This article is copublished with The Other Hudson Valley, an independent news site.
There are about 70 miles of picturesque shoreline on the Hudson River’s east bank between Poughkeepsie and Rensselaer. Getting to nearly all of it involves breaking the law.
In 1846, New York granted the rights to that land to an early train company for the purpose of constructing a rail line. Since then, the only way to access the land and the river is to cross the rail line, which constitutes trespassing on private property.
There are legal crossings along what is now called the Empire Corridor, but they are few and far between, especially in the northern half of the Hudson Valley, and many people still trespass to kayak, birdwatch, picnic, swim, or to stroll along the riverfront on the service road running alongside the tracks. Though using the service road is also trespassing, it is the only way to access most of the Hudson’s shoreline. Anglers use it to reach fishing spots with names that have been passed through the generations—Ice Dock, Mills Point, East Jesus. As civilization has altered the river, the types of fish they cast for has changed, just as the speeds of the trains at the angler’s backs have gotten faster and faster.
Trespassing creates safety and liability issues for the current lessee of the land: Amtrak. A confidential draft plan obtained by The River reveals that America’s largest passenger rail provider is now trying to further limit access to the tracks—and therefore the Hudson River—with more than four miles of fencing in the areas people most commonly use.
A River Runs Through It
Growing up in Hudson in the 1970s, Dominic Merante remembers how intimately the Hudson River flowed through his childhood. His father would putter them across in the family’s small power boat to the Middle Ground Flats, where people would camp, sunbathe, and explore throughout the summer. Merante remembers wandering along the Amtrak service road, one time discovering the remains of a brickyard. His high school science class walked down the same road for a field trip on local ecology, studying the flora and local estuaries.
Those experiences are partly why Merante, now Hudson’s fifth ward alderman, opposes any attempts to further restrict access to the Hudson. “It’s like closing a window on a beautiful day,” he says.
Merante knows that the tracks pose hazards: His best friend was hit and killed by a train near Hudson’s Amtrak Station when he was in the seventh grade. Amtrak “really needs to up their safety,” Merante says, but fencing off areas commonly used to access the river is not the way.
“Guess what? No matter how you cut off access, they’re going to get through it in a way that may cause different injuries, or more severe injuries,” he says. “[If] you’re determined to go fishing, and the only thing standing in the way is a 10-foot fence—I’m sorry, someone’s going to climb that fence.”
In January 2018, Amtrak submitted a plan to the New York State Department of State (DOS) to construct a mile-and-a-half of fencing in five communities on the Hudson’s east bank: Germantown, Stockport, and Stuyvesant in Columbia County, and Rhinebeck and Tivoli in Dutchess County, though Tivoli was later dropped from the plans.
The fencing, which Amtrak wrote was meant to “keep pedestrians and vehicles out of harm’s way,” would funnel trespassers to official crossings in some areas, and block all pedestrian access in others. The plan also proposed a series of locked gates to block vehicles from driving along the Amtrak service road.
But municipalities, environmental groups, and the “river rats” who appreciate the Hudson banded together to oppose the plan, arguing it was against their state-sanctioned right to access the Hudson. Amtrak pulled the plan a year later.
Coordinating that opposition effort was Jeff Anzevino, the land use director for the conservationist group Scenic Hudson.
“The reality is the railroad has severed people’s access from the river in all these communities,” Anzevino says.
Anzevino, like Merante, agrees that crossing the tracks can be dangerous and believes the solution is not to limit access, but instead to increase safe access. After Amtrak withdrew its initial plan, Scenic Hudson engaged Alta Planning + Design in an effort to chronicle how people access the Hudson. A series of public meetings and online questionaries resulted in the Hudson River Access Plan (HRAP).
The HRAP details 64 locations between Rensselaer and Poughkeepsie where people commonly access the Hudson to fish, birdwatch, kayak, picnic, hike, and swim. The plan then “identifies gaps in public access, recommends places for safe new shoreline access and suggests ways to improve safety at existing locations.”
