Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Railroad and Holy Days

When Jews from Eastern Europe emigrated to the United States in the late 19th Century, they discovered a profound difference in living conditions. Back in Russia, Poland and the Ukraine, Jewish communities were regularly purged and plundered in what were called ‘pogroms". The Jews had a hard time keeping what they had. In the United States, there were no purges, no pogroms. The result was newfound prosperity, and the resorts came soon after.

The Catskill resorts were a thing all to themselves. They opened annually in time for the Passover holiday and closed soon after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the Fall. Workers trickled back, often to the same resort every years. The first wave came in time to open for Passover. Numbers of workers grew until the Memorial Day weekend. After Labor Day, many left. A few remained for the High Holy Days guests. It was convenient for folks observing holidays to have the resort take care of all the details.

The New York Ontario and Western Railroad had a part in this. It arranged special trains to serve folks going to the resorts. Even after passenger service officially ended, the O&W ran excursions to the resorts, especially on holy days and other special occasions. The railroad made arrangements to accommodate a special clientele.

The route to Monticello was long. Trains would come up to the Middletown area and then have to go all the way to Port Jervis. There they would turn and head to Monticello. It was a long trip on those old coaches. Service ended by 1957, when the O&W folded.


There were seasonal workers who returned to the same resorts year after year. These included cooks, laundry folks, handymen, service staff, and a host of others. Once the season ended, they headed for other places. Some made the trek to Florida to pick up seasonal jobs. Others went to New York or other cities. Of the latter, there were those who worked all summer and then "went on the bum" for the off-season. They would hole up in shelters and residences. The resorts fell on hard times and more than a few closed since the old days. With them goes a way of life defined by seasonal work.

There were seasonal workers who could do well. They held onto their money and worked both the Catskills and Florida each years. In the end, they had the money to leave seasonal work behind. The opposite type were those who spent their money as fast as they earned it and ended up bumming in New York until next Spring.

I was able to speak with several of the seasonal workers in the 1980s. It was between seasons when they were doing other work in the New York City area. They told of the world behind the scenes in resorts and other summer vacation places. Thanks to them and to some facts about the old NYO&W, we get a story of a way of life that is fading into history.

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