Iron Works engine will be tracks star

The Copake Iron Works locomotive, an early 20th century Plymouth gasoline switching engine is modified to look like a steam engine. Pictured (l-r) are FTSP Vice President Tom Ferguson, Taconic Region Park Commissioner Edgar Masters and FTSP President Jim Mackin. Photo by David Lee

COPAKE FALLS—They’ll be working on the railroad.

It has been quite a few years since there was an operational railroad in this hamlet, but the Friends of Taconic State Park (FTSP) is going to make it happen.

The construction of a 36-inch narrow-gauge railroad that will travel on an 800-foot loop and carry passengers by train in and around the Copake Iron Works, off State Route 344 at 35 Valley View Road, is part of the Friends’ grand plan to restore the 19th century industrial site inside the borders of the park and make it a historic educational destination.

FTSP President James Mackin and Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) Taconic Region Commissioner Edgar Masters came before the Copake Town Board September 9 to talk about the railroad project.

The friends group has received approval from OPRHP to build the railroad, Mr. Mackin told the board.

He described the Copake Iron Works as “a unique treasure,” and noted that “people are discovering it by accident. We want people to come to it” on purpose.

To see anything like it one has to travel to Saugus, MA (Essex County), or to the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site in Elverson, PA (Berks County).

But the Copake Iron Works, which “operated from 1848 until 1903, has long been recognized as one of the most complete rural iron works in the four state Litchfield Iron District,” according to www.hudsonrivervalley.com.

The new Copake Iron Works rail station will be located at the start of the tracks in an open field where the remaining housing for workers at the old iron manufacturing facility still stand, Mr. Masters said. The track will run around the edge of the field and into the woods making its way to the rear of the blast furnace, then circle around and back to the station.

As much as they would have liked to, there was “no way” the track could cross Route 344 or the Bash Bish Brook, they said.

The railroad will include a gasoline-powered locomotive, an engine tender car, two ore cars that will carry 10 to 15 passengers, 36-inch-trackage including two short sidings, a passenger-loading platform, and a storage building.

The idea is to take visitors, families to railroad enthusiasts, on a vintage train ride while showing and telling them about the history of the Copake Iron Works.

The Friends obtained a gas-powered locomotive from Carson City, a road-side Wild West-themed amusement park in Catskill, just up the road from the Catskill Game Farm, now both defunct.

Mr. Mackin said the train “is not a kiddie ride” and “is substantial enough” that people “can see what it’s all about.”

Preliminary work to lay the rail bed is planned for late 2021. The construction of track-bed and structures will follow in 2022. The railroad is expected to cost about $250,000 and is not expected to require any public funds. Mr. Mackin said the Friends will have to “raise some money to execute the whole plan,” but the money and the plan are “very manageable.”

In a front page story in The Columbia Paper, May 10, 2012, “Iron men made history in Copake Falls,” written by this reporter, some history of the Copake Iron Works was discussed, but the focus was on the blast furnace built in 1872.

At the time, FTSP had taken up the cause of building a wooden structure around and over the blast furnace to protect it from further deterioration.

The group was awarded a $75,000 matching fund grant from the state Environmental Protection Fund and had raised upwards of $60,000 in cash and in-kind contributions toward its Furnace Cover Project.

In 2007, the Iron Works site and 18 acres surrounding the area were listed on the State and National Register of Historic Sites. The Copake Iron Works Historic District comprises all of the buildings in the Iron Works area (the Link House, the Company Store, The Powder House and The Machine Shop), the furnace, three workers’ houses and the now-flooded ore pit, as well as the Church of St. John in the Wilderness.

Established in 2008, the Friends of Taconic State Park was formed “to do things for the park starting with the furnace project,” FTSP Treasurer Deborah Cohen said in the 2012 story.

The Friends’ long term goal is “to restore the Copake Iron Works to the condition of its operating heyday in the 1880s, including the re-creation of the narrow-gauge railroad that circumnavigated the iron works. It is our intent to create a preeminent site of historic iron-making and a national destination for tourists. We estimate that this project will take 20 years and $50 million to complete–a daunting goal, but well worth it and in our opinion, achievable,” according to the group’s Vision Statement.

Information provided by Mr. Mackin following the meeting details the FTSP’s “commitment and ability to contribute substantive and lasting improvements to the Park and in particular to the Copake Iron Works.”

Among FTSP achievements in its first 11 years, is the stabilization of the blast furnace and the construction of a roof pavilion over it; reconstruction of the four furnace brick arches in danger of collapse; repair of the crumbling and collapsing brick exterior walls of the engine house; creation of the three-mile Iron Works Heritage Trail; installation of 25 interpretative signs; in conjunction with State Parks Historic Preservation staff, conducted numerous nature programs; creation of the Copake Iron Works Museum now staffed by volunteers and opened to the public; inventoried and photographed hundreds of historic artifacts that are displayed in the museum; repaired some of the museum floor; re-glazed 364 individual panes of glass in the seven large museum windows; displayed an intact furnace heat exchanger artifact and the remains of an Eli Whitney Blake ore crusher with historic signage in protected structures; produced a professional-quality video of the history of the Copake Iron Works; created a visitor center where the video is shown; became part of the State’s “Path Through History” sign program, installed the commemorative Pomeroy Anvil on the site, and rebuilt the charcoal-making woodpile on the Iron Works Heritage Trail.

And there is more to come.

To contact Diane Valden email

On display at the Iron Works is a picture showing one of the original steam locomotives from the 1880s. Photo of historic photo by David Lee

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