THE VIEW FROM THIS OFFICE looks out on the railroad where trains first chugged past 160 years ago. The line originated in Manhattan and reached to Chatham, with connections to Boston, Albany or Vermont. Our building was once the Ghent Post Office, and a lot of letters over the years must have arrived with a film of coal dust.
Rotting railroad ties stick out here and there along the rail bed, and the brush hides derelict concrete objects that only a diehard rail buff could explain. But it’s not this industrial age archeology that stands out anymore. It’s the quiet. The woods close in quickly, broken by the occasional house or odd collection of debris. Because it’s been so warm recently, you have to share the woods these days with ticks. Take care to protect yourself from those micro-vampires. And keep an eye out for the unexpected ATV or other small motor vehicles buzzing by.
What was the rail line now belongs, mostly, to the state as the Harlem Valley Rail Trail. The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Recreation is working with several local non-profit organizations, led by the Harlem Valley Rail Trail Association and the Columbia Land Conservancy, to make it possible to hike or ride a bike from Wassaic in Dutchess County all the way to downtown Chatham. (Motorized vehicles will have to find other routes, thank you.)
Slowly but with admirable determination volunteers have been clearing away the underbrush and small trees that have taken root along the rail line since train service ceased in 1976. Bit by bit the full trail is taking shape, and even if hiking the length of the county on a safe and scenic trail is not your idea of a good time, this project will create something special here that will benefit us in ways we may not yet fully understand.
This Saturday, March 24 at Copake Town Hall, the Hillsdale Rail Trail Alliance, the rail trail association and the land conservancy will brief the public on the progress made so far in creating walkable sections of the trail and will talk about $121,965 state grant that will pay for an additional five miles of trail from Copake Falls north to Hillsdale. What they’re doing opens a small window on the future of the county.
Over the years that this project has inched its way northward, some neighbors of the old rail line have questioned the project’s value and fretted that it will lead to trespassing and disruptive behavior by the people using the trail. It’s hard to imagine anything more intrusive that a steam locomotive blasting by, but neighbors’ concerns deserve a fair hearing. They know the trains that once ran next door have disappeared forever, but no one told them they might someday look across their once secluded backyards at a sea of Spandex, as bike riders and joggers jostle by like a herd of fitness-crazed caribou.
Someday rail trails like this one will go the way of the railroads they’ve replaced. All it will take is a pill or a mobile phone app that will keep us healthy without exercising and happy without a desire to connect with the natural environment. Until then the best response is to point out that the people who use and support trails like the Harlem Valley Rail Trail are as important to our economy as the people who traveled by train were to the economy of their era.
A trail like this one will never draw crowds like the county’s biggest attraction, the Lebanon Valley Speedway, nor will it compete with a unique cultural resource like Olana. But the combination of history, landscape, wildlife, fresh air and the prospect of having something else to do when they’ve had enough of the trail for the day all add to the reasons why people from more crowded places less friendly to walkers, runners and bike riders might choose Columbia County as a place to go.
One other reason for supporting the effort to realize the vision of this trail is one the late Copake newspaper publisher and community activist Elinor Mettler understood quite clearly. Mrs. Mettler, an early, ardent supporter of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, appreciated the value of the things that can bring us together as a county and a community. This string of a park passes through much of the land we all prize so highly. It draws us together because we know it’s there. We will benefit from sharing it.