North America,  Travel

The Strange Appeal of Disused Railroads

What is it that draws us to old places that have been abandoned? It could be about the vastly different era they have been a part of, the stories they quietly harbour, or just plain old nostalgia for the past. Nostalgia is after all a sort of release into a utopian world for most of us. I suppose one cannot lay a finger upon the nub of the matter but I can tell you with conviction that railroads are lonely, lonely places. On this particular afternoon after a gander through the town of Phoenicia, and before we set out on the trail of covered bridges, we stopped at a tiny town called Arkville.

The sight of a few old houses, a distillery, a fire station, and train engines rolling by the car window, woke me out of the stupor of that summer noon. I insisted we turn back and Adi remarked it was fortuitous enough. He was aiming for a power nap. Our friend meanwhile seemed intent on training his DSLR on the landscape around for some time, so I skipped away on my own.

Rusted metal, cracked wooden sleepers, grassy growths thrown up in clumps through the bed of gravel, on and around the tracks, and then a line-up of old railcars languishing on the tracks, with no destination in mind.

The last of the people at the ticket office (they do organise joyrides here) wound up early that weekend and went off to celebrate a new car. Random snatches of overheard conversations spontaneously adding spice to my wanderings. Not a soul was to be seen as I walked down the tracks. Through a clearing in the foliage alongside, I came upon the main road where I walked for some time to realise that there was nothing much to be had except the wrath of the sun and an empty road. I turned back and started upon the railroad from where it began, peeping into silent engines and cabins.

In its heyday, which was right into the World War I period, the Ulster and Delaware Railroad covered a distance of 107 miles between two places in the Upstate New York, Kingston and Oneonta. I pictured myself in one of the old dining cars, sipping on tea and finger sandwiches as we chugged through the green green valleys of the majestic Catskills, up mean inclines, skirting babbling brooks and charming villages. Possibly a bear on its hind legs waving at me from deep in the woods. If it’s only a daydream, let us tailor it as we see fit, non?

The people of Arkville, just like residents of other villages and hamlets in the Catskill mountains, would have sworn that it would never fade out, the Up and Down. It was their lifeline during the mid-1800s, connecting the village folk to the world, and important in the scheme of things in that it was part of their livelihood. The U&D carried milk from the mountain villages to the world beyond.

The tourists too would have never imagined that it could be rendered useless. For during long hot summers, upper-crust New Yorkers took the trains into the countryside where it was all about the winding roads and the luxuriant greenery, a sight for sore city eyes. Ridiculously lavish hotels catered to their needs. Let’s say it was the Hamptons of the yesteryears. You can see the appeal reflected in a few old ads I came upon. They are portals to another era. Most of them flaunt the good ol’ adventurer, Rip Van Winkle, as their mascot. For you do know that Rip wandered into the Catskills and napped there for a solid 20 years, right?

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But fade the railroad did. There is no reprieve from the passage of time or the seduction of new developments. The 1920s arrived with automobiles and trucks snatching the reigns from the railroad, paving the way for disenchantment with it, till the railroad was left to its own devices in the latter part of the century.

I wandered amongst the cabooses and dining cars till I came upon a beautiful rust-red Ulster & Delaware railcar. The driver’s seat looked forlorn. The stairs corroded. I thought about taking a quick look inside the car. And then, I have no idea why, but something flipped in me. I am ashamed to say that I took off like the wind even though I did not feel light on my feet that day. My heart beat as loud as the tooting of an engine, I fancy. It could have been the utter silence around me, the stillness in the air, or the thought that someone was watching me from behind the dark windows. It was possibly a blend of all three, but here’s the anti-climax, all I could do was run back to Adi on winged heels.

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Arkville is positioned alongside the exceptionally green belt of the Catskill Park Blue Line
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Arkville

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Rip Van Winkle Flyer dinner train

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Cross-section of a caboose

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An old steam locomotive
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Rusted axles and dusty locomotives

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The New York Central Dining Car, lending itself to an old dream of luxury. 

