I’ve had this essay in draft form for a while now. With the Re-Imagined exhibit being shown for a second time, and a recent Facebook post and a group forming called Stop the Mount Beacon Incline Railway, I thought I’d post my thoughts.
According to its website, the Beacon Re-Imagined Exhibition “focuses on Beacon’s future and two ambitious plans that have gained momentum in recent years: the Mount Beacon Incline Railway Restoration & the Beacon Greenway Trails.”
It can be seen at Hudson Beach Glass from February 1 through March 9. A similar presentation was held this past summer at River Center Long Dock as one of Beacon’s centennial events.The current iteration of the exhibit also includes a quick look at the Hudson Fjord Trail and the Beacon Loop, but the main attraction here, as at the version presented earlier, is the Mount Beacon Incline Railway Restoration.
The general outline is by now familiar to many Beaconites—opened in 1902 as the world’s steepest passenger incline; popular tourist attraction, featuring a hotel and casino on the mountaintop, that peaked in 1926; struggling to survive in the following decades, finally closing in 1978 for failure to pay taxes; gutted by a massive and suspicious fire in 1983; restoration society founded in 1996, lately picking up influential board members and political support.
Looking into the past to plan for the future can be useful. But judging from this exhibit, it’s questionable how closely those involved with the incline restoration are examining history. It is also unclear what their vision for Beacon’s future might be. The Restoration Society [note:the preceding link, to inclinerailway.org, is not responding as of Feb 22, will remove this message when functioning] does, however, lay out its “Case For Support,” which includes creating a regional economic engine, offering access to the mountain for people with disabilities, and sustainable design in the form of a “nature park.”
When the Incline opened 112 years ago, it was truly an engineering marvel that could bedazzle a public that had never seen a city from an airplane or watched men land on the moon. During its most popular years, it also featured dancing, drinking, and overnight accommodations. Then came the Depression, then World War II.
But what really finished off the Incline was the automobile. No longer were day travelers confined to where the steamship or train could bring them. Now they could wander “off the beaten track” and there were more interesting things to see than a quaint tram car that went up the side of a small mountain.
No doubt somebody did a study to come up with 192,000 visitors annually for the restored ride. But once at the top, they won’t be drinking or dancing, they’ll be watching interpretive videos of what they missed by taking a 4-minute ride up the mountain instead of hiking up in 45 minutes. And eating at the restaurant and shopping at the gift shop. I am not convinced that the public will flock in the projected numbers, or for any sustained period of time.
Access For All
Proponents have made much of the fact that not everyone is physically able to hike up the mountain, and restoring the railway would give access to all. True, but following that logic, why wouldn’t we also be obliged to put an incline up Breakneck Ridge?
In terms of panoramic Hudson Highlands valley views, there are spectacular, car-accessible lookout points across the river on Storm King. For those who would champion people with disabilities who want to get to the top of the Fishkill Ridge, why not start a Mt. Beacon Access campaign, buy a motorized all-terrain wheelchair or two, and set up a local organization that would work along the lines of Bicycling Blind. That group connects sited captains with blind stokers to ride tandem bicycles together. MBA would have a list of volunteers (two per wheelchair) who would be willing to partner with a wheelchair user to hike up the fire road.
Sustainable Design Nature Park
In many ways, the original incline was a model of sustainability (with the exception, unfortunately, of economic sustainability). Particularly, as mentioned above, in the way visitors arrived at the site. These days that is not possible, and a majority of visitors to the site will arrive in private automobiles. I’m sure at some point there will be talk of the famous “shuttle” from the train station, but the current plans call for “parking areas integrated into the landscape.” To quote further from the video: “The parking was an important aspect of this project…The approach to the parking was taken more from a green point of view.”
That’s kind of general, but I did learn from the brochure that the parking surfaces will be permeable and the area around the parking will feature native trees and shrubs that will reduce CO2. While the design elements are laudable, adding roughly 200 more parking spaces in Beacon is not the road to sustainability, even with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. With the Craig House property up in the air, the existing residential Polo Fields and Preserve on the Hudson, the 248 Tioranda project making its way through the planning stages, and likely increasing use of University Settlement Camp, we’re suddenly ripe for a road widening at that curve where Howland Avenue merges into 9D, maybe a stop light, certainly much heavier traffic volume encircling our city.
Several times in the video, we hear that this will be a “world-class nature park” and not a “Disney park.” Toward that end, plans include a lower park and visitor center with program and meeting space, exhibitions, and retail and food services; a network of meticulously maintained hiking trails; onboard interpretations of scenic views; an interpretive observation area with indoor and outdoor panoramic views; walkable green roofing; a top-flight yet affordable restaurant; being immersed in an unparalleled Hudson River Valley experience. If Walt were alive today, I’m betting he’d be all over green and sustainable nature parks.
