Bicyclists and Runners Replace Freight Trains as Final Link in Dutchess Rail Trail is Opened

By Peter Rae

When it opens this October, the pedestrian overpass being constructed over Highway 55 in the Town of Poughkeepsie will be the final link in the Dutchess County Rail Trail, a 13-mile paved pathway for runners, walkers and bicyclists between Hopewell Junction and the Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie. But it’s not the first time this corridor linked cities and towns in Dutchess County, and west of the Hudson as well.

When the bridge first opened for business in 1888, it was as a railroad connection providing the southernmost direct rail passage over the Hudson River for freight trains. The first link on the east side was the Dutchess and Columbia Railroad, which ran northeast from Poughkeepsie to Millerton, where it connected to lines to Hartford and Boston. On May 5, 1892, an alternate corridor was established with the opening of the Dutchess County Railroad (DCR), running southeast from Poughkeepsie to Hopewell Junction. There it connected with the New York and New England Railroad, which ran through Brewster and Danbury to major southern New England industrial cities including Waterbury, Bridgeport and New Haven.

The Poughkeepsie bridge soon became the principal conduit for freight service between the states to the west and south of the Hudson and New England’s factories. Trains were consolidated in the Maybrook Yards, about eight miles west of the bridge, and sent over the bridge and on to New England. And because the Dutchess County hills along the route through Brewster and Danbury had easier grades than the Millerton route, most freight trains used the DCR.

Despite the easier grades, the hills still represented a problem. The railroad maintained as many as thirty “pusher” locomotives at its Hopewell Junction yards to get the long coal carrier and other trains up and over the hills to the east and onward to New England.

Westbound New Haven RR freight train steaming through Hopewell Junction on the Maybrook

Westbound New Haven RR freight train steaming through Hopewell Junction on the Maybrook

In 1892, in addition to the New York and New England Railroad, two other rail links already operated through Hopewell (hence the name “Junction”). One ran northerly from Hopewell to Millerton, and another carried freight traffic that had crossed the river by ferry between Newburgh and Dutchess Landing (now Beacon). By 1905, all were controlled by the New Haven Railroad. Business on the Maybrook-Poughkeepsie-Hopewell-Danbury corridor was so good it was double-tracked in 1910 and became known as The Maybrook Line. The other lines were soon abandoned.

Passenger Service on the DCR
Initially, the organizers of the DCR envisioned passenger traffic as a key profit center as well as freight. On that opening day in 1892, the first train departing Hopewell for Poughkeepsie was publicized as the fastest means for shoppers to visit the department stores of Poughkeepsie. While more than 600 made the inaugural trip, that was only two-thirds of its capacity, and the promotion was deemed not entirely successful.

A 1919 timetable shows three westbound trains operating daily on the line. Two were through trains between Danbury and Poughkeepsie, and the third was a local that ran from Hopewell Junction to Poughkeepsie in twenty-five minutes. Stations along the way included Fishkill Plains, Didell, Briggs, and Manchester Bridge. For a time, passengers could even travel between Washington and Boston by train using the Maybrook Line’s tracks.

Passenger service continued until 1933, but it never met its original expectations and eventually lost out to the financial realities of the Great Depression. The line did offer some unusual perks, however. According to Bernard Rudberg, head of the Hopewell Depot Restoration Corp., station renovators found a cache of wine and liquor bottles beneath the floorboards, and it was later learned that during Prohibition the basement of the building had served as a speakeasy.

Decline of the Rails….
After World War II, the growth of truck traffic and the decline of industry generally in New England gradually reduced rail traffic on the Maybrook Line. In 1961, it was reconverted to a single track, and in 1974, a fire damaged the Poughkeepsie bridge so severely that it could not be reopened. At the same time, a new, more modern, freight yard had been built in Castleton-on-Hudson, near Albany, and absorbed most of the Poughkeepsie traffic. Limited now to local traffic only, the Maybrook Line had its last run+ in March 1982. Soon afterward, the rails were torn up and the right-of-way sold.

….And the Creation of the Rail Trail
The Maybrook Line’s rebirth as a rail trail began in 1991, when Ulster County seized part of the right-of-way west of the bridge and turned a five-mile portion over to the Towns of Highland and Lloyd. This was developed in stages as a multi-use linear park called the Hudson Valley Rail Trail, with the first segment opening in 1997. Developers hope to extend the trail another five miles to New Paltz, where it would connect with the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail that runs from Gardiner in the south to Kingston in the north.      

Van Wagner Road. 1915 arch bridge – road now goes under the RT  (phase II 2009)

Van Wagner Road. 1915 arch bridge – road now goes under the RT (phase II 2009)

East of the Hudson, the Dutchess County Rail Trail was also developed in phases. The first phase, an eight-mile stretch from Hopewell Junction to Old Manchester Road in the Town of Poughkeepsie opened in 2007, and. Phases 2 and 3 added to the trail in 2009. Phase 4 runs from Old Manchester Road to Overocker Road and includes the new Ruote 55 overpass. Phase 5 is the portion from the bridge itself to Morgan Lake that is also scheduled to be opened this October and is already “unofficially” open on weekends.

Nine hundred feet long, the new overpass will not only carry runners, walkers and bikers over the busy six lanes of Route 55, but over the two-lane Old Manchester Road as well. And while it won’t offer the grandeur of the views from the Walkway Over the Hudson, the Route 55 Overpass will be impressive in its own way: it shows that, given enough effort from concerned citizens and governments, purely recreational facilities still have a place in enhancing the quality of life and living for us all.