Diaries of William Thompson Howell

William Thompson Howell was a hiker and photographer who "discovered" the Spiral Railway about fifteen years after it was built, and brought it to the attention of other hikers. Books containing extracts of his diaries were published in 1933 and 1934 as two volumes called The Hudson Highlands, in the New York Public Library and also reprinted by the Walking News in 1982. The following outlines his explorations as recorded there, together with a sample of my 1996 photographs.

Parapet Trail

May 30, 1906: Howell goes up a trail on the north side of Dunderberg and reaches the DSR grade, which he expected to find based on the "Hudson River atlas of 1891". The trail was the one now called the Bockberg Trail (unmarked), and he probably took the course that reaches the DSR grade around elevation 790. On the DSR grade he meets a woodcutter, John Stalter, who has a horse and wagon with him. Stalter shows him a spring that never fails, close to where the Bockberg Trail comes up. It seems likely that Howell walked the so-called Parapet Trail this day, the section of spiral from 760 to 830.

View near the Tunnel

March 1908: Howell again goes up the Bockberg Trail to the spiral, but this time he comes down the Jones Trail. As he reaches elevation 600, he spots the cutting across the small brook, and goes to investigate. He finds the high fill with the view down Haverstraw Bay, finds the two grades running up and down toward the northeast, and "the beginnings of a pretentious tunnel".


May 17, 1908: Howell again visits the tunnel, and says it runs for "over a hundred feet", which is an exaggeration.

June 14, 1908: Howell remarks on the details shown in the Hudson River Valley Atlas (maps by F W Beers, published by Watson and Co, 1891), and wants to find the inclines. He says the Upper Incline is "plainly visible from Peekskill", and that the Lower is supposed to be visible from some point along the West Shore Railroad. However, he does not follow this up for more than two years!

Down the grade from the Tunnel

November 1, 1908: Howell describes an outing with friends on Dunderberg. They seem to go up the Jones Trail this time. They view the tunnel, and then he says they follow the downgrade all the way to the point (elevation 600 to 480), go uphill to the next grade, and follow it back to the tunnel (elevation 700 to 600). This is interesting because these grades are not complete, and he does not say whether there was any trace left by DSR construction crews to mark the way across the short gaps. They then go farther up the Jones Trail to the Parapet Trail, and down the Bockberg Trail to the north side.

Lower Tunnel

November 15, 1910: Howell finally locates the bottom of the Lower Incline, not by simply walking down from the grade (which he should have seen back in 1908), but by looking out from the road that is now highway 9W across the sand quarry. He spots the stone of the lower tunnel, "a kind of house pushed sideways against the foot of the mountain", which appears to mean that the down side outer wall was visible as it is today, the bottom of the incline never built or else already gone. It "suggested we were at the beginning of the incline cut. . . A scramble up the bank showed out surmise to be correct. We exulted."

Stone wall

He follows the incline up a "natural ravine", making no mention of the terrible erosion found there today, and reaches the stone wall, "one of the finest pieces of dry rock construction we had ever beheld", where the incline crosses a down grade. Continuing up, he reaches the incline loop. He claims to see a cut where the Lower Incline crosses over the Upper, which if true means a lot of fill has been removed there. He praises the "wonderful outlook" from the loop between the inclines, again making no mention of the erosion that has by now made a great gap in this high fill.

Looking down the Upper Incline

He proceeds up the Upper Incline, remarking it has more rock cutting than the lower. He concludes that at the first crossing up from the loop (elevation 660), the one where there is still solid rock, the incline would go under the downgrade, but this does not seem to be correct.


Copyright © 1997 Joseph Brennan
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