Upper and lower passages: the beautiful escape of Altamont

This is the second and final part of the history of the overpasses and underpasses of the local railroads. The first part, “More cars, more accidents with trains – reduced with overpasses and underpasses”, was published on September 22, 2021.

Stunned Altamont residents read the November 1928 announcement that their community was on the New York State Civil Service Commission’s list of 189 additional projects to eliminate railway crossings. The prospect of a viaduct or an underground passage in the middle of their charming and tranquil village was overwhelming in the extreme.

The other Delaware and Hudson Railroad crossings from Guilderland to Brandle, Gardner, Meadowdale and Hennessey Roads had so few vehicles crossing that they were not included.

Two months later, those present at the first public hearing in Albany listened to the state Department of Transportation make it clear that, according to their investigations, it was absolutely necessary to remove the crossings.

The D&H spokesperson responded in the negative, presenting data that only two people had been injured over a very long period despite 1,500 vehicles and 800 pedestrian crossings daily, making the elimination of level crossings unnecessary. In addition, during the day, level crossing gates were operated.

The D&H was well aware that he would be responsible for 50 percent of the cost of any project. Altamont mayor Ernest Williamson and Guilderland supervisor Earl Pangburn echoed D&H’s claim that the elimination of crossings was not necessary, but obviously in as far as the Department of Transport is concerned, it was a done deal. A proposal will be brought to the next hearing.

The 15 concerned citizens present at the hearing on April 1, 1929 learned what must have been deeply disturbing news that the state was planning an underground passage south of what is now Main Street, requiring the demolition of the old building. from the commercial hotel, at that time converted into the A&P store and three apartments.

In addition, the glass roof of the D&H depot would be pruned. The cut would connect Altamont-Voorheesville Road (Altamont Boulevard) to Main Street across from Maple Avenue on a diagonal curve, cutting 84 feet from the park. The roadway, with sloping earth embankments, would be 30 feet wide with sidewalks.

Additionally, an 18-foot-wide driveway was to cross the park, allowing cars to enter Depot Square, the parking lot adjacent to the station. The D&H rails would be raised five feet with a reach of 48 feet to carry them over the underpass.

Reporting on these plans in its next edition, The Enterprise commented that the plan seemed the most logical that could be devised and New York State Engineer EW Wendell had carefully thought through to present the best possible plan.

A week later, a box at the top of the front page announced a meeting at Masonic Hall called by the village council of Altamont where “The issue of eliminating the main street crossing will be discussed… Every resident of Altamont ‘Altamont… COME. Citizens were invited to discuss the need or desirability of the proposed underpass.

At this evening meeting, plans for the proposed underpass were presented for study, followed by discussion and suggestions for modifications such as building a retaining wall instead of a sloping bank which would result in less of land taken in the park, or a footbridge to make access to the station more convenient.

Surprisingly, there did not appear to be any active resistance, but this may have been due to a sense of lack of recourse as communities in neighboring towns who had fought to prevent rail crossing eliminations failed against power. overwhelming from the New York Civil Service Commission.

D&H has its own plans

D&H, however, was not ready to give up, starting its blocking tactic at the next hearing in May by proposing a scandalous counter-proposal for an overpass.

First, the D&H claimed that the five-foot elevation of the tracks prevented the railway from making full use of its Altamont facilities: the station, the siding, the water tower and the freight house. Altamont taxpayers at the third hearing must have been terrified of the consequences for the village after hearing the railroad spokesperson describe his plan.

The railroad wanted the viaduct to cross the tracks connecting Altamont-Voorheesville Road to Fairview Avenue (a residential street parallel to Main Street) past Ackerman’s Mill, then a major Altamont business (now a vacant lot next to it). of Hayes House), by erecting a steel overhead road bridge whose pillars terminate at Lark Street and an embankment down the road to the corner of Grand Street where Altamont High School was located.

The result of this proposal would be to cut the village in half, to ruin a nice residential area where the front yards would face steel pillars or an embankment, and would be dangerous for schoolchildren in the village as all this traffic would exit towards the city. Main Street via Grand Rue.

Mayor Fred Keenholts and lawyer Milton J. Ogsbury made their opposition clear, especially since by the 1920s many small businesses in Altamont were providing goods and services to the people of the village and would be affected by the division of the village.

There were 195 residents living on the west side of the tracks and 34 children walking to Altamont High School, which at that time also included elementary classes. A long article in The Enterprise provided all the details.

