“Nothing was more up-to-date when it was built, or is more obsolete today, than the railroad station.”
-Ada Louise Huxtable-
One hundred years ago life in Copake, like that in much of rural America, was very different from today: electricity and telephones had not yet appeared in most small towns, there were few cars or trucks, almost no airplanes overhead, no antibiotics, TV or computers. Horses were everywhere, and there were railroads.
Despite its sparse population, Copake was served by two different railroads at three stations: the Harlem Division of the New York Central stopped in Copake Falls and Craryville, and the Central New England served downtown Copake. The first rail service in eastern Columbia County arrived in 1852, with the last extension of The New York and Harlem Railroad, which eventually became part of the New York Central System. It reached Copake only a year after the Hudson River Line connected Albany and New York City, although that railroad’s only Columbia County stop was, and still is, the City of Hudson.
The New York and Harlem originated in New York City in 1832 and connected Prince Street with 14th Street using horse-drawn carriages. The railroad slowly worked its way north, to Harlem (125th Street) in 1837, then White Plains in 1844, Croton Falls in 1847, Dover Plains in 1848 and finally Chatham in 1852, passing through the Columbia County towns of Ancram, Copake, Hillsdale, Claverack and Ghent on its way north.
At one time Chatham was a major rail junction where the Harlem line, which had become the Harlem Division of the New York Central, met the Boston and Albany division of the New York Central (now the CSX line also used by Amtrak) and the Rutland Railroad.
Stations on the entire New York and Harlem route were closely spaced. North of Millerton, stations were at Mt. Riga (3 miles), Boston Corners (4 miles), Copake Iron Works (5 miles), Hillsdale (4 miles), Craryville (3 miles), Martindale (4 miles), Philmont (3 miles), Ghent (6 miles) and Chatham (3 miles). The total railroad distance from Chatham to Grand Central Terminal is 128 miles. In 1923 the 12:30 p.m. train left Chatham and got to GCT at 6:30 p.m.
The trains also made unscheduled “whistle stops” not on the timetable, where would-be passengers stood near the tracks and waved for the train to stop or passengers already on board would hop off.
Copake Falls had its own New York Central depot for many years. It still exists directly across from the entrance to Taconic State Park on state Route 344. The former station was vacant for several years and experienced a fire, but in 1983 it was converted to a year-round convenience store and deli which continues to serve the community today as the Depot Deli at the northern end of the Copake segment of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail.
The extension of the New York and Harlem in 1852 was soon followed by the development of the Copake Falls Iron Works, a mine that exists today as the ore pit swimming hole in Taconic State Park. The settlement, originally known as Copake Iron Works, had its own inn and general store.
Passenger rail service on the Harlem Valley Line was discontinued north of Dover Plains in Dutchess County in 1972, following the merger that created the short-lived Penn Central company; freight service ended in 1976. At that time the tracks were removed, creating a right-of-way that eventually became the rail trail. South of Wassaic in Dutchess County, Metro-North still provides commuter rail service to New York City on the Harlem Division.
The rail trail presently begins where the tracks end in Wassaic . The trail runs north to Millerton. From there it is undeveloped for about 10 miles but resumes at Undermountain Road in Ancram, ending at the former Copake Falls station. Work has already begun on extending the trail northward to Chatham. So the railroad lives on both through the trail and the Depot Deli.
Twenty years after the New York and Harlem reached Copake Falls, rail service from a different line came to downtown Copake hamlet. By 1872 the area had developed into a center for the production of hay, oats and dairy, making it a desirable destination for train service. That service was provided by The Rhinebeck and Connecticut Railroad, which eventually had six different owners (and six names). The longest-lasting owner was the Central New England, from 1889 through 1927, and as a result the remaining station is today widely known as the CNE.
The CNE originated as the Rhinebeck and Connecticut Railroad, chartered in 1870 with the aim of connecting the Hudson valley with Hartford and the Connecticut River. It lasted a total of 66 years before it was abandoned in 1938, the tracks torn up and the land and buildings sold to private owners.
In addition to the Rhinebeck and Connecticut Railroad another line, the Poughkeepsie and Eastern, also pursued the goal of connecting the Hudson Valley and central Connecticut. Both lines laid track out of Pine Plains in Dutchess County into southeastern Columbia County to join the Harlem division of the New York Central at Boston Corners.
The Poughkeepsie and Eastern headed northeast from Pine Plains into Ancramdale Lead Mines (the name was changed to Ancramdale in 1930), then made a hairpin turn to the southeast, where it merged with the NY Central at Boston Corners, just missing the distinction of becoming the third railroad to serve Copake.
