Contributed Photo by Dave Carney
THIS DIESEL, OWNED by New York & Greenwood Lake Railway, pulled the last regularly scheduled passenger train through Callicoon in 1966. It’s pictured on Port Jervis’ Historic Turntable during a July 4th celebration. Owner Jim Wilson plans to make it a part of the future plans for the Olympia Hotel in Callicoon.
will rise again
By Jeanne Sager
CALLICOON The railroads once breathed life into Callicoon, and they’re doing it again.
The Olympia Hotel once a destination for passengers alighting from the cars at Callicoon Depot died with the cessation of railway traffic through the hamlet.
It’s only fitting that it will be reborn as the new home to not one but two railway companies, and once again welcome passengers off cars at the Callicoon train station.
The decaying hotel oft ridiculed in passing decades as an eyesore was purchased two weeks ago by Jim Wilson, a part-time resident of Damascus, Pa. and owner of the Erie Lackawanna and New York & Greenwood Lake railway companies.
It’s not only structurally sound, he’s promised, but ready for a makeover.
Ready enough that work is expected to begin this week, with Damascus contractor Jim Litzenbauer starting the massive overhaul of the building’s exterior.
A former train conductor, Wilson was up and down the river valley over the years by railroad.
He was on one of the steam engine that made a visit to Callicoon in the early 1970s.
With each passage through the hamlet, he was enchanted by the Olympia, the grand hotel just off of the tracks.
“I saw the postcards of the old New Orleans style columns,” he recalled. “The building is a neat piece of history.”
Wilson looked past the broken windows and fire-damaged walls to the hotel in its heyday. He saw the building’s potential.
That it’s a massive undertaking doesn’t scare him.
“We do big projects, big restorations, we’re not afraid of big projects,” he said with a grin.
He’s not afraid of jumping in with two feet.
Three years ago, he purchased his riverfront home in Damascus within hours of the property hitting the market. He brokered the deal to buy the pride of his fleet the Erie E8, the last railway engine to pull passenger cars through Callicoon in 1966 over a weekend.
It’s simply how Wilson operates.
Raised in a railroading family, Wilson entered the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1960s, with plans to take up a career when his enlistment was done.
“When I got out, I found I didn’t really know how to do anything other than railroading,” he said with a grin.
So it was back to trains. He worked in corporate railroads for decades. Then he got a call from folks with businesses alongside a track in New Jersey Conrail was going to abandon the freight line, and they needed help.
He pledged he’d see what he could do.
“I ended up buying it,” he said with a shrug.
That was 13 years ago. Since then, Wilson has built up two railway companies and a small railway museum all of which he plans to bring to the Olympia when work is completed.
The old hotel is expansive, allowing for a multi-use building, with headquarters for the two railway companies, the museum and a brew pub in the rathskeller on the bottom floor with beers made on the premises.
Talk of a tearoom in the old hotel dining room is also in the works, while Wilson is working to gain access to the rail line between Port Jervis and Callicoon for excursions.
The latter will have to wait until the economy improves, he said, but the goal is to provide weekend passenger service for tourists between the two spots. A former conductor for MetroNorth Railroad, he has already figured the logistics for getting passengers from Hoboken, NJ to Port Jervis via the MetroNorth line.
The restored Erie E8, currently sitting in Port Jervis, where it attracts train enthusiasts for visits, is central to his plans. The last to pull passengers in ’66, it will be the first to pull them back into Callicoon.
First, of course, the renovations must be completed.
Wilson is aware that will take time. Although the building is sound a new roof put on 20 years ago “saved the building,” he said there is a significant amount of work to be done.
The building suffered several fires, leaving behind mostly smoke damage. It’s also still set up as a hotel with dozens of little rooms that will have to be made into larger, more useful, offices.
Architect Buck Moorhead of Callicoon will be working out the best way to make that happen, while Litzenbauer begins work on the exterior.
Wilson is trying to track down any old pictures or postcards of the Olympia that can help in the restoration it’s been traced back to the 1850s, but he doesn’t yet have a definitive date for the opening of the building.
“We know we can make it look halfway decent at the outset,” Wilson said. “Completion time overall is going to be phased in.”
When it’s done, Wilson hopes to have added to his adopted hometown something residents will be proud of.
“I don’t think [renovating the Olympia] is something that’s going to take away from the other businesses in town,” he noted. “I think it will bring people to Callicoon.
“Callicoon has its own charm; it kind of takes you back 30 40 years ago to the way New Jersey used to be,” he continued. “The people are wonderful here.