The following week, a notice on the front page of The Enterprise urged as many residents as possible to attend Albany’s May 13 Civil Service Commission hearing when the state’s plan and proposal of D & H would be discussed :. “

At the hearing, the state changed its original plan, taking local suggestions into account, and responded to D&H objections by elevating all corporate structures to match the new track level. The railway plan for a viaduct was rejected.

Mayor Keenholts submitted a village council resolution supporting the state’s underpass plan.

Residents of Altamont did not hear about it again until January 23, 1930, when the Civil Service Commission ordered D&H that the underpass be built as the state had designated.

Meanwhile, the railroad came up with an even more wacky overpass plan, this one north of Main Street. An aerial bridge would cross Prospect Terrace, the tracks and Maple Avenue connecting the Altamont-Berne road (route 156) to Main Street at Lincoln Avenue.

Steep embankments at each end would lead to the bridge. Several businesses and houses would be affected, some being demolished or losing part of their property, and others would be almost under the bridge.

A petition filed by the railway requesting a rehearing by the Civil Service Commission was granted, scheduled for April 1, 1930.

The villagers resist

The new mayor of Altamont was none other than EW Wendell, a Lincoln Avenue owner who was also the New York State Engineer and designed the originally proposed underpass.

With the possibility of D&H desecration of the village with this latest overpass proposal, the next town hall meeting of concerned citizens drew around 100 people to Masonic Hall, many of whom were angry and of the opinion that the crossing was not dangerous and all possible plans would ruin the village.

At the April Public Service Commission hearing, a village petition signed by 371 people was submitted, claiming that a structure as huge as the one proposed by the D&H would cause “irreparable and permanent damage. at the village”.

This time, 30 residents traveled to Albany for the hearing. The commission agreed that the viaduct would be unsightly and that in addition, steep slopes and steep curves would be dangerous, especially in winter.

After months of waiting, in August 1930, the Civil Service Commission rejected the two D&H overpass proposals and ruled that the underpass order was still in effect.

D&H did not give up and has now turned to the courts as another method of obstructing commission. The railroad sought to overturn the crossing clearance order by taking the matter first to the New York State Appeals Division and then to the Court of Appeals, the highest state court, which, of course, upheld the Civil Service Commission.

The long legal maneuvers put the project in limbo for a few years.

In early 1935, the D&H had to appear before the Civil Service Commission on a show cause order explaining why the underpass had not been built. The D&H responded with a petition, demanding that the elimination of level crossings be dropped, claiming that there were now only eight trains on weekdays and four on weekends, and that in the depths of the Depression, the railroad was operating with a serious deficit. .

Although two previous village administrations have passed resolutions approving the underpass plan, the current village council headed by Mayor George H. Martin has passed a resolution urging that the crossing clearance order be rescinded. .

A petition containing nearly 600 signatures calling for the abandonment of the underground passage plan was submitted to the committee at the same time. The two based their claim on the absence of accidents, the depreciation of property values ​​and the fact that all expenses could be avoided by abandoning the whole plan.

At the same hearing, the tension between the neighbors was evident because attorney Milton J. Ogsbury appeared to represent himself and several other owners, claiming that if the underpass was blocked, a worse plan could be implemented in the future.

Ogsbury spoke “sharply” when questioned. The Enterprise title said it all: “Village awakened as fight resumes for elimination of Main Street crossing.”

Dismissing the village council resolution and citizens’ petition, the commission ruled in June 1935 that the underpass should be built. Any further delay would result in the loss of federal funds.

Somehow, the D&H stalled for additional months until in November 1936 it was announced that the railroad was seeking to “repeal, cancel and cancel” the order of 1930 based on the decline in rail traffic since 1930.

A rehearing of the case later in the month brought out village prosecutor Earl Barkhuff supporting D&H claims. But the Civil Service Commission has stood firm: the crossing must go.

Relief finally came for Altamont and the D&H on January 1, 1937 when it was finally announced that the Civil Service Commission was retreating and overturning on the basis of declining passenger rail traffic and the fact that, for several years, D&H by freight had been cut at Delanson and sent to Mechanicville via other routes.

The reversal came with the stipulation that the maximum speed of any train passing through the Altamont crossing when no guard was on duty was to be 8 miles per hour.

It had been a close call. Without the delaying tactics of D&H and the economic effect of the Great Depression leading to the decline in rail traffic, Altamont would not be the quaint charming village it remains today.

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