The CNE, meanwhile, built its tracks north from Pine Plains to a large farm and depot called Silvernails, then northeast to Gallatinville, Ancram and finally Copake before making its own hairpin turn to Boston Corners. The two small railroads were essentially parallel at this point.
The Rhinebeck and Connecticut owners lasted 10 years until the railroad was bought by the Hartford and Connecticut Western in 1882. Later owners were the Central New England and Western Railway in 1889, the Philadelphia, Reading and New England Railroad in 1892, the Central New England Railway in 1899, and finally the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad (the New Haven) in 1927. The railroad barely lasted another 11 years until, in the midst of the Great Depression, the axe fell.
Even though the CNE tracks came to Copake in 1872, the present depot was not built until four years later. Several temporary sheds had been erected to serve as a station following the track-laying in 1872. But by 1876 it was clear that Copake could support a regular depot and the present structure was built. It still stands on county Route 7A just north of its junction with state Route 22, directly across from High Voltage, a local manufacturer located at the property once occupied by the former Borden’s Creamery.
The old station reveals a structural modification: two corners of a hip roof were cut back to allow passage of the freight cars supplying several small businesses behind the building. The rail bed beneath the siding was so uneven that passing freight cars rocked side-to-side, striking the overhanging roof. The solution called for truncated corners, and the change was apparently made shortly after the station was built.
Among the businesses located adjacent to the Copake depot were a hay mill and at least one other, which eventually became a Socony-Vacuum service station.
Hay mills, also known as hay presses, were used to compress hay into bales, with horses used to wrap ropes and belts around the hay by walking in circles. At this time, horses provided much of the power that today is almost universally provided by gas and diesel engines. Much of the hay that was produced upstate was sent to New York City to feed the countless horses in used there.
Socony-Vacuum was a well-known gasoline company a century ago, created when John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company was broken up as a result of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1911. Known by its acronym for Standard Oil Company of New York, the company merged with the Vacuum Oil Company in 1931, later became Mobiloil, and is now known as ExxonMobil.
Sheds and outbuildings at the Copake depot were in place by 1916, when the federal government conducted an assessment of all railway buildings in the country, anticipating a takeover of railroads if the U. S. entered WW I. Several of the sheds and outbuildings at the Copake station appear on the 1916 assessments, according to Dale Flansburg, a Columbia County railroad historian, who has viewed them at the National Archives.
Business activity expanded considerably at the Copake station after World War I. The major development was the establishment of a new lumber, coal and hay business, A. C. Bristol Inc.
Albert C. Bristol, who was raised in Claverack, returned from serving in the Navy in 1918 and opened his business behind the train station the following year. He used some existing sheds for storing lumber and other inventory.
Bristol’s father ran a hay and coal business in Claverack, and apparently Albert and his brother experienced some difficulty in trying to run it together. So Albert set up shop in Copake, dealing in hay and coal as well as lumber. Bristol Lumber eventually came to occupy most of the existing outbuildings.
As the train station was still serving its original function when Bristol set up shop, he built an office and store across the street, in front of Borden’s Creamery. The creamery was a major employer in Copake and depended on rail service. The plant received shipments of milk from small farms on “the milk train” and processed it, producing butter, pasteurized milk and cheese for the growing populations of New York and other cities.
When approval was given in 1938 to terminate the rail line, an assessment was made of all CNE property. A 1939 aerial map shows the depot, sheds, lumber office, creamery, and track right-of-way. Bristol Lumber survived the closing of the railroad by many years. Albert Bristol died in 1986 at age 88. By that time he had turned the business over to his grandson, who continued to run it until July 1994, when it finally closed, ending all activity at this site.
It’s hard to imagine now extent to which railroads once affected daily life. One local resident recalled how, in the time before the Roe-Jan School opened in 1938, he caught the morning westbound train that passed through Ancram, Gallatinville and Silvernails before reaching Pine Plains, where he attended high school; and after school he rode the eastbound train back to Copake… for four years.
Another resident told of riding southbound from Philmont Saturday nights to dances at the American Legion hall in Copake Falls.
Today, the Copake depot remains, but the out-buildings have succumbed to the ravages of time: the last two remaining sheds were recently demolished, with concerns over lack of security and liability. Parts of the station are open to the elements, though the owner, who plans to erect a few self-storage units on the land, vows the keep the building intact.
There is also talk of using the old station for a visitor’s center, historic structure or some other appropriate use. Several years ago a highway engineer inspected the station to see whether it could be moved to a different location; he determined that the structure was too fragile to withstand such stress.
Perhaps the station will someday join the creamery and the lumber yard as just another memory. For now, the fate of this curious station and its unusually short overhang stand as a reminder of a bygone era in American railroad history and an ongoing topic of discussion.