Rail Trail History

The History of the Albany County Helderberg Hudson Rail Trail

Recent History and Recreational Development of the Trail

A train passing through Voorheesville.

In 2010, Albany County purchased a nine-mile strip of the former Delaware and Hudson rail corridor for approximately $700,000 from Canadian Pacific Railway Company.  The piece of trail was purchased with funding from Scenic Hudson, Inc, a nonprofit organization working to protect and restore the Hudson River, and with a grant from the New York State office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation.  After initially proposing to abandon the entire route, Canadian Pacific decided retain ownership of the line between Voorheesville and Delanson where the corridor connects with the former Delaware and Susquehanna Rail line.  This portion of the line between Delanson and Voorheesville is currently utilized by SMS Rail Lines  and provides service to the Guilderland industrial park.  In 2016, Canadian Pacific sold this portion of the rail road between Voorheesville and Delanson to the Norfolk Southern Rail Road.

A year after the nine-mile strip of trail was purchased from Canadian Pacific, a group of volunteer trail advocates, anxious to take advantage of the new trail corridor, formed the Friends of the Rail Trail (FORT).  The group circulated petitions and encouraged public officials to move the project  forward.  The same year it was established,  FORT became a committee of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy.  The Conservancy then entered into a unique agreement with Albany County and the Town of Bethlehem to lease a 1.9 portion of the trail between the Veterans Memorial Park in Delmar and the Firefighters Park in Slingerlands (near the former Toll Gate Plaza).  Dedicated volunteers worked to prepare and clean-up the overgrown route for pedestrian use, and the popularity of the project quickly grew.  MHLC created a very successful volunteer “Trail Ambassador” program to help patrol and maintain the section of trail under lease to the Conservancy.  The success of the effort led to leases on additional sections of the path that eventually reached five miles to the terminus in the Village of Voorheesville.

A Look Farther Back: “The Rail in the Trail” by Susan Leath

Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy would like to thank Bethlehem Historian Susan Leath for sharing this excellent, detailed history of the Rail Trail.

Beginnings

Wednesday, September 16, 1863 was a banner day for the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad. That Wednesday marked the opening of the first section of rails to be completed, stretching from Albany to Central Bridge and including stops at Delmar, Slingerlands, and New Scotland.  One can imagine the excitement in these rural hamlets as the mighty steam engine rolled through. The neighborhoods have not been the same since.

A train wreck in Slingerlands.

Interest in a railroad line connecting Albany and the upper Susquehanna valley goes back as early as 1844, and took off in 1851 under the promotion of Edward C. Delevan, an Albany hotel owner and businessman. Investors saw the advantage of connecting the valley’s fertile farms with the market in Albany, and more importantly, connecting the coal fields of Pennsylvania to Albany and other parts of eastern New York. Through the 1850s and ’60s, investors, stock holders, and the board of directors wrangled over financing, inching the line along as funds were secured.

Finally, on December 31, 1868, the line’s 142 miles to Binghamton were completed and a gala excursion train from Albany was planned for January 12 of 1869. The line was built with 60-pound iron, and a six foot gauge enabling it to connect freely with the Erie Railroad in Binghamton. Railroad President Joseph Ramsey looked forward to ‘business as usual’ with the rail line finally completed. However, Wall Street financiers Jay Gould and James Fisk had different ideas.

Gould and Fisk have been described as “aggressive capitalists,” “robber barons,” and “the terrors of Wall Street.” The profit to be made from moving coal‒the black diamonds of Pennsylvania‒to eastern New York was irresistible to these two men. They already controlled the Erie Railroad, and decided to set their sights on the Albany and Susquehanna. In the spring and summer of 1869, Gould and Fisk began their proxy war, buying up stock and trying to wrest control of the board of directors from Ramsey. 

Despite all of their efforts to snag the trail, a catastrophe with Gould and Fisk occurred  in August of 1869 when each side, having secured judicial orders affirming their control of the railroad, boarded opposing trains and barreled along the tracks toward each other. Fisk grabbed control of A&S trains in Binghamton, loaded them with Erie railroad men, and headed east, taking over the stations as they went. Meanwhile, Ramsey’s supporters in Albany, including superintendent J. W. Van Valkenburgh, rounded up men from the Albany shops and headed west. The confrontation between the two trails happened at the Belden Hill Tunnel. Shaughnessy, in his history of the D&H, describes it vividly:

            “The two locomotives met with a sickening thud on a curve just east of the tunnel   and the Donnybrook was on, with hordes of shouting, cursing men spilling off the trains and lunging at each other.  Shots were fired in the ensuing melee, clubs were swung, noses bloodied in the general pandemonium.[1]

The Delmar station.

