Imagine an early morning walk on a beautiful day, the silence is only broken by the delightful sounds of songbirds.
It’s a wonderful way to enjoy the quiet that only early morning brings. In late spring, one might see movement ahead, a doe with her twin fawns stepping out onto the trail ahead. Mom flicks her large ears, flashes her flag, and the spotted fawns bound off behind. Our dog looks up at us with a ‘did you see that’ expression.
On a winter day, large snowflakes might be floating down, the kind that land on eyelashes, coating the ground and silencing steps. In autumn, that special light, with the sun disappearing over the Helderbergs, setting the leaves ablaze. We had the rare experience of seeing an elusive fisher, the largest member of the weasel family, jump onto the trail, take a quick look at us, and then dematerialize back into the woods on the other side of the trail.
Where is this wonderful trail located? It is right here in our backyard on the New Scotland section of the 9.1 mile Albany County Helderberg Hudson Rail trail. Although people have been walking the old rail line for years, the 2.5 mile section from Upper Font Grove Road to its terminus at Grove Street in Voorheesville has been cleared and widened by volunteers, and fencing installed where it passes over Route 155 and Vly Creek near Voorheesville.
Other than passing near a few backyards and crossing Hilton Road, most of the trail passes through forest, open woodlands, and fields. If you enjoy walking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, trail running, or any other outdoor activity, be sure to head to the recently opened New Scotland section of the Helderberg Hudson Rail Trail.
In 2004, the rails were removed from the 9.1 mile rail bed from downtown Albany to Voorheesville. In 2010, Albany county purchased the rail bed from the Canadian Pacific Railway and the birth of the Helderberg – Hudson Rail Trail. In June 2011, Albany County and the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy teamed up to open the first section of the trail, 1.9 miles from Veteran’s Park in Delmar to New Scotland Road, Slingerlands. Since that time the trail has been cleared from Lower Font Grove Road to Voorheesville.
I recently had the privilege of walking part of the New Scotland section of the trail with 88-year-old Bob Cook, of Font Grove Farm. Before he retired, Bob worked for what used to be called the New York State Conservation Dept, as Director of Engineering. Born in 1926, Bob has lived for most of his life next to what was the rail bed and now one of the most interesting sections of the developing trail. Bob has seen a lot of history pass along the old railroad line. The original Font Grove Farm was several hundred acres, originally owned by a Colonel Hendricks, dating back to the 1860s. It was located near the intersection of the trail and Upper Font Grove Road. Near where Upper Font Grove Road intersects with the trail, there was a small park that had a track for trotting horses. Though the track disappeared almost 75 years ago, Bob pointed out where it was located.
It was a pleasure to take a walk back in history with Bob as we walked the trail. For much of its existence, the railroad was used mostly to haul freight, and ran once a day from Albany to Binghamton. At some point it became a commuter line from Altamont, making stops at crossings in Voorheesville, Hilton Crossing, Font Grove, Slingerlands, Delmar, and beyond. Bob’s brother used to pick up the train from Font Grove to Slingerlands for a nickel fare every morning to go school. Bob described a ride he once took on the train from Binghamton to Slingerlands.
The rail bed is elevated as you walk from Upper Font Grove Road towards Hilton Road. Because the rail grade toward Voorheesville is uphill, the track builders dredged dirt from the sides of the rail line to build up the track bed, resulting in the drop off and wetlands that we now see. As a result, the rail line right of way is 40-feet wide on one side and 100-feet on the other.
The farm fields on the south side of the trail used to be Bender’s Melon Farm. Common belief was that the piece of railroad roundhouse that served as a bridge was erected so cattle could safely cross the tracks. Bob doesn’t think Bender had cows and believes the bridge was put in place so Bender could use it so his hay wagons could access both sides of the rail bed. Bob doesn’t know when the bridge was put in, but it’s been there his entire life. Between Hilton Road and Route 155, there is an old stone tunnel under the rail line and that was the cattle crossing.
Bob had a twinkle in his eye when he told a story of the filming of the movie, Ironweed. The producers constructed a fake locomotive steam engine around a box car. The locomotive was backed up the tracks from Slingerlands and then filmed from the bridge. The scene ended up on the cutting room floor but it made an appearance in a scene involving a raid on a shantytown near Albany.
The railroad was also used to transport the circus from Binghamton to Albany. If you happened to be out and about when the train passed you’d get to see the animals.
When Bob was young, there were many dairy farms in the area of the trail, and some of the largest were along Font Grove Road on the way to Voorheesville. Over time, farming became uneconomical and ceased operation. When the farms disappeared, the need to bring in carloads of grain ceased as well.
Oil became popular and plentiful after World War II, replacing anthracite for heating. When the coal dealers went out of business, it was another reason the rail line became less economically necessary. The industrial park in Guilderland Center used to be an Army depot and the railroad was used to ship materiel and supplies during the war; one more need for rail.
There is a small building right next to the trail on Kenwood Avenue near New Scotland Road. Before walking with Bob, I shared the belief with many that this had been the Slingerlands rail station. Bob says it was actually the railroad freight house. The old Slingerlands fire house was the station.
The time I spent with Bob Cook gave me an even greater appreciation of the rail trail and its history.
Alan Via is a local author who most recently published the book, The Catskill 67.