The Soirée on the Railway: An Upstate Affair on the Delaware & Ulster Railroad
“The ole high rolling days of steam have faded and a little of the old rich glamour has worn off now, but some of us still wake up and find ourselves listening for that long lonesome whistle in the night.” — Johnny Cash
It’s been more than sixty years since the last regularly scheduled train took passengers over the Ulster and Delaware railroad. For half a century, the train carried eager New Yorkers to the Catskills by the thousands and helped mobilize an era, one that put the region on the map as a tourist destination and introduced millions of city dwellers to its fresh mountain air and a type of leisure previously unknown. By the 1950s, half a million people were flocking to the Catskills every summer to stay in the bungalows, resorts, and summer camps that came to define the area.
Today, the glamorous train travel of the early and mid-twentieth century is, for most of us, relocated to memory or imagination. The Ulster and Delaware line discontinued passenger service in the mid 1950s amidst an increase in automobile ownership and interstate development and by the late 1970s, freight operations ceased as well. Since 1983, the Catskills Revitalization Corporation has operated the 45-mile-line, now called the Delaware & Ulster, as a tourist railroad that offers public excursions to a new generation of visitors.
On August 5th, 2017, a collection of the region’s natives, transplants, makers, and supporters, donned their most elegant travel attire to gather on the heritage tracks for the Soirée on the Railway, an evening dedicated to honoring the Catskills’ past, showcasing its present, and building its future. Hosted by And North and Brushland Eating House, the Soirée on the Railway invited guests to toast a bygone era as they sipped champagne and feasted on a grandiose Catskills-inspired menu of prime rib, foie gras, borscht, and more. Restored 1940’s train cars dressed with goods from modern Catskills makers like Boxwood Linen, Greentree Home Candle, Upstate Rug Supply, and Hops Petunia, carried us in and out of the Catskill Mountains toward sunset, cocktails in hand. As evening fell, live music from jazz band The Bee’s Knees drew us to the dance floor, while open-air cars and a warm summer breeze provided a dream-like setting to watch the night sky swallow the passing terrain.
The event benefitted the Catskill Center, an organization whose mission is to protect and foster the environmental, cultural, and economic well-being of the Catskills. The Center’s programs focus on preserving the region while looking toward the future, a sentiment echoed prominently throughout the evening. “When the resorts closed in the late sixties, many people thought this area would never again be a sought out destination for urbanites,” says And North’s founder and creative director, Emma Tuccillo, “which from working on And North, we know is not the case. Our team loved planning this event because it honored the history of this region while celebrating its present and future. The nostalgia and romance of the past combined with the modern day makers and artisans from the area made it a true celebration of the Catskills then and now.”
In its heyday, the Ulster and Delaware Railroad connected thousands of vacationers to the Catskills and brought the region’s dairy, building materials, and agricultural product back downstate, sparking a New York City-to-Catskills alliance that would last nearly a century. Today, the Catskills Revitalization Corporation owns the railway and keeps the memory of a generation alive through weekly public excursions and special events like the Soirée.
The evening began on the platform of the Delaware & Ulster station in Arkville, NY, where top-hatted men and bejeweled women were greeted with flowing bottles of Veuve Clicquot. Guests were asked to dress to the nines and they did not disappoint, their vintage gowns and three-piece suits confirming that they were ready to embark on a journey, both literally and figuratively.
Chefs Sohail Zandi of Brushland Eating House and Antonio Mora of Quality Meats spent months researching the menus of old trains and Catskills resorts to plan a dinner that would accurately reflect the style and technique of that time. The pair set the tone early with both their headwear and the promise of suckling pig confit, Bellini ‘bagels’ with smoked salmon and crème fraîche, and “turtle soup.”
The Soirée tickets were fashioned by And North Design Director Tim LaSalle and inspired by 1940’s and 50’s ski lodge passes, railroad tickets, and luggage tags. Subtle misprints and textural nuances reflected the often imperfect printing of that time and handwritten annotations made each ticket a personalized memento of both the evening and a time gone by.
