments indeed, but it was 140 years ago)! Author Best of the book, “Ulster & Delaware,” later explained, “An injustice has been given to the Italians, they were unaccustomed to below zero temperatures, and their complaints about the lack of heat and hot water in their shacks on the mountain were no doubt justified.”

The track ran for seven miles through the grown forest. Men known as tree choppers had to complete their work before the graders could begin. The grading through the Notch continued, and by December, the workers completed the tracks through the Notch. Compliments were frequent for the work accomplished by Thomas Cornell and his aids. Cornell’s son-in-law, Samuel Decker Coykendall, was applauded as the person responsible for the day-to-day supervision of the workers and the Notch’s construction.

The Village of Hunter celebrated the news that the new railroad was open to transport both tourists and freight to and from the resorts. It was a massive benefit to the area.

As John Ham (and Robert K. Bucenec) explained in their 2002, “Light Rails and Short Ties through the Notch,” “the idea of running a railroad to the Mountain Top had been discussed throughout the 1870s, both to service commercial and industrial interest in and around Hunter, and to carry the tourist to surrounding villages.” But George Harding’s plans to construct Hotel Kaaterskill prompted the railroad to start up in 1880. Ham’s book said, “Harding used his considerable influence with Thomas Cornell to force the issue and turn the idea into a reality.”

The paper said it was in Phoenicia that the tourist leaves the Ulster & Delaware to take the Stony Clove and Kaaterskill Railroad through the 214 Notch. Once the train arrived at Kaaterskill Junction (initially called Tannersville Junction) just south of 23A and east of Ski Bowl Road, it was three miles to Tannersville on the east and only two miles west to Hunter Village. “The Hotel Kaaterskill, to which this new railroad leads, is the most incredible mountain hotel in the world and is a complete city in itself.”

The June 1882 Boston Globe paper gave glowing reports on the Catskills, going into detail about the railroad to the Catskills. It tells how the first portion of the route (from Roundout) is not unlike the beautiful hilly scenery so frequently met within almost any part of New England, but after a point, the mountains began to rise on every side. “The tourist finds himself passing through the beautiful and grand Stony Clove or Notch. Unlike the White Mountains Notch, Stony Clove is “As Green and beautiful as a Garden.” The paper describes it as its sides look like a fairyland in the beautiful sunlight of the June afternoons.

Part 3 continues next week.

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