A highway runs through it: Pine Hill's past points to the future

Above: A 1957 timetable for the Pine Hill - Kingston Bus Corporation. Courtesy of Watershed Post reader Stu Silverman.

Sometimes, once-commonplace things must almost vanish before they are finally revered. Forgotten familiar items can spend decades in dusty attics before they are found worthy of trendy antique shop displays. The same can be said of an entire hamlet -- one that time and the highway have long passed by. Now the time is ripe for Pine Hill’s story to reach a new audience.

This year, a grassroots community effort in Pine Hill succeeded in having the Main Street area of Pine Hill nominated as a state and national Historic District. The nomination recognizes the Pine Hill Historic District as a cohesive collection of late 19th and early 20th century buildings that represents the heyday of summer tourism in the Catskill Mountains.

On March 5th, the Town Board of Shandaken added its approval, unanimously passing a resolution concluding:

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED the Town of Shandaken Town Board supports the nomination of Pine Hill, New York as an Historic Community in order to help further the efforts of the Town, local businesses and residential owners to re-invigorate interest in the Hamlet and the Town of Shandaken.

The actual application submitted to New York State seeking a Pine Hill Historic District is an amazing document to curl up and read (if you can curl up around a computer screen, that is.) You can find it posted at the website of the Pine Hill Community Center, which has been part of the effort to get Pine Hill on the National Register of Historic Places from the beginning.

Among many other fascinating details, the application explains why the initial Pine Hill Historic District proposal did not extend west of Route 28:

In 1960, a major realignment of NY Rt. 28 moved the old path of the road, which formerly followed Main Street through Pine Hill, far to the east, isolating the eastern portion of the village and virtually dividing it off from the village proper. Properties along the new route of NY 28, a four-lane highway, lost their village-like character, and contemporary service features, such as a small commercial strip mall, were added along the new road.

After Route 28 was rerouted off of Pine Hill’s Main Street in 1960, the document states, Pine Hill lost much of its former vitality:

Pine Hill was now accessed by a turn off from the highway and tourists tended to bypass it. The year-round resident population dropped to 180.

Nothing so dramatic hangs in the balance this time, but Route 28 could again have a negative economic impact on some of Pine Hill’s residents. Though no one disputes the historic nature of the eastern half of Route 28, the western side of the hamlet was excluded because of guidelines that promote visual and spatial continuity within proposed historic districts. If an effort to get the western part of Pine Hill included doesn't succeed, buildings west of Route 28 won’t qualify for some significant financial assistance that properties inside the new Historic District should soon be eligible for.

That includes, for example, the New York State Historic Homeownership Rehabilitation Tax Credit:

The credit will cover 20% of qualified rehabilitation costs of structures, up to a credit value of $50,000.00. Houses must be an owner-occupied residential structure and be individually listed on the State or National Register of Historic Places, or a contributing building in a historic district that is listed on the state or National Register of Historic Places.

Have you ever had a jigsaw puzzle breakthrough; a moment when random pieces once at odds started falling into place? For me the puzzle hereabouts has long been Route 28, the road that runs through all of our lives here in Shandaken, and throughout much of the Catskills also. It divides us and unifies us, feeds us and starves us too. In 1960 it physically divided Pine Hill, but before then it was the lifeblood of that community.

Soon after I began writing for the Watershed Post I asked myself a question: Why was a tiny hamlet like Pine Hill painted on the side of so many Trailways Buses? Tropical Storm Irene hit and mothballed my small series of columns on that theme before they all were finished. But viewed through a Trailways wormhole, it became obvious to me that there was much more to Pine Hill than meets most contemporary eyes.

Consider this news report from the Catskill Mountain News, Margaretville New York, Friday, June 4, 1926:.

Delhi, Fleischmanns, and Stamford Busses to Give Community Splendid Service - NON-STOP TRIPS TO KINGSTON.  

The town board has approved the petition of Merrihew Brothers to extend their bus line from Fleischmanns to Margaretvllle… The efforts of the board are now being directed towards making Margaretvllle a meeting point for three bus lines… The advantages of such arrangement are apparent at a glance. Merrihew Brothers, or the Pine Hill-Kingston Bus Corporation which is their official title, commenced Sunday on their new schedule…

A bus line once terminated in Pine Hill, which is how the Merrihews got the name (which ultimately led to Pine Hill Trailways). After passenger trains stopped running through most of the Catskills, buses remained a strong presence in Pine Hill (and other towns also), at least before Route 28 was diverted off of Main Street. Months ago, a kind reader, Stu Silverman, sent me a copy of the 1957 timetable at the top of this post, which now I can finally use.

It’s all part of Shandaken’s mostly forgotten history. Route 28 ran down the center of so much of it. Now Route 28 carries the potential to connect that past with our future. How best to knit a coherent motif from the pieces of Pine Hill that Route 28 sundered? Through the proposed Route 28 Scenic Byway, with history culture and natural grandeur promoted on both sides of that unique road.

New York State created the Catskill State Park. It cleared the way for New York City to establish a watershed up here also. Many potential routes to good economic futures for us may have closed with those actions, but Route 28 remains open to us. The Pine Hill Historic District and the Route 28 Scenic Byway are cut from the same economic fabric.

The following is an excerpt from the New York State Historic Preservation Office, Preservation Plan:

Historic preservation will be a significant catalyst for, and contributor to, New York State's economic recovery, environmental sustainability, and smart growth efforts.

Historic and cultural resources, including National Historic Landmarks, historic sites, historic districts, archeological resources and heritage areas, will be protected and recognized as foundations of community pride, authenticity, and local character - as important economic and educational assets, tourism destinations, and community anchors that strongly complement and support New York State's extensive arts, culture, education, recreation, entertainment, and natural resources.

New York State will strengthen policies, laws, and incentive programs that protect and revitalize cities, villages, and rural hamlets as centers of investment, infrastructure, education, culture, creativity, and entrepreneurial and social interaction.

New York State puts real money where its rhetoric is. Federal money stands behind that. Now it is time for our community leaders and local government to show the vision needed to capitalize on an historic opportunity. The Shandaken Town Board vote for the Pine Hill Historic District was a great first step. Hopefully a vote for the Scenic Byway will follow.

Tom Rinaldo writes the Dispatches from Shandaken column for the Watershed Post's Shandaken page. Email Tom at [email protected].

Update, 4/3: Due to an editing error, the image of the Pine Hill - Kingston Bus Corporation timetable above was incorrectly referred to as an ad for Pine Hill Trailways.