In a May 22 letter to Amtrak CEO William Flynn, congressmen Antonio Delgado, Sean Patrick Maloney, and Paul Tonko expressed their concern over potential fencing, writing that the company should work with local leaders to ultimately increase access to the Hudson. The three local representatives urged Amtrak to “read the entire Hudson River Access Plan before continuing to reformulate fencing and gate locations; adjust the proposal accordingly; and then explain on a case-by-case basis how risk and be managed without reducing river access at each location.”
The HRAP was released in March 2020. But Amtrak had been confidentially working on a draft plan of its own. A copy of that plan, which was completed over the first half of 2020, has been obtained by The River.
Amtrak’s Expanded Plan
As its name suggests, the “5 Year Fencing Program on the Hudson Line Section of the Empire Corridor” does not propose additional crossings or greater access, but instead significantly increases the number of barriers that were in the earlier plan. It calls for 23,935 feet of fencing—about four and-a-half miles—spread over 22 sites from Rensselaer to Poughkeepsie.
Ten of the sites are near legal crossings; for these, Amtrak proposes fencing that would funnel pedestrians safely through these crossings on their way to the river. At the other 12 sites, the plan proposes fencing that would seemingly block access entirely. Many of the sites also would include gates to keep vehicles from accessing the service road.
The new plan appears to run afoul of state law in the same manner Scenic Hudson cited during the clash over the now-withdrawn plan, arguably infringing on the state’s coastal management policies stating river access should always be increased.
Amtrak was supposed to begin constructing the fencing this year, according to the plan, but no construction is apparent, and a DOS spokesman said no new plans have been submitted to the state for approval since the old plan was withdrawn.
Amtrak did not respond to questions about its plans for the Empire State Corridor.
Anzevino was able to see Amtrak’s confidential draft plan last summer during a presentation to stakeholders, and though he would not discuss details, he says Amtrak had “made some attempt” to address community concerns by making some of the fences more visually permeable.
However, the draft plan did not incorporate suggestions from the HRAP, and “didn’t address the overlying concern that people have been expressing now for nearly three years…that we need ways to get to the river that are safe.”
The draft plan presents an idea and then expects the community to react, as opposed to a collaborative approach, Anzevino says.
“What they need to say is: ‘We believe there are safety concerns along the corridor. We would like to work with you to reduce risk—what can we do together?”
Struggling to Reclaim Their Backyards
Several communities along the Empire Corridor have had limited access to the river for years, and may face additional hurdles if Amtrak’s draft plan comes to fruition. In Germantown, for example, Amtrak wants to erect 1,625 feet of six-foot-high fencing between the rail line and Main Street, according to the plan, effectively cutting off part of the town from the river. This spot was one of the most popular in Scenic Hudson’s HRAP: nearly 200 people who responded to the survey said they used it for such activities as picnicking, fishing, and launching small boats.
In Castleton-on-Hudson, a community of 1,500 on the Hudson’s east bank in Rensselaer County, the village government has been battling with Amtrak and the state for two decades to get access to their land on the river side of the tracks.
Joe Keegan is the current mayor of the village, a position he also held prior to 2016.
“I probably spent at least 50 percent of my time as mayor dealing with the access issue,” he says.
The village acquired a small plot of land between the Hudson River and the Amtrak rail line from a private landowner in 1994. During the purchase, the state Department of Transportation, the village, and Conrail, the freight company which then owned the tracks, agreed in court to close a vehicular crossing leading to the park due to safety concerns—but only after a pedestrian tunnel was constructed so residents could access the land, which the village wanted to turn into a waterfront park, according to a court order.
Though the Department of Transportation agreed to pay for half of the tunnel, Keegan says the project proved far too expensive for the village. A fence and gate was erected to block access anyway.
Keegan calls access to the park the “number-one hot topic in Castleton…we’re literally on the Hudson, but we have almost no access to it.”
