Choo Choo: A Guide to the History of Railroads in the Hudson Valley

By Jake Spies

Once upon a time, transportation in the Hudson Valley was a challenge to say the least.  Traveling across the Hudson River was vital to trade, as a large percentage of American manufacturing was done in New York and New England to the east of the Hudson, while to the west lay Pennsylvania and the Midwest, purveyors of large quantities of coal and grain. Goods were loaded onto barges, which got the job done, but were very slow and unreliable due to the dependency on weather (Mabee 9) Storms could be a major hindrance to these boats, and in the winter, ice was an even more challenging obstacle. However, on January 1, 1889, the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge was opened (Mabee 54) as the only bridge over the Hudson for 150 miles (Mabee 9). The impact of the railroad on the Hudson Valley was immense, and not only in terms of trade efficiency. In subsequent years, train travel was viewed as fast, luxurious, and fun! It rapidly became the population’s vehicle of choice.  This guidebook will hopefully encapsulate the history and reception of the railroad in the Hudson Valley, and provide insight as to how Poughkeepsie and the surrounding areas came to be what they are today.

At the time of the Poughkeepsie Bridge’s construction and opening, it was the longest bridge in the world. Unfortunately for the Hudson Valley, the very next year a bridge opened in Scotland that was even longer (Mabee 55). Easy come, easy go. However, while the bridge lost its title prematurely, there are many aspects of the bridge’s construction that still are apparent today. The people who actually built the bridge were immigrants, primarily Italian, hired as laborers (Mabee 66). These people were brought up to Poughkeepsie from New York City, where they had traveled in search of prosperity and a better life. The influx of Italian workers to Poughkeepsie inspired relatives, and other Italians who were not necessarily laborers to follow. It was not long before Italians made up the largest foreign-born group in all of New York’s counties (Mabee 69). Today, Italians make up over 12% of Poughkeepsie’s population (Citytowninfo.com), and that is primarily due to the bridge’s construction. In a sense, it is the bridge that is responsible for Poughkeepsie’s “Little Italy” district, although in recent years, the number of Italians has declined in this area. In addition to this, the bridge had a huge economic impact on Poughkeepsie, as it became an important train hub in the Hudson Valley.

Poughkeepsie’s “Little Italy”

Poughkeepsie’s “Little Italy”

With the installation of Poughkeepsie’s east- west railway system, citizens could now travel great distances in relatively short amounts of time. Specifically, the city of Poughkeepsie was now a place on the map where people could come to as well as leave.  Central New England & Western planned out several express routes to pass through Poughkeepsie, leading to Pennsylvania, Washington DC, Maine, Boston, and Baltimore. Other rail companies also got in on the action, namely Philadelphia, Reading & New England Rail, Hudson River Rail, and New York Central Rail (Mabee 76).  To promote their businesses, some of the rail companies printed summer travel guides to their railway lines in the hopes of enticing customers. In 1895, railway travel was marketed to be as significant as the actual destination. Specifically, the guides highlighted the scenic views that passengers would witness, as well as all the different destinations that could be reached and why people would want to travel there at all. These guides were published like hardcover books, yet they contained many advertisements also designed with the intent to draw people into the passenger cars. For example, New York Central’s guide, Health and Pleasure on “America’s Greatest Railroad”, advertised the Adirondack Mountains saying, “If you have never visited the Adirondack Mountains you will find that region a surprise and a delight to you; if you have visited it, you will surely go again” (New York Central 393).

Passengers in a luxury car to Chicago.

Passengers in a luxury car to Chicago.

As time passed, the train industry started to suffer. With the development of the automobile, fewer and fewer people found it necessary to pay money for a train ticket for what was becoming an obsolete and comparatively slow mode of transportation (Mabee 241). The depression of the 1920s meant that many lines had to be cut back in order to reduce costs. Train travel was becoming unreliable just as the steamboats were, over 60 years earlier. Many rail companies, such as the New Haven, began to go bankrupt (Mabee 242). Maintenance of the Poughkeepsie Bridge declined along with the railway’s profits. Fires became common on the bridge (Mabee 244). In 1974, a huge fire broke out which resulted in the bridge being closed down after 85 years. It cost over $600,000 to repair the bridge (Mabee 251). Eventually, the bridge was restored and became a walkway with scenic views of the Hudson. You can visit and see the views yourself!

The bridge today.

The bridge today.

It’s true that today there are more efficient ways of traveling than on railroads, although with new technology, trains are faster and more direct than ever before. However, in the Hudson Valley, the railroad transcends its purpose and becomes a symbol for the industrial explosion of the late 19th century, and also for a major point in American history during which our nation became the melting pot that it is today. Poughkeepsie is a city that has seen better days, but those days were made possible by the railways.

 

 

Bibliography

Grant, William H.. The Hudson River Railroad observations on the western trade and its influence upon the growth and prosperity of the cities of New York, Boston … Poughkeepsie, 1846. 38pp. Sabin Americana. Gale, Cengage Learning. . 03 April 2013

Hudson river and the Hudson river railroad, with a complete map, and wood cut views of the principal objects of interest upon the line. New York, [1851]. 55pp. Sabin Americana. Gale, Cengage Learning. 03 April 2013

Mabee, Carleton. Bridging the Hudson: The Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge and It Connecting Rail Lines : A Many-faceted History. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain, 2001. Print.

Munsell’s guide to the Hudson river by railroad and steamboat : representing every town, village, landing, railroad station, and point of … Albany, [1864]. 66pp. Sabin Americana. Gale, Cengage Learning. 05 April 2013

New York Central & Hudson River Railroad. Health and Pleasure on “America’s Greatest Railroad.” Descriptive of Summer Resorts and Excursion Routes, Embracing More than One Thousand Tours by the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad. New York: American Bank Note, 1895. Print.

“Poughkeepsie, New York.” – City Information, Fast Facts, Schools, Colleges, and More. City Town Info, 2005. Web. 01 May 2013. <http://www.citytowninfo.com/places/new-york/poughkeepsie>.

Stover, John F. American Railroads. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1961. Print.

The Traveller’s steamboat and railroad guide to the Hudson River : describing the cities, towns and places of interest along the route, with maps … New York, 1867. 81pp. Sabin Americana. Gale, Cengage Learning. 03 April 2013

Images:

http://beaconarts.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Italian-Street-Fair-fr-Walkway-Pok-1024×1009.jpg

http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/dam/assets/120917073007-trains-20th-century-limited2-railroads-vertical-gallery.jpg

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e7/Walkway_Over_the_Hudson_4.JPG

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