Trout and Trains – A Beaver Kill Photo Story

by John Taibi 

As the main title of this column implies, stories about the New York, Ontario & Western Railway’s Northern Division have been the focus of this writer. But, there have been two occasions in the past where readers have humored me in my writing about Southern Division subjects. (Summertime in Cuddebackville, NY, and Meals in Middletown.) Since the third time is the charm – so I’m advised, I ask you to do so once again. Please indulge me while I take you on a one-day fishing trip along the Beaver Kill near Roscoe. 

While you’re reading this installment of the Northern Division Bridge & Building Dept. please keep in mind that I am not a fisherman. I wouldn’t know a fluke from a flounder, trout from a tuna, or a whale from a walrus for that matter. Oh yeah, I have gone fishin’ a few times with friends, and I always felt that if a fish was stupid enough to jump onto my hook I might as well reel him in.  

Regardless of my angling ability, I know a good story when I see one. So, when Erieville, NY resident Jim Georges showed me some family pictures I knew there was a nice story within the old snapshots. I believe that you’ll enjoy them – and the story – as well. That’s why, for the sake of this article we have forsaken the Northern Division in favor of the Southern. 

The story begins in the late 1920s with a fellow by the name of William Smalenbach. He was a resident of New York City who, his doctor had determined, was suffering from tuberculosis. The physician advised him that he should move to the clear and clean air of upstate New York to aid in his recovery. So, Mr. Smalenbach purchased a spot of land high in the hills overlooking the Basher Kill valley where lie the communities of Summitville and Wurtsboro.  

Roosa Gap – where Smalenbach’s property was situated – is to the east of the Basher Kill. At one time it was on the route where transit between the valley and points farther east could be made, hence the “gap” in the name. Since then, the highway network in the area has been improved so that the route through the gap has fallen into disuse. The newly acquired property held a commanding presence over the valley and seemed to be a perfect spot for William to build a home where his recuperation process would be undertaken. Selected for the dwelling was a pre-fabricated building from Sears, Roebuck & Company. In those days you could order just about anything you needed from their catalog. Some people even got their driver’s license from the company, or so an irate fellow driver tells us! Here’s where the O&W got in on the act of helping Bill. It delivered the Pre-fab home to its Mamakating depot from which it was transported – via highway – to Roosa Gap 

In addition to the Basher Kill valley lying below Bill’s home, was the mainline and branch of the New York, Ontario & Western Railway. We assume, however, that the smoke of hard working steam locomotives climbing the grade from Summitville to High View tunnel wasn’t in the best interest of Bill’s health. Regardless, Bill was there to get well, the railroad only being handy to get him to the area. 

On his new property, Smalenbach put up his cozy cabin that faced out over the valley. It was from this humble abode that he idled away his time, and years, while the fresh air rid the TB from his lungs. The process of cleansing and purifying his lungs went surprising well, so that by the mid-1930s he was able to return to the city and carry on his life as before. It was at that time that the Roosa Gap cottage became a vacation retreat – a camp if you will – for Bill’s family. 

Not long after his return to the big city, Bill’s niece, Helen, began dating a gent by the name of Wilbur Georges. Their courting process – much like Bill’s lung cleansing – progressed quickly and successively so that they were united in Holy Matrimony on July 17, 1937. As a wedding present, Bill gave Helen and Wilbur the cottage at Roosa Gap.  

Wilbur was quite familiar with the place since he had earlier used it as a base of operations for fishing excursions with his best friend, Henry Brandt. It was during these stays at the camp that Wilbur could discern the passage of trains on the O&W’s line down in the valley, especially at night when the lung-cleansing air was still. After some experience of “listening in” on the railroad, he could tell when a southbound train had stopped to add a pusher at Summitville. (He was never able to hear northbound trains since they just drifted down the grade from the tunnel.) Then, as the train got underway, it was easy for him to distinguish the exhausts made by the head end and hind end locomotives as they attacked the grade. More thrilling, however, were the trains whose engineers thought they could take their train up to the tunnel without assistance. Maybe they had a light train, maybe the engine was steaming exceptionally well, or maybe their gut told them to make a run on the hill. Whatever the reason, Wilbur could hear the charging locomotive steadily bark through Summitville, whereupon hitting the grade the exhausts lost their steady-staccato frequency becoming more intermittent. The beat of the I-Think-I-Cans became increasing slower, to the point that Wilbur unintentionally began to apply some degree of body English to help get the train over the hill. How many engineers succeeded in surmounting the grade with Wilbur’s aid we’ll never know, but he was surely rootin’ for the man who wanted to get over the hill single-handedly. 

