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Train on track for Copake Iron Works

COPAKE — When news was released on Nov. 16 that the Friends of Taconic State Park (FTSP) was granted permission from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) to, in a matter of speaking, resurrect the railroad, smack in the center of the Copake Iron Works National Heritage Area Site in Taconic State Park, it unleashed this reporter’s imagination.

It was almost as if the train could be seen puffing to life through the gnarled, forested treetops of the Taconic Mountain Range, which, according to the OPRHP, “transcends three states (Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut) and two counties (Dutchess and Columbia)”  with the famed, majestic Bash Bish Falls cradling one side of the rails and the 40-foot-deep iron ore pit cradling the other.

Some history, park details

The iron industry began in Copake in 1845, and remained active until 1903, according to OPRHP. Its website, www.parks.ny.gov/parks/taconiccopake/details.aspx, states that “the charcoal blast furnace, blowing engine house, machine shop, office and powder storage building still remain and are open to the public during the spring, summer and fall seasons” at the Taconic State Park — Copake Falls Area.

In 2016, the FTSP helped get the Copake Iron Works designated as a National Heritage Area Site in the Hudson Valley. One of the group’s main goals is to restore the Iron Works site back to the same condition it was in back in its heyday during the 1880s.

For general information about the park, located at 253 Route 344 in Copake Falls, call 518-329-3993 or go to the website listed above.

Getting folks ‘on board’

According to FTSP Board of Directors President Jim Mackin, getting approval from the OPRHP for the project was not easy, but rather a hard-fought and long-sought climb that began more than a year ago and resolved around August.

From there, the Friends initiated its capital campaign to construct a passenger railroad at the Copake Iron Works, with hopes of getting things chugging along by mid-May of next year.

“We started fundraising to get going immediately,” said Mackin. “Basically in the past, with our annual appeal and fundraising, we start with our own board. What we’ve been doing for years and years and years, the whole board kicks in something, and then we’re able to tell our membership the board donated, and that in turn kicks off other things.”

The FTSP has already raised $174,000 of its $366,000 goal to build a 900-foot-long loop track at Taconic State Park. The Copake Iron Works Railroad, as it will be called, will “consist of an engine, a tender car and two ore cars carrying 15 passengers; it will operate from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends and holidays from mid-May to mid-November,” explained an official statement from the Friends group.

Mackin added plans are to run the tourist train at the historic site “into perpetuity,” and possibly expand it, if all goes well in the future.

Praise for FTSP

Copake town Supervisor Jeanne Mettler praised Mackin and fellow Friends volunteer Edgar Masters for their vision and hard work on the railroad project.

“Jim Mackin and Edgar Masters came to the September Copake Town Board meeting to tell us about the Copake Iron Works passenger train,” said Mettler.  “The board was thrilled to hear about this exciting project. We applaud Jim and Edgar, who have worked hard to make this dream come true.”

Railroad plans underway

Mettler added that “the Copake Iron Works is a treasure in the town and the addition of this train will only make it a more popular destination. Copake Falls has a rich and unique history. We are grateful to the FTSP, who have worked so hard for so many years to preserve the history of the Iron Works and the Taconic State Park.”

The Friends described how the railroad will loop around the park.

“The train will circumnavigate the historic blast furnace, departing from and returning to a station house on Valley View Road in Copake Falls,” described the group’s release, adding “construction has already begun on the railroad tracks and station house.”

Volunteers are doing much of the manual labor, including placing the heavy railroad ties on the ground. Mackin said if all goes according to plan, the work should be done by next summer.

The planning itself, he noted, was very intentional — all part of a ploy to lure visitors to learn more about the region’s rich iron industry history.

“It was so strategic,” said Mackin. “More and more people were finding out about us by accident, walking back through Bash Bish Falls, they would see the blast furnace; it’s huge, and then discover across from that this museum full of things from iron making, with a visitors’ center and eight-minute narrative movie, and a dararama.

“They were coming upon this by accident, but we couldn’t attract enough people to go there,” he added. “The idea of an iron-making museum wasn’t sexy enough to attract people, but one glance at this and they’ll be blown away by it.”

Copake, a rare treasure

Mackin, a well-known author with multiple titles to his credit who resides in both Copake and New York City, has a deep well of knowledge about many things. He noted that the Copake Iron Works Railroad paired with the existing Copake Iron Works Museum will be unique to the area.

“I happen to know nothing close by has this,” he said, mentioning one would have to travel to either Saugus, Mass., or Hopewell Village, Penn., to visit a similar iron-making complex, each more than 100 miles away. “Having said that, in the Tri-state area, there are more than 20 iron-blasting places in the area. The irony, is iron making goes completely out of existence when steel making comes into existence, because steel as a product is not only better, but cheaper.”

Alas, the Harlem Valley is known for its rich iron history, and certainly Copake is a big part of that. Mackin said he is just pleased he and the FTSP will be able to merge two parts of history that excite him — the iron ores and the railroads — and share them with the community.

“It’s going to be wonderful,” he said. “If it exceeds our expectations, which are modest, there are more possibilities. We have to take it slowly and see what works.”

While there are more than enough people volunteering to help with the project at this point, Mackin said, “hopefully [the project] will attract people willing to be volunteers and railroad aficionados” to help out once the railroad is up and running.

Support FTSP

The FTSP could use as much funding support as community members can muster to help them complete the project on time and on budget. The Friends of Taconic State Park is a 501(C)3 tax-exempt organization.

For more information, go to www.friendsoftsp.org or email info@friendsoftsp.org.  To schedule a group tour of the Taconic State Park, call 518-966-2730.

Stay tuned for more information as the train prepares to approach its final destination, once all of the details are, pardon the pun, ironed out.

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