Overpasses and underpasses: Altamont’s narrow escape

— Courtesy of James E. Gardner

A period rendition of a proposed Main Street overpass in Altamont — next to the former train station, now the library — which never was built.

This is the second and final part of the history of local railroad overpasses and underpasses. The first part, “More autos, more crashes with trains — reduced with overpasses and underpasses,” was published on Sept. 22, 2021.

Stunned Altamont residents read the November 1928 announcement that their community was included on the New York State Public Service Commission’s list of 189 additional projects eliminating grade crossings. The prospect of either an overpass or underpass in the midst of their charming and tranquil village was upsetting in the extreme.

Guilderland’s other Delaware and Hudson Railroad crossings at Brandle, Gardner, Meadowdale, and Hennessey Roads had so few vehicles driving through they weren’t included.

Those in attendance at the first public hearing in Albany two months later listened as the state’s Department of Transportation made it clear that, according to their surveys, there was a definite need for crossing elimination.

The D & H spokesman responded negatively, presenting data that only two persons had been injured over a very lengthy period in spite of 1,500 vehicles and 800 daily pedestrian crossings daily, making crossing elimination unnecessary. In addition, during daytime hours, crossing gates were operated.

The D & H was well aware that it would be responsible for 50 percent of the cost of any project. Altamont Mayor Ernest Williamson and Guilderland Supervisor Earl Pangburn echoed the D & H’s contention that crossing elimination was unneeded, but obviously as far as the Department of Transportation was concerned, it was a done deal. A proposal would be brought to the next hearing.

The 15 concerned citizens in attendance at the April 1, 1929 hearing were presented with what must have been deeply disturbing news that the state planned an underpass south of the present Main Street, necessitating the demolition of the old Commercial Hotel building, by that time converted into the A & P store and three apartments.

In addition, the canopy of the D & H depot would be lopped off. The cut would connect the Altamont-Voorheesville Road (Altamont Boulevard) with Main Street opposite Maple Avenue on a diagonal curve, slicing 84 feet off of the park. The roadway, with sloping dirt banks, would be 30 feet wide with sidewalks.

In addition, an 18-foot wide driveway was to run through the park, allowing cars to enter Depot Square, the parking area adjacent to the railroad station. The D & H tracks would be raised five feet with a 48-foot span to carry them over the underpass.

In reporting about 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 E. W. Wendell had given careful consideration to present the best possible plan.

A week later, a box atop the front page announced a meeting at the Masonic Hall called by the Altamont Village Board where, “The question of elimination of the Main Street crossing will be discussed … Every Resident of Altamont … COME.” Citizens were urged to discuss the necessity or advisability of the proposed underpass.

At this evening meeting, blueprints of the projected underpass were on display for study, followed by discussion and suggestions for modifications such as constructing a retaining wall instead of a sloping bank that would result in less land being taken from the park, or a footbridge to make accessing the station more convenient.

Surprisingly, there seemed to be no active resistance, but perhaps it was due to a feeling of no recourse since communities in nearby towns that had fought to prevent grade-crossing eliminations failed against the overwhelming power of the New York Public Service Commission.


D & H has its own plans

The D & H, however, was not ready to give up, beginning its stalling tactics at the next hearing in May by offering an outrageous counter proposal of an overpass.

First the D & H claimed that raising the tracks five feet prevented the railroad from making full use of its Altamont facilities: the station, siding, water tower, and freight house. The Altamont taxpayers present at the third hearing must have been terrified at the thought of the consequences for the village after hearing the railroad spokesman describe its plan.

The railroad wanted the overpass to cross the tracks linking the Altamont-Voorheesville Road with Fairview Avenue (a residential street that runs parallel to Main Street) in front of Ackerman’s Mill, then a major Altamont business (now a vacant lot next to the Hayes House), by erecting a steel overhead highway bridge with the piers ending at Lark Street and an embankment carrying the road down to the corner of Grand Street where Altamont High School was located.

The result of this proposal would be to cut the village in two, ruin a lovely residential neighborhood where the front yards would face either steel piers or an embankment, and be dangerous for the village’s schoolchildren as all that traffic would exit to Main Street via Grand Street.