The Fisk crowd was soon in retreat. Later that evening, another confrontation at the other end of the tunnel began, only to be halted by the arrival of the 44th Regiment of the State Militia who were called out by Broom County officials to restore law and order. Due to the violence and lawlessness, the Governor put the line under military control while the two factions continued to fight it out in the courts. Gould’s and Fisk’s financial buccaneering came to end in January 1870, with Judge E. Darwin Smith’s affirmation of Ramsey’s control of the Albany and Susquehanna.

On February 24, 1870, the weary board of the A&S leased the line in perpetuity to the Delaware & Hudson. The A&S and the D&H had been working successfully together as early as 1866, with the D&H moving their coal on A&S cars.

Transformation

The railroad’s arrival in the small towns of Bethlehem and New Scotland led to a transportation transformation in the movement of freight and people.

While there was an established network of roads (including plank roads and turnpikes), the condition of those roads was terrible. Travel by wagon or stage coach on the rutted dirt roads was a jarring, bumpy, and time consuming. Spring rains turned them into mud, and winter snow made them impassable. While Bethlehem farmers continued to take advantage of the Hudson River for transport, the railroad (including the D&H and the West Shore Railroad) increased access to markets for their cash crops and local commodities such as molding sand. Loading up a freight car was an easy option.

People wishing to travel to Albany soon saw the advantage of the railroads’ regularly scheduled trips. In 1864, one could purchase a 20 cent ticket and hop on the train in Adamsville (now Delmar) at 8:45 AM and arrive 15 minutes later in Albany. After business, shopping, and  lunch, the train left Albany at 2 PM. for the return trip―all without hitching up the horses and braving the roads.  Express service for packages and mail soon made their appearance with one’s Sears and Roebuck order arriving for easy pickup at the local station. Western Union’s telegraph service made communication even faster. 

Commuters began to use the D&H for daily travel between their quiet country homes in Delmar, Slingerlands (and later Elsmere) and their offices in Albany. Suburbanization had begun. Incidentally, the use of the word “commuting” to describe this travel activity sprang from early railroad riders getting their fares “commuted,” or reduced, because of how often they rode the trains. 

Stations along the way

The Voorheesville Train Station

In 1863, when the railroad came through, Elsmere was not even on the map. A scattering of farms were located on the Delaware Turnpike, with more substantial communities being located at nearby Delmar and Normansville. However, by 1891, passenger service was established here for the growing suburb.  According to the D&H, the name “Elsmere” came from the popular novel Robert Elsmere by Mrs. Humphry Ward, published in 1888[2].

Delmar got its start as the hamlet of Adamsville, named after Nathanial Adams who opened his hotel there in 1838.  D&H records indicate that Adams Station was built in 1866 with half the cost being contributed by John R. Adams[3], Nathanial Adams’s son. The Adams Hotel is just two blocks away from the station.  By 1891, the D&H was calling the station Delmar and by 1900 the name Adamsville had dropped out of use.

Formerly known as Normanskill, Slingerlands is named after the prominent Slingerlands family who settled here in the 1790s.  When the railroad came through in 1863, Slingerlands was an established hamlet with a post office, stores, and a school. The community soon capitalized on the station, with many railroad executives building their homes here, one of whom was Charles Hammond, the Director of the Northern Division of the Delaware and Hudson. He built his Victorian style home in 1876 within view of the Slingerlands station. 

In the 1860s, the West Shore Railroad and the Albany & Susquehanna Railroad crossed in a farmer’s field in northern New Scotland. Early A&S railroad schedules refer to the hamlet that grew up around the junction as New Scotland (not to be confused with the station on the West Shore Railroad also known as New Scotland.)  By 1870, the village was known as Voorheesville, and formally incorporated in 1899. It was named after Alonzo B. Voorhees, an Albany attorney who also established the post office there. The village spent a brief time (August 1890-92) known as “Farlin,” named after railroad agent Dudley Farlin.

Today

Passenger service on this section of the D&H line ended in the 1930s. Freight service continued through the 1990s with the actual rails being removed in 2004. In 2010, Albany County completed the purchase of 9.1 miles of rail bed from the Canadian Pacific Railway to create the Albany County Helderberg-Hudson Rail Trail.  In June 2011, Albany County, the Town of Bethlehem and the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy partnered to open a 1.9 mile section of the trail to the public. The ultimate goal is to connect the ACHHRT to the Mohawk Hudson Bikeway, eventually becoming a part of the Empire State Trail connecting Albany to Buffalo. The City of Albany is working with Alta Planning and Design to sort out possible routes for the trail through the South End of Albany.

[1] Shaughnessy, Jim: Delaware & Hudson The History of an important railroad whose antecedent was a canal network to transport coal. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. 1997

[2]Delaware & Hudson Company. Passenger and Freight Stations. 1929

[3] Ibid.

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