State pays construction, town does maintenance
BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
The Town of Orangetown is partnering with the New York State Department of Transportation to extend the town’s pioneering Joseph B. Clarke Rail-Trail from Orangeburg to a new northern terminus in Blauvelt, adding another 1.6 miles to the popular recreational facility.
The cost of developing this latest stretch of the trail has not yet been calculated, according to Town Supervisor Andrew Stewart and state DOT officials. The cost is of little more than curiosity interest to the town, however, since the state is paying the entire bill for the construction project.
Under the terms of a cooperative agreement between the town and the state, once the construction is completed the town will assume the responsibility of maintaining the 10-foot-wide trail, as it already does for the existing 4-mile stretch, which runs from Oak Tree Road in Tappan to Orangeburg. That segment currently terminates at a sharp bend on Old Orangeburg Road, mid-way between the Orangeburg Library and Lowe’s home improvement center.
Trail maintenance is shared by the town’s Highway and Parks and Recreation Departments, with town police providing safety and security and input and assistance as needed by the town engineer and other town agencies.
The extension of the Clarke Rail-Trail is yet another step in the fulfillment of a dream conceived three decades ago by the town’s then Superintendent of Parks and Recreation, Joseph B. Clarke, who served from 1969 through 1996.
Realizing that Orangetown contained several miles of abandoned railroad track bed and right-of-way, Clarke envisioned acquiring that otherwise useless acreage and converting it into Rockland County’s first linear park.
He set his sights initially on two stretches of abandoned roadbed; the old Erie mainline from Piermont west to Nanuet and the old Northern Railroad of New Jersey footprint from the New Jersey state border in Tappan north to Sparkill.
Four Hudson Riverfront villages joined in that effort, and simultaneously developed their own rail-trail on the old Northern branch line from Sparkill through Piermont, Grand View, South Nyack and Nyack, where it is known as the Raymond G. Esposito Memorial Trail, in honor of a former mayor who championed the concept in those communities.
The Esposito and Clarke trails connect in downtown Sparkill, forming the nucleus of what local officials hope may someday be a part of a spider web network of such trails connecting all five townships in Rockland.
So far, no other communities outside of Orangetown have joined that effort, despite the urging of several state and federal agencies, conservation and ecology groups, park and outdoor recreation advocates and land trusts, all of which have promised assistance if requested.
The silence has not deterred Orangetown from expanding its own rail-trail network over the years, however, regardless of the supervisor running Town Hall or the administrator of the town’s Parks and Recreation Department.
Clarke, who succeeded in creating the original trail from Tappan to Sparkill near the end of his superintendency, was succeeded by Richard Rose, during whose tenure the trail was markedly improved and extended westward to Orangeburg via an elaborate and expensive bridge carrying the meandering pathway over Route 303 to its new terminus at Old Greenbush Road.
Rose accomplished this seemingly impossible task by getting a state-federal grant to pay for the elaborate bridge, which is in itself a landmark to travelers along the four-lane state highway for the past decade.
Old-timers in Rockland may recall the old grade-level railroad crossing at that location, which served as a siding for incoming and outgoing freight at the old Orangeburg Manufacturing Company which used to manufacture “Orangeburg Pipe” at its factory on 303, where Lowe’s is today. Trains crossing 303 had the right-of-way, forcing car and truck traffic on the highway to halt by means of a curious traffic light there which confused and confounded motorists for decades. That crossing was eliminated when the factory closed, about two decades ago.
When Rose left Orangetown to become Orange County’s superintendent of parks and recreation he was succeeded by Aric Gorton, who continues to be a champion of rail trails, and will oversee the latest expansion.
The expansion of that trail will continue it northward running through residential and commercial neighborhoods between Western Highway and the CSX freight line tracks, to a new temporary northern terminus at the Blauvelt Lions Town Park opposite the Blauvelt Library and adjacent to the Blauvelt Fire House, at the intersection with Blauvelt Road.