Mayor Fred Keenholts and Attorney Milton J. Ogsbury made their opposition clear, especially since in the 1920s there were many small Altamont businesses that provided goods and services to village residents and would be adversely affected by dividing the village.

There were 195 residents living on the west side of the tracks and 34 children who walked to Altamont High School, which in those days also included the elementary grades. A lengthy article in The Enterprise provided all the details.

The next week, a notice on the front page of The Enterprise urged as many residents as possible to show up at the May 13 Public Service Commission’s Albany hearing when the state plan and the D & H proposal would be discussed: “BE SURE TO ATTEND.”

At the hearing, the state had modified its original plan, taking into consideration local suggestions and met D & H objections by raising all the company’s structures to match the new level of the tracks. The railroad plan for an overpass was rejected.

Mayor Keenholts submitted a village board resolution favoring the state’s underpass plan.

Altamont residents heard no more until Jan. 23, 1930 when the Public Service Commission issued the order to the D & H that the underpass should be constructed as the state had designated.

In the meantime, the railroad came up with an even more outlandish overpass plan, this one north of Main Street. An overhead bridge would go over Prospect Terrace, the tracks and Maple Avenue linking the Altamont-Berne Road (Route 156) with Main Street at Lincoln Avenue.

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

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


Villagers resist

Altamont’s new mayor was none other than E.W. Wendell, a Lincoln Avenue homeowner who also happened to be the New York State Engineer and who had designed the original proposed underpass.

With the possibility of the D & H’s desecration of the village with this latest overpass proposal, the next public meeting of concerned citizens drew about 100 people to Masonic Hall, many of them angry and of the opinion that the crossing wasn’t dangerous and any of the possible plans would mar the village.

At the April Public Service Commission hearing, a village petition signed by 371 persons was submitted claiming such a huge structure as proposed by the D & H would result in “irreparable and permanent damage to the village.”

This time, 30 residents traveled into Albany for the hearing. The commission agreed that the overpass would be unsightly and additionally, the steep grades and sharp curves would be hazardous especially in winter.

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

The D & H didn’t give up and now turned to the courts as another method of obstructing the commission. The railroad sought to have the crossing elimination order reversed by taking the case first to the New York State Appellate Division and then on to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, both of which, of course, upheld the Public Service Commission.

The lengthy legal maneuvering put the project in limbo for a few years.

Early in 1935, the D & H had to appear before the Public Service Commission on a show-cause order as to why the underpass hadn’t been constructed. The D & H responded with a petition, requesting that the crossing elimination 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 at a serious deficit.

Although two previous village administrations had passed resolutions approving the underpass plan, the current village board under Mayor George H. Martin passed a resolution urging that the crossing elimination order be canceled.

A petition containing almost 600 signatures, asking that the underpass plan be dropped, was submitted to the commission at the same time. Both based their contention on the lack of accidents, on depreciation of property values, and that all the expense could be avoided by dropping the whole plan.

At the same hearing, tension among neighbors was evident because Attorney Milton J. Ogsbury appeared representing himself and several other property owners, asserting that, if the underpass were to be blocked, a worse plan might be put into effect in the future.

Ogsbury spoke in “a sharp manner” when questioned. The Enterprise headline said it all: “Village Aroused As Fight Resumes Over Main Street Railroad Crossing Elimination.”

Rejecting the village board resolution and the citizen petition, the commission ruled in June 1935 that the underpass must be constructed. Any additional delay would mean the loss of federal funds.

Somehow the D & H stalled for additional months until in November 1936 it was announced that the railroad sought to have the order of 1930 “abrogated, set aside and rescinded” on the basis of the decline in rail traffic since 1930.

A rehearing of the case later that month brought out Village Attorney Earl Barkhuff supporting the D & H claims. But the Public Service Commission held firm — the crossing must go.

Relief came at last for both Altamont and the D & H on Jan. 1, 1937 when it was finally announced that the Public Service Commission was backing down and reversing itself on the basis of declining passenger rail traffic plus the fact that, for several years, D & H through freights had been switched off at Delanson and sent to Mechanicville via other tracks.

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

It had been a close call. But for the stalling tactics of the D & H and the economic effect of the Great Depression resulting in the decline in rail traffic, Altamont would not be the charming, scenic village it remains today.