February 28, 2023
The history of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail began in 1866 with the founding of the Wallkill Valley Railroad. It was built for the purpose of carrying produce, milk, and passengers from the fertile farmland of Ulster and Orange County to an interchange with the Erie Railroad, a line that provided quick access to New York City. At the time this was an especially important task as NYC and other large population centers continued to grow and had a high demand for food and milk. The dairies in New York City were infamous for producing extremely filthy milk from cows fed with the byproducts of whiskey production, peddling a vile concoction that killed upwards of 8,000 infants a year. Political corruption kept things from meaningfully improving until railroads like the Wallkill Valley and Erie started transporting country milk into the cities. Passengers were also plentiful as trains were the most convenient form of transportation at the time.
The railroad quickly expanded north, building the famous Rosendale trestle by 1872 and reaching Kingston by the end of the year. At the time the trestle was one of the highest span bridges in the United States, and the New York Times extolled it as a wonder of railroad construction that spanned an immense chasm above the romantic village of Rosendale and sweeping Rondout Creek. [To read the detailed article, A Celebration of the Rosendale Trestle by Matt Kierstead with Vals Osborne from 2020, click HERE]
Unfortunately the little railroad had outgrown itself, and the Kingston extension was not profitable. However, the Wallkill Valley cunningly acquired more land directly in the path of the very profitable West Shore Railroad. To continue expanding, the West Shore Railroad had to buy the land at exorbitant prices and incorporate the Wallkill Valley line into their system. As a subsidiary of the West Shore, the Wallkill Valley branch settled down for a few decades, but would begin to decline by the 1930s. Other passenger lines and early cars made passenger service on the line redundant, and it was terminated by 1937. Although the Hudson Valley was gaining tourist appeal through the resorts of the Borscht Belt, the Wallkill Valley branch was too far away from them to meaningfully capitalize. However, in 1952 the railroad did make headlines when Clark Bonesteel, an engineer on a late night freight train, noticed a fire spreading on a resort hotel in the distance. Bonesteel stopped his train and blasted the horns, waking up residents and saving countless lives.
By the 1970s the Wallkill Valley branch was in bad shape. Many former customers along the line were either out of business or using trucks to move their cargo instead, part of a widespread trend in the Northeast that had been going on since the 1950s. The Rosendale Trestle was in such bad condition that trains crept over it at 5 miles an hour. In 1977 it was discovered that the cost of repairing the bridge would be more than the entire line was worth, so it was abandoned and the tracks were torn up by 1984.
However, the line would not stay neglected for long. In 1991, the Wallkill Valley Land Trust purchased the old right of way from New Paltz to Gardiner. Volunteers that would later form the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail Association helped build the trail, which would formally open in 1993. In 2009, the section to Kingston was also acquired, including the Rosendale Trestle, which would open in 2013. With this project, the old right of way of the Wallkill Valley Railroad was not forgotten, but instead serves as a beautiful path through woodland and pastures which locals and tourists alike use to exercise, relax, observe nature, and perhaps reflect on history. The Rail Trail is also permanently protected with conservation easements in New Paltz and Gardiner, and ownership by WVLT in Rosendale and Ulster. The Williams Lake (5th Lake) section also has a trail easement in place. Today, WVLT partners with the local municipalities and utilizes volunteers to keep the 22+ mile Wallkill Valley Rail Trail open year-round. If you would like to volunteer please contact us, and you can donate to help with the Rail Trail needs by making a donation.
Cassandra Kelly is seeking a BS in Geography with a concentration in Urban Planning and a minor in history at SUNY New Paltz. In her internship at WVLT this semester, she is making maps, assisting with stewardship visits, and researching for articles like this one!
Wallkill Valley Rail Trail (gorailtrail.org)
Wallkill Valley Railway – Abandoned (abandonedonline.net)
Wallkill Valley Railroad (udrrhs.org)
The 19th-Century Swill Milk Scandal That Poisoned Infants With Whiskey Runoff – Gastro Obscura (atlasobscura.com)