As the train departed Arkville Station for Roxbury, guests floated from the tavern car to the dining car, to the open air cars and back again, each revolution offering the potential for a new conversation or libation. “Everyone found their rhythm — this sort of dance — to converse, eat and sip a cocktail while touring the train,” Brushland co-owner Sara Elbert observes of the evening. Guests mingled with a fluidity and ease non-existent in modern-day transportation — and somehow in this dance, the simple act of engagement became inherently nostalgic.
“We wanted to be regional and time appropriate,” Sohail says of their choice to showcase pickled meats, terrines, and classic soups. When dinner was served, guests sauntered through the dining car, pausing at different stations for game consommé, salt potatoes, Persian pickles, and red cabbage slaw. At the back of the car, a fading horizon framed Sohail and Antonio as they carved prime rib of beef and served slabs of foie gras and duck confit terrine. “We definitely wanted it to be like a show,” says Antonio.
The logistics of serving food on a moving train led Sohail and Antonio to utilize classic techniques that their predecessors had used in the early days of dining in motion. “They already figured it out,” says Sohail, “so much of cooking is about learning from the past — the best strategy is to learn what has been done already and try to tweak or improve on that in whatever way makes sense to you.”
Beyond the dining car, passed hor d’oeuvres like mini cones of chicken liver pâté with maraschino cherries made their way through the train for those looking to indulge just a little bit further.
“In doing this event on a vintage train with everyone dressed in classic garb, you’re setting a mood and a tone, to behave in a way that we don’t get to anymore,” Sara says. “Modern trains as mass transit are about keeping your head down and getting from point A to point B. For this dinner, we were giving the passengers permission to live in that nostalgia we all feel for smokey, jazz-filled cars, swaying with martinis in hand.”
Veuve Clicquot Champagne continued to flow throughout the evening while Eirikur Hallsson, Bar Director of Manhattan’s Gloria, served beer from Catskill Brewery and mixed classically-inspired cocktails with local spirits like Union Grove Distillery Vodka. “Breweries, distilleries, and wineries have been active in the Catskills for decades and are an integral part of the success of the early pioneers to the region,” says Eirikur. “For an event such as the soirée, or for any event taking place within such a storied and vast community as the Catskills, I think it is vital that we use local ingredients and producers. The Catskills spoil us with its riches, and it’s our responsibility to showcase it and to take pride in being able to live in such a beautiful part of this country.”
The Catskills of the 1950s, with its resorts and bungalow communities, was the Catskills of my father’s childhood. And through his stories of glistening lakes and deep muds and gravel that made a sound so exotic and different from the asphalt of the Bronx, it became the Catskills of my childhood, too. In many ways, the decline of the railway was the beginning of the end of my father’s Catskills. By the 1970s, the region was scattered with abandoned properties and producers without a market. But the Catskills are nothing if not resilient and the area has seen another renaissance in recent years, one marked by an emphasis on local food, sustainable agriculture, and young people who want to invest in their community through their craft. This is the Catskills of my adulthood — a little more casual, a little faster paced, but I’ll be damned if the gravel doesn’t still sound so good.
As the evening drifted along, guests retreated to the open-air cars to take in the passing landscape. Vintage rugs from Upstate Rug Supply added a softness to the ride while strands of bistro lights hinted at a looming night sky. “The Catskills boast a vibrant group of people who feel a great sense of community as a larger region,” says Sara. “And North does such a beautiful job of collecting all of these community members and hosting them in a way that fosters the Catskill spirit. We are working with florists, musicians, bartenders, and textile designers from all over the region, and we wouldn’t necessarily be able to experience these people or their talents without the event.”
Sultry jazz and swing from The Bee’s Knees was made more powerful by the collective sense of nostalgia that hung in the air as the train returned to the Arkville station and the sun took its final bow. Nostalgia perhaps for a time lost to history, but also for the rare moments we are handed to feast and imbibe and dance with new and old friends. “Much of our daily lives now feels quite casual — in lingo, in dress, in transportation,” says Sara. “The dinner was this elegant time capsule, and everyone loved the opportunity to step out of their norm and into the glow. We need more opportunities to do that.”