By Mike Jurkovic
"I had the chance to ride the railway as a kid. Coming down the mountain you'd think that rickety old thing was never gonna stop and wind up in the river! The view was amazing and you could always get a hamburger up there too." - Randy Casale, Beacon Mayor & lifelong Beacon resident
Since 1978, the rails have been silent, save for the exuberant echoes of families riding the incline on a fine summer day. Today the rails are silent still, but maybe, on a hint of a Highland breeze, you’ll overhear the fears of the Great Depression. Both fire, and the Valley’s unkind seasons, have perhaps made the restoration of this 2,200’ funicular even more daunting than it was in that hard winter of 1901, when construction began and workers cursed the cold and their pack mules.
“It’s in the town of Fishkill but it’s still Mt. Beacon. We have the mountain as our backdrop and the river on our front porch. It defines us.”- Clara Lou Gould, former five term Mayor of Beacon & MBIRRS Trustee
Many people and passions power the Mt. Beacon Incline restoration effort. But before proceeding, did the word funicular trip you up? Let me apologize for that and clarify things if I can: Part elevator, part train, attached by cables. The car loaded with happy campers going up is balanced by the descending car full of people ooohing and ahhing as their eyes sweep west over the river to Pennsylvania or south to NYC. In it’s glory days, nearly 3.5 million people came to the state mountain – our mountain!- where the Continental Army set signal fires to warn of the British approach.
The Otis Elevator Company of Yonkers engineered the railway that climbs over 1,500’ above sea level with an average gradient of 64% and a max gradient of 74%. Now I’m not going to jive you like I know what any of that means. But it’s steep, baby. The steepest on the East Coast, second steepest in the US, and fourth steepest in the world.
“I’m a historian, and I’m male, so by defintion I love trains, right?” Mike Colarusso, president of the Mount Beacon Incline Railway Restoration Society (MBIRRS) admits laughingly when asked how he got involved with the restoration effort.
“Beacon has already arrived, so it doesn’t need anything to put it on the map.” Colarusso explains persuasively. “But this restoration is a marquee project proving to the city there’s no going back. We are the gateway to the Hudson Valley, and this can be the economic endeavor that lifts all boats. We have an ardent community of stakeholders, a top-flight network of professionals – engineers, archtects, artists, designers - so I’m betting it’s going to get done.”
“What we’re proposing is putting a front door on a huge state park. Almost like Minnewaska in New Paltz, we’re a non-profit land preservation society working with the town and state to protect a unique regional landscape with a global view.”
“Just like Walkway Over The Hudson, the railway has been a pie-in-the-sky idea for the longest time, but I’m ready ‘n willing to do whatever I can to make this finally happen.” - Randy Casale
Founding member, first president, current board member, and former Beacon Mayor Steve Gold recalls the events leading to the Society’s founding in 1996. “Basically it came about when I led a hike up Mt. Beacon on Earth Day in 1996. It was the first public hike in many years. We discussed the history and the story spread through the press and public buzz.”
“Eventually Andy Chiusano (co-founder, president, now deceased) gave me a call wanting to get involved. We were both of the mind of why not rebuild it. So he suggested we start a committee and I said “Andy, I already have the announcement in the papers and you and I are the co-founders.” “We had hundreds of meetings, but the first big issue at our first meeting was about the property owner who wanted to develop the land at the base of the mountain.”
Gold, currently chief of staff for Assemblyman Frank Skartados who is 200% behind the restoration, concludes: “Our first real Society kick-off event in 1997 had the regimen from Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh setting signal fires atop Mt. Beacon. They could be seen from all over Main Street, and I believe that gave skeptics and supporters alike an equal interest in the mountain’s historical significance.”
Steve Rosenberg, senior VP and Executive Director of Scenic Hudson, picks up and fills in the tale of those intial land purchases. “In the early 90’s, Scenic Hudson acquired a large part of the Greater Fishkill Ridge for conservation purposes. Later on, with keen support from community members, we purchased Mt. Beacon Park, insuring complete public access to the mountain.”
"Then we did school outreach with the goal to let all schoolkids know they could see such a unique perspective on their neighborhood.”
“It’s really the Incline Society,” Rosenberg assures “from it’s early days to now, that has kept the dream alive.”
“For me,” Colarusso, a retired Army officer, verbally applauds, “The greatest accomplishment of the Society was blocking the residential development which threatend what is now Mt. Beacon Park. The developer was ready to build forty-five bi-level boxes. The all volunteer Society began a grassroots campaign collecting enough signatures to block the city from granting the necessary zoning provisions, then intiating the land purchase between Scenic Hudson and the developer. And they became a 501(c)(3). If they hadn’t done that we wouldn’t be here today.”
Here today is The River Center at Long Dock Park, amid the dynamic and interactive ‘Beacon Re-imagined’ exhibit designed by Jeff McHugh. Jeff designed the exhibit to give Beaconites young and old, new and stalwart, a bird’s eye sense of self. “The community and visitor interest has been overwhelming,” he beams modestly.
Sepia images of the National Historic Registry site, The Beaconcrest Hotel and the Casino (both destroyed by fire in 1927) give way to the vivid, 3D animated displays and blueprints of The Incline’s proposed future. Jeff and Mike tour me through the exhibit, each man’s enthusiam complementing the other.
“With a generous grant from the Dyson Foundation,” Mike explains, “We put together a highly detailed market study and mission statement. A roomful of skeptics will say it wasn’t built ten years, five years ago, and it’s not built today. But now we can show them a mountain of admnsitrative paperwork that needed to be done to make the project shovel ready. Also most importantly, we can now present our concept to those who will provide large amounts of capital and professional involvement.” (At this juncture, LAN Associates, a leading engineering and architectural firm, will have the upper and lower stations LEED certified from the US Green Building Council while incorporating renewable energy and adaptive reuse of materials. The noted Railroad Construction Company will do the actual reconstruction.)
“These are unchartered waters for us but at the end of the day I believe the restoration will be funded by state, local, and federal money. Private philanthropy, corporate donations, and strong rank and file community support.”
Colarusso wraps up this most compelling story of a community defining itself with a favorite analogy: “Alex de Tocqueville is traveling the thirteen original colonies, trying to catalog and explain what the United States are to his European audience. He asks a plantation owner in South Carolina and he says ‘Freedom, Liberty, Equality.’ He asks a Maine lobsterman and he articulates those same three words.”
“Of course they mean completely different things to both men and that’s how the idea of the Restoration is. It’s very hard to find a voice protesting the project. And though everyone agrees, they may be imagining completely different things. But everyone agrees it’s a great idea whose time is truly now.”