38 Comments

  • travelnerdplans

    What a wonderful place to stop and explore. I love trains and am a sucker for nostalgia. So listen, be sure to book passage for two, and I’ll join you for tea and maybe a game of gin rummy. 🙂

    • dippydottygirl

      Aye aye, you be the first in my list, love! What’s better than summery cocktails and a few gambles along the way? xx

  • Nemorino

    Nice photos of this fascinating place. And thanks for including the old advertisements. Considering that all Rip van Winkle did was sleep for twenty years, it’s a bit ironic that they had a dinner train called the Rip van Winkle Flyer.
    Even the name Arkville makes the place sound old, like from the time of Noah’s Ark.

    • dippydottygirl

      Thank you! Hah, good one. To think that sleeping for 20 years can earn you fame apart from escaping a nagging wife. Rip did well.
      Well put about the name of the town. It is one of those archaic little villages that time has left behind.

  • J @ Mad Hatters NYC

    Lovely post with great pics. The obsolescence of railroads in the US was more intentional than mere happenstance or even of the direct result of technological advances. Just look at our existing commuter rail system (smh) and those of industrious nations overseas. The technology developed and grew–clean, spacious, luxurious (in some cases), fast, and punctual–but we chose not to keep up. We had a robust network that we allowed to deteriorate. We chose not to invest. Thinking back to all the novels and films, with settings on or around or involving a train, it saddens me to see these relics. It’s a reminder of missed opportunities. The US is a very, very large country that is exceedingly well suited for this mode of transportation, if only it was modernized…and embraced.

    • dippydottygirl

      Thank you Justin. It is a shame that the railroads have been left behind to languish instead of serving those who truly enjoy the charm of old-world rail cars. I did not know that they were phased out intentionally. All they do now is provide a fraction of their erstwhile charm to eager tourists. Your expression — missed opportunities — possibly just about captures it.

  • Sheree

    A lot of disused railway lines in Europe have been re-purposed as cycling tracks. I, of course, heartily endorse this but they tend to remove all trace of their former use. Thank you for yet another beautifully illustrated tale. Have you by chance seen any of Michael Portillo’s Great Railway Journeys series in the States? I’m a sucker for them.

    • dippydottygirl

      Thank you Sheree. I think it is a good idea for them to be repurposed. We did end up at one last summer. It was at the Jim Thorpe National Park and I was quite taken with the beauty of it, where cyclists and walkers soaked in the the quiet of the tracks.
      I am all for such recommendations. We love most travel shows, and since this promises rail journeys through the States, I am all for it. Cheers! xx

    • dippydottygirl

      As usual my battiness precedes me, but we have watched Portillo quite a few times — his British rail journeys! I just looked him up and realised it 🙂

      • Sheree

        One of my favourite programmes. I particularly enjoy the European trips where he throws himself into local events with much gusto.

        • dippydottygirl

          We have not watched the European journeys of his yet. We shall start soon. Which are your other favourite travel shows? Just to know if I am missing out on many. xx

  • lexandneek

    It’s wonderful to read your posts about the railways and how they were such a vital part of traveling in the U.S. Lex and I have often wished we could have been travelers in the 1920’s and booked a trip with an overnighter and dined in the dining car. I suppose we are romantics when it comes to the past but that photo of the Rip Van Winkle Flyer dinner train is irresistible! – Neek

    • dippydottygirl

      Thank you Neek. You would find us two in one of the carriages, Adi moaning a bit about the length of the journey, though I believe he could be persuaded to forget it with a few drams of whisky. The Rip Van Winkle train does look tempting – like it’s stepped out from an era that would have been opulent, in the truest sense of the term. We missed the boat with the 20’s, but who knows, we might have lived through it (even though I find the concept of being born over and over again a tad bit dubious). But it does not hurt to imagine. 🙂 xx

  • LivingOutLoud

    Wow! Reading your post was a beautiful nostalgic experience. I really enjoyed how you interjected bits of history about the railroad along with those flyers and then brought us back to modern times with your beautiful pictures. It is so nice that you took some time to explore on your own. Thanks for sharing this beautiful experience. I love old, abandoned places too. We recently moved to New England so I will have a chance to explore a new place now 🙂

    • dippydottygirl

      Cheers Alana. You are kind. New England should be rife with such treasures, small beautiful places that will give you so many stories at one go. Have fun exploring it bit by bit. xx

      • LivingOutLoud

        Yes, I am excited and I love it here so far. Just a few moments ago I went to the grocery store looking for coffee. I was going to get the Starbuck’s Pike Place Roast (I am originally from Seattle, WA) but then I saw a Blueberry Pie roast and I went for that instead. I just made myself an americano and it tastes amazing with no cream and sugar necessary!

