Scenic Railroads

Following the American Civil War, a growing interest in American scenery propelled scenic railway projects and an appreciation for the unspoiled landscape. Simultaneous with the abrupt technological advancement of the Industrial Revolution was a lament of rapid change and the destruction of untouched regions. This growing interest in the natural environment would influence American leisure patterns in a substantial way. Nature excursions became fashionable with urban dwellers who believed outings would provide “strengthening, invigorating, life-giving oxygen of a pure air and the healthful stimulant of a radical change from the monotony of daily life (Priscilla Chipman, 198). These trends fostered speculative interest in the Hudson River Valley for tourist projects like the Dunderberg Spiral Railway, the Mt. Beacon inclined Railway, and others. The desirability for these projects was also based on a close proximity to New York City and other densely populated regions that would provide the tourist market for such endeavors.


Dunderberg Mountain Spiral Railway hike

The Dunderberg project was modeled on the experience of the Mauch Chunk Gravity Railway, which was originally constructed to transport coal and then became one of the nation’s first thrill rides.The Dunderberg Spiral Railway was partially constructed in 1892 with the intention of having a twenty acre tract at the base of the mountain for the station, offices, and a hotel-restaurant complex. This railway would be able to carry 2,500 people to the summit per hour and would host an observatory, park, and another hotel. The property was under private ownership, required little engineering to maximize the route and views, and construction anticipated the Columbian Exposition of 1892 which was originally cited in New York City. Hudson River excursion boats were planned as the primary means of access to Dunderberg, with the additional potential of some patrons utilizing the New York Central Railroad and ferrying across the Hudson to Rockland County. It is unclear on what ultimately led to the abandoning of the project but a variety of speculation concludes that the moving of the Exposition to Chicago and other financial concerns halted the construction of this venture. The site went through a chain of private ownership and eventually was absorbed by the Bear Mountain State Park in 1938 for $25,000.00. Since then, the improved rights-of-way, tunnels, and views have become popular with hikers.

The New York New Jersey Trail Conference has the hike listed on its website, you can find photos of the improvements here, and Joseph Brennan has compiled a history of the project here.


Mount Beacon Inclined Railway

The Mount Beacon Railway was a similar endeavor that came to fruition a decade after the Dunderberg project. New Hampshire businessmen, Jesse Pattee and Henry George partnered with the Otis Elevator Company to construct the scenic railway from October 1901 to May 1902. In addition to the views and the monument placed by the Melzingah Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the summit featured a hotel and casino that afforded urban dwellers the same manner of retreat as what was intended by the Dunderberg project. This remained a vibrant destination until the railway closed in 1978. HRVI intern Peter Rottenbucher hiked to the old Casino site with representatives of the Mount Beacon Railway Restoration Society in 2010 in order to write about the history, and the future, of the Railway.


Otis Elevated Railway to the Catskill Mountain House

When the Catskill Mountain House opened in 1824, it was accessible only by a long ride in a stage coach. But in 1892, they opened the Otis Elevating Railway, a narrow-gauge funicular railway rising up the escarpment from Palenville to the Mountain House while also providing dramatic views. The system included two cars, named Rickerson and Van Santvoord; they counter-balanced one another and could carry 150 people. The railway was sold for scrap in 1918, but the Catskill Mountain House remained open until 1941 and attracted luminaries like United States Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Chester A. Arthur. The Catskill Archive, now maintained by the Mountaintop Historical Society, offers images and history of the Hotel and surroundings.


This page was written by intern Elijah Bender using research materials provided by Howard Tendler.