Remembering the Putnam Line and its champions

By Phil Pepe

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For the past 25 years, tens of thousands of bike-riders, bird-watchers and strollers have enjoyed the pastoral vistas that the former Putnam Division of the New York Central Railroad has to offer.

Until recently bearing the unfortunate name South County Trailway, it runs along the Saw Mill River Parkway from the Bronx line to Eastview.

This fall marks the 25th anniversary of Westchester County acquiring the right of way of what many call just “The Put.” It is the right time to honor the two former county executives who saved the entire 14-mile corridor when it was almost lost.

County Executive Alfred B. DelBello saved the line in 1982.

County Executive Andrew P. O’Rourke bought the line in 1991.

The Put is the stuff of nostalgia for those who recall the heyday of chugging freight trains. For commuters, it was an alternative to the Harlem and Hudson Division commuter lines.

But all that changed in 1981 when Conrail, the successor of the New York Central, filed for abandonment, meaning no service restoration ever and granting Conrail rights to pull up the tracks and sell the real estate. The abandonment filing started a “clock’’ giving governmental agencies narrow time frames to opt to purchase the line.

First up: the New York State Department of Transportation, which quickly passed, accelerating the clock.

Next in line, Westchester County. 

In Yonkers, Mayor Angelo R. Martinelli hosted an emergency meeting with shippers on The Put. I was an assistant to the mayor at the time and would work with him on the issue for the near term and, years later, as a consultant for Westchester County.

Could the line be saved? The abandonment clock was ticking.

We needed a champion. And we got one. Just in time. County Executive Alfred B. DelBello.

Martinelli appealed to DelBello and Deputy County Executive Roger Biagi. They moved immediately to stop the clock and with it, Conrail’s plans to sell the 14- mile right of way parcel by parcel. 

If sold, the last open corridor through Westchester County would be lost for all future possibilities — a bike and walking path, emergency route, light rail or monorail.

Negotiating with Conrail was not for the faint of heart. Martinelli, Biagi and I traveled to Conrail headquarters in Philadelphia to try to strike a reasonable deal.

No deal, they said. And to show they meant it, they frustrated the county’s efforts for the next eight years.

Still, thanks to DelBello, the county still held exclusive rights to purchase the right of way.

In 1991, County Executive Andrew P. O’Rourke and his deputy Biagi were determined to acquire the line for public use. A new plan was made, negotiations resumed and 90 days later, on the Friday of Labor Day weekend that year, a deal was struck in the county executive’s office in White Plains.

The route of the former Putnam Division of the New York Central Railroad was preserved. Forever. After 10 years.

We were exuberant to say the least.

Now on the 25th anniversary, let’s honor the Putnam Line champions without whose efforts we would not be riding our bikes or walking through this beautiful corridor with streams and glens and vistas. Alfred B. Del Bello and Andrew P. O’Rourke deserve prominent plaques on the right of way memorializing their roles in preserving The Put for public use.

And the right of way itself deserves something. The Put shares a parallel history with the demographic and economic growth of Westchester County. Signage on the right of way’s major bridges will highlight that history: “Route of the Historic Putnam Division of the New York Central Railroad.”

And lastly, it deserves a proper name.

Recently County Executive Robert P. Astorino, during whose tenure the line has been completed for public use, invited entries for a new name, an opportunity to reclaim The Put’s railroad history and heritage in Westchester County.

As new names are considered, let’s keep in mind that although a bike path today, The Put right of way birth certificate says, “Railroad.”

Phil Pepe is the retired principal of a public policy and governmental affairs consulting practice and served as a consultant to Westchester County for the Putnam Line purchase in 1991 with business associate John G. Pinto of Rail Trac Associates in Pennsylvania.

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