An Old Route Offers a Fresh Vision

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Captive in our cars, we know a place by its roads. On foot or bike, we still adhere to the predictable up-and-down, stop-and-turn rhythm of our progress over the pavement. The mile-and-a-half Kingston Greenline rail trail, not yet paved but, with the ties and most of the rails removed, easily traversed, offers a radically different perspective, which awakens your senses like a tonic. Hike down the road embankment from the parking area off Delaware Avenue onto the grassy path and you’ll be at the stone entrance of the Hasbrouck Avenue Tunnel. Built in 1870, it’s a Victorian-era industrial artifact of arched brick, dark, damp and spooky. In the other direction, you pass over a modern steel 9W overpass high above the roaring traffic. With graffiti adorning its paneled sides, it’s an impromptu gallery of art, immersed in space and light.

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Cross the intersection of Delaware Avenue and the highway ramp, and you enter a quiet, cooling woodland. The steep rocky ramparts of Hasbrouck Hill rise dramatically to the left, intensifying the sense of a nature retreat. Violets and dandelions sprout up on the scraggly grass. Fragments of arrow-straight rail soon point across residential streets; you brush against peaceful domesticity, passing a line of wash, a basketball hoop, decks, sheds, a child’s bicycle laying on the ground, a bird bath, daffodils and tulips blooming in small yards. Along Murray Street, you walk on burnt, dried-out grass in full sun. The two-story units of the Rondout Gardens housing project peep down at you above the grassy embankment that rises on your left before you pass the wooden fence of a large community garden and come to the highlight of the trail: a succession of three low rail trestles, each steel structure supported on bulwarks of massive stone. “1905” is stamped into the cement support of one – the past whispers despite the highway roar on the other side of the trail – and tall trees are rooted in the stone walls of the long embankment, industry giving way to Eden. Past Rondout Gardens, there’s an impressive outcropping of fractured shale, bluish in the shadows; the sound of a TV drifts from open windows in the back row of the brick condos along the other side. A metal fence bars the way; beyond is the glaring pavement of the Trolley Museum. Continue into its yard, and you come face to face with collective trauma: a PATH car that was the last to leave the World Trade Center on 9/11, according to a sign. Inside, time has stopped: the ads for a Sony camera, Jaguar, and Parson School of Design are still intact, evoking another life of morning commutes.

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The pathway of the rail trail, of course, predates the Trolley Museum. It ends here, near the shores of the Rondout Creek, because this was the site of the Rondout Station for the Ulster & Delaware Railroad. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries its cars annually conveyed hundreds of thousands of passengers disembarking from steamboats at nearby Kingston Point to resorts in the Catskills. One of several railroads owned by Thomas Cornell, whose steamboat company was a major economic force in the port community of Rondout, the U&D also transported milk from Catskill dairies and coal from Pennsylvania once the final link to Oneonta was completed, in 1900. The Rondout Station was located near the U&D roundhouse and repair shops, a complex that was the favorite subject of Woodstock painters before New York Central, which had taken over the failing railway in 1932, tore it down. After that the railroad lingered on, having two different owners, before finally closing in 1976. (That highway overpass, constructed along with the 9W highway in 1980, is an interesting afterthought, tracing as it does the path of the railway even though the railroad itself no longer existed.)

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Bits and pieces of the old railroad survive: two Railroad Crossing signs still flank the traces of a street that was obliterated during the urban renewal program of the 1960s, the trestles are still covered in decaying ties, and iron nails, rusting plates and other fragments litter the ground here and there. “Enter at your own risk,” read the signs the Kingston Land Trust has erected at the trail entrances, pending the trail’s completion; soon the trail will be paved, the remaining debris carted away, and bicyclists and walkers will bring this ghostly pathway back to life. For now, the trail is still a novelty, still half ruin, and I’m keenly aware of the fresh vision it offers: the sense of the lay of the old city and the jarring angles of the newer infrastructure of highway and apartment complexes. Here, you can escape the monotonous, constricting viewpoint of the motorist. Robins swoop overhead, cardinals call, tiny flowers bloom along the base of the crumbling stonewalls. The past pulls at you, and you never felt so in the present.

Lynn Woods, with Stephen Blauweiss, has made a film, entitled Lost Rondout: A Story of Urban Removal, about the destruction of downtown Kingston by urban renewal. 

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