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The Adirondack railroad: a historical perspective

December 9, 2011
By Rich Loeber

Many issues have been raised in the recent discussion over the future of the rail corridor. One important part of this, the historic importance of the railroad, has not received much mention, and it should not be overlooked.

Toward the end of the "Gilded Age," the Adirondacks were still remote to most of society. To address this and open up the Adirondack region, William Seward Webb conceived of what became the Adirondack Division of the New York Central Railroad. This rail line, extending for 118 miles from just north of the village of Remsen to Lake Placid, provided easy access to many places throughout the Adirondack region for tourists, health seekers, sportsmen, wealthy camp owners, loggers and more. It was used so much by wealthy camp owners that it was known as "the Golden Chariot Route" by many. Mr. Webb even had a partial agenda of his own in building the line, to be able to easily reach his own camp at Nehasane Park, where a station stop was established for his private rail car. Other famous travelers, also in their private cars, included President Benjamin Harrison, Thomas C. Durant, Collis Huntington, Harry Payne Whitney, Marjorie Post and J.P. Morgan, to name just a few.

William Seward Webb, son-in-law of William H. Vanderbilt (director of the New York Central and son of the commodore), was wealthy in his own right even before his marriage to Eliza Osgood Vanderbilt. In addition to the Adirondack rail line, he was also known for his ownership of the Wagner Palace Car Company (a builder of rail cars that ended up as part of the Pullman Company), ownership of the Wall Street firm of W.S. Webb Company and was involved in many other railroad enterprises, not to mention Shelburne Farms in Vermont, his home state.

The Adirondack line was started in 1891 and completed in just 18 months. It represents a significant engineering feat for its day. Starting at Remsen, it goes from an elevation of 900 feet up to its highest point at Big Moose station, 2,035 feet, and back to its terminus at Lake Placid at 1,736 feet. It includes 17 bridges over various bodies of water and multiple buildings that were constructed to support rail operations, many of which are still standing today. The initial bridges were constructed of wood but were replaced in the early 1910s with the metal structures that we still see today. Much of the route is through rough forest areas that presented challenges to both construction and maintenance. It is a testament to the builders that the line has remained usable even though maintenance since it was abandoned has been minimal.

Of the many railroad lines built through the Adirondacks, this line was far and away the most successful during the heyday of Adirondack railroading. It saw its greatest use from inception through the days just prior to World War II. It is a historic line that represents the early economic development of the Adirondacks along with a superb engineering example for its period. The line ran independently until 1913, when it was absorbed into the New York Central Railroad, becoming the Adirondack Division, which is how it was known until it was shut down under the auspices of Conrail in 1972. Today it supports seasonal tourist trains from Remsen to Thendara and between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid.

The railroad played a significant role in the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. There was a shortage of hotel space in Lake Placid for the games, and the railroad constructed additional siding and brought in Pullman sleeping cars to house 500 additional guests. That winter was a rare one with light snow cover, and the railroad came to the rescue by hauling in carloads of snow from the Old Forge area to provide enough cover for the nordic events.

In 1993, the entire rail line from Remsen to Lake Placid was named to the National Register of Historic Places along with the New York State Register of Historic Places. The registration includes the bridges, remaining buildings, the right of way and even the tracks and ties. It is a fitting nomination for such an important part of the history of the Adirondacks.


Rich Loeber lives in Saranac Lake.



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