Eventually the trail is slated to continue westward from that park, along the old Erie mainline roadbed to Fifth Avenue in Blauvelt where it will cross the northern end of the Lake Tappan Reservoir near the famous “40-foot hole” swimming spot in the Hackensack River.
Once over the reservoir the roadbed bends northward again, crossing Town Line Road near Ehrhardt Road, where it crosses into Clarkstown at Nanuet.
From Nanuet the line remains active to Spring Valley, carrying the Pascack Valley Line of the Metro North commuter railroad. That line dead-ends at Spring Valley today, remaining abandoned the rest of its length along Route 59 all the way to Suffern, where it used to connect with the replacement Erie mainline, running from Hoboken north to Port Jervis.
No efforts have been made so far to restore any of that abandoned roadbed into similar rail-trails by Clarkstown or Ramapo, nor for any similar activity on the Erie’s old northern extension that used to run along Hempstead Road to Pomona, Mt. Ivy, Ladentown, Thiells, Letchworth Village, West Haverstraw and eventually terminating in downtown Haverstraw at New Main Street by Provident Bank.
Much of the abandoned railroad right-of-way today is inaccessible, overgrown with trees and underbrush. Portions are also severely eroded from floods, occasionally washed away, while other segments are swampy and incapable of sustaining vehicles or even walkers without dramatic and expensive rehabilitation.
Stewart, an ardent conservationist, said that was one reason the town was so pleased to learn that the state DOT would pay for the extensive upgrading needed for the 1.6-mile project from Orangeburg to Blauvelt. Without the state’s assistance, the supervisor said, the town could not afford the upgrade on its own and would not have even attempted such an expensive undertaking.
The state and the town are jointly preparing the plans and specifications for the extension, officials for both parties explained last week, while all of the costs associated with the project will be born by the DOT, at no cost to Orangetown.
No timetable for the planning, construction or completion of the project has yet been announced, officials said, although Stewart said he hoped work could begin this summer.
Segments of the new trail were revealed at last week’s meeting, however, including a stretch through the Blauvelt campus of Dominican College and a new pedestrian bridge to carry the trail over Mountainview Avenue. Some parking spaces to accommodate trail users will be constructed behind the Blauvelt Library, joining similar parking lots which already exist on Oak Tree Road in Tappan, station square in downtown Sparkill and Old Greenbush Road in Orangeburg.
Blauvelt Library officials are pleased the trail will pass right by their historic building, giving them a visual presence on the popular facility. The library is located in the historic 18th century Dutch sandstone Judge Cornelius Blauvelt house on Western Highway. Director Laura Grunwerg has said current plans are to add picnic tables and a gazebo to their backyard, which will overlook the rail-trail and offer a welcoming stopping point for walkers, joggers, bicyclists, roller bladers, dog walkers and other visitors to the area.
Ironically, Judge Blauvelt donated some of his extensive land holdings to the Erie Railroad in 1840, which allowed the railroad to be constructed the following year. In recognition for his cooperation and assistance, the Erie established its original Blauvelt station behind his house and Blauvelt, who also served as postmaster, was named station agent. Trail users will now be able to not only view Judge Blauvelt’s fine home passing by, but also venture inside to partake of the library’s extensive holdings and programs.
(The library, as are all libraries in Rockland County, is a member of the Ramapo-Catskill Library System, and thus permits residents from throughout the region to use their home library cards to borrow books or use other services there free of charge.)
Among the amenities that users of the rail-trail can enjoy along its nearly six-mile route are several restaurants, four downtown shopping districts, three libraries, a college campus, several churches, three shopping centers, secluded woodlands and wildlife and plant sanctuaries, hamlet center parks and several streams, ponds and even a reservoir.
State officials said last week that the new segment of the trail, from Orangeburg to Blauvelt, would resemble the already completed section. It will be ten feet in width, graded level with only gentle rises and falls, and will be topped with gravel and macadam pavement.
Persons or organizations with suggestions about the latest rail-trail project are invited by town officials to contact Stewart’s office at Town Hall or Gorton’s office at the Veterans Memorial Park in Orangeburg. They can also be contacted through the town’s website.