A Different Understanding
In 1902, the country was just starting to crank up its industrial phase, and the Incline Railway was a sublime expression of that national drive, the drive to make nature beholden to man, to serve up its pleasures to us, whether mineral, animal, plant, or scenic view—and why not in comfort, while we ride this train to nowhere we’ve laid up the mountain.
But we’re post-industrial now, and commodification of the scenic landscape is a very industrial way to look at the world. Many of our ideas about our relationship to the landscape, to the planet, to each other, have changed since the mountain railway was built. (Four years after the Incline opened, Ota Benga was exhibited at the Bronx Zoo.)
For me, even if it did generate some money for the region, the question boils down to, do we really need to attempt to monetize a feature of our landscape just because it may be “economically beneficial” for us to do so? Must we continue to tame and subdue the State mountain? (Somewhat tangentially, I’m reminded of a headline a few years back in the Poughkeepsie Journal, “Police: Moose on the Loose in Beacon.“ As I noted at the time, the article starts: “Police are scrambling to secure traffic after a moose was sighted running loose this afternoon.” I was puzzled. The moose did not belong to anyone, and had not escaped.)
Is our relationship with our environment served better by interpretive talks and videos, or by experiencing it without the technological interface, the manicured trails, and the gift shop? (Visitors spend an average of three hours in Grand Canyon National Park—half an hour to view the canyon and two and a half hours in the gift shop. While we’re on the subject of the Grand Canyon, what about a mule ride up Mount Beacon? Kinda almost serious. That’s how the Incline builders hauled all the materials up when building the original.) Do we honestly believe the next 20 years will be about tourists looking to take a trolley up a small mountain? What about the next 50? Unfortunately, as we continue to learn, despite the inspired Latin “Excelsior” on the New York State Seal featuring our mountain, things do not go “ever upward” (with atmospheric C02 levels and Wall Street chutzpah the exceptions that prove the rule).
Lest I be accused of being a Debbie Downer, let me say that I suspect I would have thoroughly enjoyed a ride up the Incline Railway. (One of my favorite Beacon stories: Shortly after moving to town, I met a neighbor and very old timer who told me about the day he and a friend were walking up the Incline tracks at night when they spotted the go-devil in the bushes.They retrieved it and placed it on the rail, quite thrilled with their luck and whooping it up down the mountain until they realized it had been ditched because the brake was not working…[If you contribute $1,000,000 or more to the restoration, you get instant entry into the “Go Devil” group].)
Certainly if the railway were still in operation and needed a million dollar facelift I would not be opposed. I believe in many ways the idea to restore the Incline is a noble and worthy one. The effort so far has involved many talented, intelligent, civic-minded people. I’m not even advocating for a Stop The Incline movement, and I apologize to all those involved if my points of contention come across as harsh. But I do have a suggestion, one which would only necessitate a slight adjustment of the currently proposed plans.
That would be to grab the Incline, pull it down the side of the mountain, and place it alongside the Fishkill Creek. In a metaphorical sense.
Yes, I speak of taking that $20 million dollar goal and all those excellent ideas and that civic spirit and applying it to ye olde spur line. The only local transportation idea brought up more frequently is the aforementioned shuttle. In fact, Mayor Casale campaigned on this rail line.
Done correctly, this would still be an economic engine. For instance, tourists are flocking to Greensburg, Kansas. Now imagine Beacon has designed a duel mode vehicle system that runs along the creek from the train station to Fishkill (with shorter trips intermittently), then hops off the track and drives back down Main the other way, or a rail car that simply runs back and forth from the east end to the waterfront, with some longer runs to Fishkill. This would accomplish a number of positive outcomes.
It would be a tourist attraction in itself, and would help bring more existing DIA visitors to Main Street. It’s true, just having a convivial, 25 mile per hour railway car making its way along the creek would bring people to town—via boat or train, no need for a car. A stop could be made at DIA. The Matteawan station would be the town stop, enabling visitors to walk from the east end of town back down Main Street.
It would make the town more walkable and more livable by helping to reduce traffic and reduce parking requirements. Over 400 units are currently planned along the creek. Right now each one could bring in one to two more cars per unit, but if the spur line were running, parking could be unbundled from the units, Zip cars could be used, and the units could be marketed to New Yorkers and other urbanites who could continue with a car-free existence.
It would still be there when the party’s over and the tourists have gone back to their own homes to grow turnips, still be contributing to our local economy, still be used by the citizens of Beacon. And because it would not be a full-scale, heavy train, the track renovations and future maintenance would not be as expensive as a full-scale railroad operation.
The Mount Beacon Incline Railway made sense in its day, but that day is gone. Re-imagining the Beacon Spur Line is a true vision of Beacon’s future.