We recently came across a wonderful postcard, printed by the Detroit Photographic Company in 1902, of a ‘Casino on Summit, Mount Beacon, NY’. It shows a charming, white wooden building, about the size of a large Victorian house, perched upon a clifftop, overlooking sweeping views of the Hudson River. In the foreground are two young gentlemen, looking resplendent in suits and straw hats, walking away from the casino, looking wistfully back over their shoulders. Perhaps at the money they might have just lost, or the spectacular view, or maybe at the two ladies resting on the veranda.
Stand in the same spot today though, and whilst the vista of the Hudson River Valley has unchanged, all that is left of the casino are the foundation stones. Once this was the location of the Beaconcrest Hotel and Casino, a splendid resort, which sadly burned down in the 1920s.
Whilst the views offered by the hotel were undoubtedly breathtaking, the method by which pleasure seekers reached the resort were perhaps even more so; the Mount Beacon Incline Railway, a funicular that was such a magnificent feat of engineering it was once the steepest in the world.
But like the hotel and casino, the Incline Railway is also today in ruins. There is however a hiking trail that closely follows the step steel tracks that cut a path through the mountainside, that we first heard of from our friends over at the Empire Explorer.
Early one summer morning, we donned our hiking boots and went off in search of the ruins of the Beaconcrest Hotel.
Beacon NY is undergoing somewhat of a resurgence. A charming small town on the banks of the Hudson located about an hour north of Manhattan, once Beacon was the bustling hub of the hat industry, with over fifty hat factories operating in what was known as ‘the Hat Making Capital of the United States’. Beacon had its own railway system, a thriving Main Street, and a regular trade in day trippers arriving from the City by steamboats.
But like many boom towns, Beacon suffered a severe economic downtown when the hat industry dried up. By the second half of the twentieth century, nearly 80% of Beacon’s factories and businesses lay abandoned. But walk down Main Street today and the once stricken town teems with art galleries, boutique shops, bars and restaurants, and is home to a thriving art community looking to escape the city.
You’ll also notice Mt. Beacon beginning to loom large as you walk further away from the river. Whilst not particularly high; the summit is around 1,600 feet, it is spectacularly steep. A prime spot for a majestic hotel overlooking the valley, the only problem for the owners was how to ferry guests there.
The Mount Beacon Incline Railway was actually engineered by the Otis Elevator Company in Yonkers. It featured two cars, traveling in opposite directions, at an almost impossible gradient of 74%, that at that time was the steepest railway in the world. “The journey took about five minutes,” recalled long time Beaconer Christopher Cring. “I remember the wooden seats were at a severe angle…how steep it was. It was almost like looking straight down.”
At the foot of the mountain today, the ticketing office and embarking station have gone, leaving only the concrete foundations. The Incline Railway opened on Memorial Day, 1902, taking an astonishing 60,000 fares that year, a number that would double the next. The Incline Railway actually survived the hotel by half a century, before it too was consumed by fire and vandalism in the 1970s.
But the steel tracks are still there, next to the trail head, both looking dauntingly steep. The ‘Casino Trail’ which leads to the summit isn’t particularly long, just over a mile, but is somewhat gruelling; a harsh incline on a trail covered in boulders with little respite until the top.
But getting near the summit, spirits are lifted with the first glimpse of a red brick ruin. This was the machine house of the Incline Railway, still filled with giant steel cogs and wheels that powered the carriage cars and people up the narrow gauge track up sheer mountainside.
Hardly any photographs exist today of the inside of the Beaconcrest, but several do outside; they show three buildings perched on the mountaintop, the machine room, a Casino, which was actually more of a dance hall, and the hotel itself, three floors with a gabled roof and wrap around veranda. An oversized red sign burned bright on the side of the Casino, Mt. Beacon, that would have been seen at night by the townsfolk below.
“This fine new Hotel, lately opened to the public,” ran an early advertisement, “from its broad veranda some of the finest views of the Hudson are obtained.” Walking around the summit today you can still find traces of the hotel; foundation stones, crumbing stairways and some cellar rooms, but the rest has sadly disappeared. But its easy to imagine what an exciting prospect a weekend there must have been a century ago. “Reached by the Mt Beacon Incline Railway” continued the advertisement, “All Day Line steamers stop at Newburgh (across the river from Beacon), making it a delightful trip from New York or Albany, reaching Mt. Beacon in time for lunch.” You could stay at this wonderful hotel, with rooms overlooking the Hudson Valley for $2.50 a day on the American plan (all your meals were included) or $1,50 on the European plan where you would order a la carte.
There have been recent plans by the Mount Beacon Incline Railway Restoration Society to raise funding to bring the spectacular funicular back. “Though no longer the steepest in the world or a technological marvel by 21st century standards, it earned its place in history by operating across four generations, thrilling millions, and always getting its passengers back down the mountain safely. To restore it is to honor those who came before us and to preserve a tremendous piece of American engineering and leisure history. We hope you’ll join us in the effort to bring this lost mountain railway back to life.”
But for now the rails stay silent, the only sound are hikers climbing their way to the ruins of a what was once a magnificent hotel and the world’s steepest railway.