        • dippydottygirl

          Blueberry Pie Roast coffee. My, that sounds out of this world! Don’t go making me dizzy with envy. I remember that you are from Seattle. Well, may New England bring more and more such beauties your way. xx

  • thewonderer86

    What a fascinating place to find. I can really see how such a find got the imaginative juices flowing – waving bears in the woods, and that spooky feeling. Isn’t it strange that our moods can switch so suddenly seemingly without cause? That too is fascinating. But should always be heeded I think. I too would’ve been running!

    • dippydottygirl

      You get me 🙂 I think these are the treasures of travelling. Unaccounted for places that suddenly pop up along the way and thrill you to bits! Thanks Tracey. xx

  • Osyth

    Imagination is a double edged sword …. the heightening of the senses magnified by the minds eye viewing things we cannot see, things we cannot touch, things we have made up or maybe we have not. I would have run – like winged Mercury I would have run! But fortunately instead I am able to enjoy this eerie, evocative place through the power of your prose and your fantastical pictures. Vintage DD, vintage X

    • dippydottygirl

      Now how have you been? Your presence has been missed on the world wide web. Thank you for your ever kind and lovely words, Osyth! 🙂 xx

      • Osyth

        I’ve been fine but preoccupied with all the wrong things in one sense. By which I mean, writing hasn’t gotten a look in. My husband declared last night that he must ‘make the space for my words’ so I guess you can watch this space because it seems the hounds are bearing down! Xx

        • dippydottygirl

          That is one sweet declaration. I hope you get to slip in some writing in between, but preoccupation is necessarily good unless it is making way for stress. So carry on with your busy-bee days of summer, my lovely 🙂 xx

  • Forestwood

    Beautiful, written. Your lyrical descriptions mean it is akways such a pleasure to visit your blog! And don’t be shamed of that weird feeling you described in the carriages. Coincidentally, I felt similarly when I visited an abandoned railway stop with derelict carriages at Linville recently.
    forestwoodfolkart.wordpress.com/2018/03/12/moore-meanderings-at-linville/ if you want to have a read.

    • dippydottygirl

      Thank you Amanda and for the link too. I will stop by yours in a while. This thing of feeling unnerved I think says a lot about the imagination of humans. The mind is a powerful tool 🙂 xx

      • Forestwood

        Imagination, you are right, is extremely powerful. It can convince some of us to feel unduly concerned at times when there is no real prospect of danger. I recently heard that a report that is a relict of our Neanderthal past that we have a brain focused on cataclysmic events so that we can be prepared to deal with the worst and find a way to survive. Not entirely always appropriate in modern life but it has been useful in the past and in those unfortunate circumstances some of us find ourselves in such as natural disasters.

        • dippydottygirl

          Sounds just about right. Makes me think of the term, ‘primal fear’, but I might be off the charts here.

  • restlessjo

    Love your ‘abandoned’ photos. It certainly has that middle of nowhere feel to it, and thank you for solving the Rip mystery- I shall sleep better at nights now. 🙂 🙂 I can understand you getting spooked too. Have a great weekend!

    • dippydottygirl

      Thank you, Jo. I never thought of landing up in Rip land one day! I can be plain silly at times. A feeling created by an overwrought imagination, but I never linger.
      You have a fun weekend too 🙂 xx

  • iwannabealady

    I can’t believe these beauties are just sitting there. Some of them are gorgeous. Nostalgia has is a powerful draw, but I bet they’ve always been beautiful. When my son was young, we watched countless hours of Thomas the Train, so my appreciation for old locomotives is strengthened with a double dose of nostalgia. I bet they’d make great homes if someone decided to convert them. 💜

    • dippydottygirl

      You are right. In the case of rail travel, the trains in the old days outstripped our modern ones by far. Luxury truly meant something then, I suppose. And as for Thomas the Train, I was inducted into it by the nephew who was a firm fan 🙂 xx

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