The Strange Appeal of Disused Railroads

What is it that draws us to old places that have been abandoned? It could be about the vastly different era they have been a part of, the stories they quietly harbour, or just plain old nostalgia for the past. Nostalgia is after all a sort of release into a utopian world for most of us. I suppose one cannot lay a finger upon the nub of the matter but I can tell you with conviction that railroads are lonely, lonely places. On this particular afternoon after a gander through the town of Phoenicia, and before we set out on the trail of covered bridges, we stopped at a tiny town called Arkville.

The sight of a few old houses, a distillery, a fire station, and train engines rolling by the car window, woke me out of the stupor of that summer noon. I insisted we turn back and Adi remarked it was fortuitous enough. He was aiming for a power nap. Our friend meanwhile seemed intent on training his DSLR on the landscape around for some time, so I skipped away on my own.

Rusted metal, cracked wooden sleepers, grassy growths thrown up in clumps through the bed of gravel, on and around the tracks, and then a line-up of old railcars languishing on the tracks, with no destination in mind.

The last of the people at the ticket office (they do organise joyrides here) wound up early that weekend and went off to celebrate a new car. Random snatches of overheard conversations spontaneously adding spice to my wanderings. Not a soul was to be seen as I walked down the tracks. Through a clearing in the foliage alongside, I came upon the main road where I walked for some time to realise that there was nothing much to be had except the wrath of the sun and an empty road. I turned back and started upon the railroad from where it began, peeping into silent engines and cabins.

In its heyday, which was right into the World War I period, the Ulster and Delaware Railroad covered a distance of 107 miles between two places in the Upstate New York, Kingston and Oneonta. I pictured myself in one of the old dining cars, sipping on tea and finger sandwiches as we chugged through the green green valleys of the majestic Catskills, up mean inclines, skirting babbling brooks and charming villages. Possibly a bear on its hind legs waving at me from deep in the woods. If it’s only a daydream, let us tailor it as we see fit, non?

The people of Arkville, just like residents of other villages and hamlets in the Catskill mountains, would have sworn that it would never fade out, the Up and Down. It was their lifeline during the mid-1800s, connecting the village folk to the world, and important in the scheme of things in that it was part of their livelihood. The U&D carried milk from the mountain villages to the world beyond.

The tourists too would have never imagined that it could be rendered useless. For during long hot summers, upper-crust New Yorkers took the trains into the countryside where it was all about the winding roads and the luxuriant greenery, a sight for sore city eyes. Ridiculously lavish hotels catered to their needs. Let’s say it was the Hamptons of the yesteryears. You can see the appeal reflected in a few old ads I came upon. They are portals to another era. Most of them flaunt the good ol’ adventurer, Rip Van Winkle, as their mascot. For you do know that Rip wandered into the Catskills and napped there for a solid 20 years, right?




But fade the railroad did. There is no reprieve from the passage of time or the seduction of new developments. The 1920s arrived with automobiles and trucks snatching the reigns from the railroad, paving the way for disenchantment with it, till the railroad was left to its own devices in the latter part of the century.

I wandered amongst the cabooses and dining cars till I came upon a beautiful rust-red Ulster & Delaware railcar. The driver’s seat looked forlorn. The stairs corroded. I thought about taking a quick look inside the car. And then, I have no idea why, but something flipped in me. I am ashamed to say that I took off like the wind even though I did not feel light on my feet that day. My heart beat as loud as the tooting of an engine, I fancy. It could have been the utter silence around me, the stillness in the air, or the thought that someone was watching me from behind the dark windows. It was possibly a blend of all three, but here’s the anti-climax, all I could do was run back to Adi on winged heels.

2018-06-16 05.36.11 1.jpg
Arkville is positioned alongside the exceptionally green belt of the Catskill Park Blue Line
2018-06-16 05.36.34 1.jpg

2018-06-16 05.36.31 1.jpg

Processed with VSCO with  preset

2018-06-16 08.04.44 1.jpg

2018-06-16 08.04.38 1.jpg
Rip Van Winkle Flyer dinner train

2018-06-16 05.36.12 1.jpg

2018-06-16 05.36.45 1.jpg

2018-06-16 08.04.36 1.jpg

2018-06-16 08.04.33 1.jpg
Cross-section of a caboose

2018-06-16 05.36.18 1.jpg

2018-06-16 05.36.17 1.jpg

Processed with VSCO with  preset

2018-06-16 05.36.25 1.jpg

2018-06-16 05.36.26 1.jpg

2018-06-16 05.36.42 1.jpg
An old steam locomotive
2018-06-16 05.36.38 1.jpg
Rusted axles and dusty locomotives

2018-06-16 05.36.15 1.jpg

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset
The New York Central Dining Car, lending itself to an old dream of luxury. 

Phoenicia in the Catskills

The day we drove into the Catskills, the freshness of the foliage was a balm to the senses. It is the kind of lushness that you see as summer sets in, a vibrant shade of green that makes you hum with barely contained joy, when the sun might beat down upon you with all its strength, but humidity is still at bay, so you slap on some sunscreen and shades, and gaze upon the world with benevolence. A world that is ripe with possibilities because you are off to explore parts of it that you have not seen before. And you know the kind of thrill I am talking about, for you’ve been there. It’s just this feeling called travel.

My mind was a blank slate, and I let it be. By which I mean that I did not go ballistic googling up places to see. I am guilty of doing that often. At times, I let go. Last month I was not feeling too well, maybe this lethargy was a result of it. Yet as we got closer and closer to the bucolic surroundings, all discomfort fell away like a load of unwanted baggage.