The two closest crossings are not freely accessible to all residents. One, about a quarter-mile south of the planned park, is privately owned by the Castleton Boat Club, and can only be used by members. The other crossing, about a mile south of the park, is part of Schodack Island State Park, where there is a $6 entrance fee on holidays and weekends during the warm months, and where it costs $175 to dry slip a boat for the season.
The Amtrak draft plan does not include a way to access Castleton-on-Hudson’s planned park.
Keegan, who called the village’s relationship with Amtrak “tenuous” over the years, says the rail line has had other deleterious effects on the town. Speeds of passing trains increased about 10 years ago, according to Keegan, and now shoot through the village at 110 miles per hour, rattling buildings on Main Street, some of which are less than 10 feet from the tracks.
“It’s tough to have a business there, it’s tough to live there,” Keegan says. “You can see the river, but you can’t get to it.”
In Tivoli, there is a legal crossing at the end of Diana Street, a 15-minute stroll from the village center. The village owns land on both sides of the tracks here, and Mayor Joel Griffith says people launch kayaks, swim, and watch the sunset from the land between the tracks and the river.
Tivoli has received grants to stabilize the shoreline in anticipation of developing a park on the sliver of land, Griffith says. But the village is bound by an old agreement to build a pedestrian overpass across the tracks before opening the park—a concept Griffith calls “hugely expensive,” and one that would take up much of the park’s real estate while hurting the view.
Griffith understands Amtrak taking issue with people driving on its service road. In Tivoli, they use the Diana Street crossing to access the road, especially during the striped bass run in the spring.
“That is an issue,” Griffith says. “Of course, people have been doing that since their great-, great-, great-granddaddies, so that’s also an issue.”
Amtrak’s draft plan proposes erecting 40 locked gates along the corridor to block access to the service road, include at the Diana Street crossing. The proposed changes in Amtrak’s draft plan seem to be a mixed bag for river access in Tivoli. The crossing itself is left open, with 1,125 feet of four-foot high fencing blocking access to the service road and funneling pedestrian traffic to the crossing, where flashing lights and a drop gate warn of oncoming trains.
Safety and Rights
Jen Crawford, a Germantown-born engineer and river access advocate, says she isn’t much for fishing, but loves kayaking up and down the Hudson’s grandeur.
“It’s so open,” she says. “It’s just a big expanse—it almost makes you feel larger than life, being on the water…especially if there’s a sunset.”
Germantown has two legal crossings leading to small riverfront parks, but there is no legal way to get to points outside the parks on the Hudson’s shore, leaving nearly all of Germantown’s waterfront inaccessible.
Crawford says she got involved in the fight for access after researching campsites along the Hudson River accessible by kayak. There were only a couple of approved sites, but she has discovered other, unofficial spots while paddling. She declines to reveal where they are, fearing those without intimate knowledge of the river and tracks could get hurt.
“But I want everyone to enjoy them, not just people with insider knowledge,” she says.
Germantown won a grant last year to update its Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan (LWRP), with Crawford leading the plan’s development. LWRPs are developed by municipalities over several years with public input, and give communities additional control over their waterfronts, forcing future state and federal plans to abide by—or at least not clash with—the community plan.
Crawford wants to develop a trail running along the service road in Germantown.
“We take what’s informally been used for decades, and we do the work, and we plan for a few years, and we negotiate with the railroad…and formalize it,” she says.
Amtrak’s draft plan does not close the two legal crossings, and arguably makes them safer by fencing off areas to their sides. But it further decreases access along the Germantown waterfront, gating off the access road and proposing a 1,600-foot fence near Main Street.
The original, withdrawn plan proposed only 700 feet.
Roger Hannigan Gilson is a Hudson Valley journalist and humorist. A former crime reporter for the Register Star, he now runs the news site The Other Hudson Valley. He last wrote for The River about the impact of tourists on the pandemic economy.