Wilbur’s friend since childhood, Henry, must have become enamored with the camp as well, and, since he eventually married Helen’s sister, Katherine, the now brothers-in-law began to use the it as a base of operations for fishing forays. There were numerous creeks, streams, and rivers for Wilbur and Henry to cast their angling interest near Roosa Gap. But, they had bigger fish to fry – trout fishing in the Beaver Kill. That was the big time, where fisherman didn’t have to brag about the size of their catch or the one that got away. The fish spoke for them. They wanted to get in on fishing the Mother Lode, so off they went in Henry’s jalopy to a place between Roscoe and Butternut Grove. Back in the ‘30s their spot was nothing much more than a clearing off the side of old Route 17 that abutted the trout fishing Mecca. 

What became Wilbur and Henry’s favorite fishin’ hole was situated between the highway and the river. Route 17 was to their east (remember the railroad ran north and south) and the Beaver Kill was on the west side with the O&W mainline just beyond the opposite bank. The highway pull-off had rudimentary facilities – a pile of stones to build a fire and a board suspended by rope from a tree limb to make a swing. Provided by nature were trees to affix a mirror in case shaving was in order after an overnight stay, and plenty of privacy so human needs could be taken care of. The river itself was not deep at this point, only knee high which made it perfect for casting from out in the water’s course. 

Because of his familiarity with the railroad at Summitville, Wilbur knew that the double-tracked railroad running along the river was the same Ontario & Western. During the course of their day(s) fishing, the railroad was a constant visitor, and the passing trains were pleasing for him to see up close rather than from afar atop the hill at Roosa Gap. Now when he helped an engineer get over the hill he could visualize the engine and train doing so in his mind. The passage of a coal train was especially interesting to watch go by, and although not familiar with the nuances of railroad operation, Wilbur knew that a “big” engine was needed to get those black diamonds to market. 

While the comradeship between friends played a big part in having an enjoyable day along the river, the real measure for a successful day was how many trout were in the creel. Trouble was, these Beaver Kill Brown Trout were too big for the creel, not that that made the day any less exciting! If Wilbur and Henry were going to spend the evening at the riverside camp, then – of course – trout was on the menu for dinner. Partaking of the fish feast punctuated the end of another perfect day; only dishwashing and crawling into the blanket-and-rope fabricated tent for a good night sleep remained. Presumably, falling asleep was done by counting the passing Ontario & Western trains. 

As the years passed, the rigors of marriage cut deeply into Beaver Kill fishing trips. Making a living and raising a family may have made deep inroads into trout fishing safaris, but spending an enjoyable day at Roosa Gap still took place on occasion. The Georges family, whose home was in White Plains, used the cottage more for summer and weekend vacations that sometimes included fishing and hunting. The Georges’ son, Jim (who was born in 1947), remembers fondly his time spent at Roosa Gap. But, by the time he got there the railroad’s assault on the grade to High View Tunnel was being undertaken by diesels, none of which he ever saw. 

After many years unfolded, and the death of her husband in 1978, Helen Georges moved into the home of her son and his wife, Janice. In 1982, they elected to sell the Roosa Gap property and – without much difficulty – found a buyer. But, on Super Bowl eve before the closing in 1984, an arsonist set the cottage afire and it was completely destroyed. Now, all that’s left of the Georges’ family life at Roosa Gap – and on the Beaver Kill – are several handfuls of photographs taken during the heyday of the cottage’s life. These pictures reflect the time when the air was clean and still so that lungs could be revitalized and the sounds of big-time railroading could be heard, encouraged, and enjoyed. 

The Beaver Kill has faired much better. The popularity of the river has withstood the test of time. It is known worldwide for the trout that could be caught within its waters. It has the railroad to thank for that even though the line that stocked the river has passed into history.  

Once upon a time a pair of young men fished the Beaver Kill’s waters, and whether or not they knew it, the New York, Ontario & Western Railway made it possible for them to catch the larger than creel size fish. Many anglers still cast their lines into the river in the hope of snaring a beauty. Some things never change; other things – such as railroads – are only fleeting.  

I told you this would be a good story!