The clouds were curdling away gently above our happy heads to make way for buttermilk patterns that stretched and stretched before disappearing behind rows of trees framing the roads. We passed by rolling hills and pastures, silos and barns with peeling paint, country houses and porches, till via Route 28 we arrived in Phoenicia. I had fixated upon this strange name after reading about it in an NYT travel piece because well, who wouldn’t be curious about its Greek origins, redolent of faded civilisations and mythic birds. I wonder why the founders named it Phoenicia, this town that was thrown up on the traveller’s route thanks to the Ulster and Delaware Railroad. In the early 20th century, it was the only rail route to the Catskills, the name of which is said to be derived from the Dutch ‘Kaaterskill’, meaning Wildcat Creek, and probably a reference to the resident bobcats.

These mountains of southeastern New York represented a gentile way of life for city folk who sought a quick getaway for fresh air and good food. The Catskills were the summer place to be, especially for Jewish immigrants who were turned away from popular holiday resorts.

Phoenicia turned out to be a hamlet on the Esopus Creek, down the mossy green waters of which girls and boys floated lazily on tubes while fly anglers fished for trout. The Town Tinker Tube Rental, operating out of a rust red barn, was the first post of business that registered in my mind as we walked into town beneath its leafy bowers. And the first scene, that of clusters of teenagers in swimsuits, holding onto ginormous black tubes. The tube rental’s repurposed old school buses were eye-catching. Painted white, they roamed the streets of Phoenicia, providing rides to tube enthusiasts.

There is one main street in this small town that is said to have remained quite unchanged since the 1850s when it was laid out. On this thoroughfare, you find everyone. They would either be lounging around in the cantina on a sultry noon, tinkering around its country store, or walking their single-eyed, slobbery Great Danes about town. And all around are the lush hills. The Catskills.

Towards the other end of town — to get to which we walked past a parish church in grey stone with red pipings and an old rectory — stood a few ramshackle trailers and houses worse for the wear. The creek gurgled alongside. Here there were no kids, just an old man fly fishing. It was a place drowsy with slumber. Wisps of cottonwood floating around us in the quiet of the noon beneath tall trees, acquiring an ethereal air in dappled sunshine. Wisps that clung together in batches of white fluff as they reached the ground. It was a moment of intense beauty that made time stand still. And I thought to myself, you can really ‘hold Infinity in the palm of your hand’.

My craziness scaled new heights when I found myself outside a rambling house. It was awfully dilapidated. Broken window panes, shards of glass, busts and figurines matted with dust and cobwebs in a dark shed, a trench in the grounds covered by grass as if to create a kind of a trap for the snoop who fancies a peep into its interiors. Just as I had finished playing the self-appointed prole of Ms. Meddle, and crossed the lane to get back to Adi and our friend who were by the creek, a window on the upper floor, translucent with grime, was thrown open.

Out of it emerged a head. A bespectacled man with a remarkably white head of hair and a bushy, long white beard. In an overtly bright yellow sweatshirt. We squinted at each other.

In a few minutes, the three of us were retracing our steps to the modest hubbub of the hamlet, leaving the house behind. I turned around a few times (curiosity always gets the better of me) for I could not fathom anyone living in that battered house. And every time I looked back, I caught the man pop back furtively. This happened more than a few times till an exasperated Adi asked me to put a lid on this strange obsession. That’s how we left Phoenicia behind, me wondering aloud if we had indeed sighted the last of the Great American Hobos in the heart of the Catskills.

2018-06-16 01.45.36 2.jpg

2018-06-20 06.26.12 1.jpg
World’s largest kaleidoscope at Mt. Tremper on Route 28
2018-06-20 06.26.08 1.jpg
At Emerson Spa
Processed with VSCO with  preset
Now, you are in Phoenicia

2018-06-16 08.04.49 1.jpg

2018-06-20 06.26.05 1_1.jpg


2018-06-16 08.16.29 1.jpg
Black Bear Campground

2018-06-16 08.16.31 1.jpg

2018-06-16 08.16.21 1.jpg
Esopus Creek
2018-06-16 08.16.25 1.jpg
Husky in the hood

2018-06-20 06.25.59 1.jpg

2018-06-20 06.24.25 1.jpg

2018-06-20 06.24.30 1.jpg

2018-06-20 06.24.31 1.jpg
Phoenicia’s main street

2018-06-20 06.25.49 1.jpg

2018-06-20 06.25.52 1.jpg

2018-06-20 06.25.55 1.jpg

2018-06-20 06.24.18 1_1.jpg
Catholic parish church of Phoenicia
2018-06-20 06.24.15 1_1.jpg
Our Lady of La Salette (an apparition seen by two children in a small village of La Salette in the Alps in the 1800s)
2018-06-20 06.24.10 1.jpg
Old Rectory
2018-06-20 06.24.01 1_1.jpg
Meanwhile at the other end of town…
…are contented campers
And abandoned barns
2018-06-16 08.16.40 1_1.jpg
Trailers and cottonwood

2018-06-16 08.16.38 1_1.jpg

Esopus Creek
Abandoned or not?



2018-06-16 08.16.51 1.jpg
Fly fishing in the creek
2018-06-16 08.16.48 1.jpg
Seeking trout
2018-06-16 08.16.56 1.jpg
Phoenicia, where the Esopus runs through in a shimmer of silver