... by the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, judging by the success of similar ventures elsewhere. That's right. I'm talking about the "Rails-to-Trails" proposal to establish a year-round, multi-use recreational path on the existing rail bed from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake and, hopefully, all the way to Old Forge.
I was recently speaking with a local restaurant owner about this, and he said to me, "You want to know something? We have it all! Right here!" He was pointing to the Tri-Lakes region as an unparalleled resort destination unlike any other in the country, offering outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes the choice of a variety of pursuits ranging from fishing, hunting, boating, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, climbing and bicycling to the whole gamut of winter-related activities such as ice fishing, snowmobiling, downhill and cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, skating, hockey and, for the more daring, an exhilarating ride down America's only dedicated bobsled track.
"Where else," he stated, "could you find all of these things in one place? Can you imagine what it would be like if, on top of that, we had a multi-use recreational trail connecting our communities?" Yes, I thought to myself, a path where cyclists could pedal to their hearts' content without having to worry about tangling with an automobile, where snowmobilers could safely negotiate the 90-mile-long corridor from Lake Placid to Old Forge without the need for 2 feet of snow to cover the railroad tracks, where hikers whose climbing days are a thing of the past could still enjoy some of the loveliest scenery anywhere, where families could experience healthy outdoor fun together and where the mobility-challenged could access the wilderness while retaining a valued sense of independence.
As I wander around the area these days, I meet and speak with people from all walks of life and I am struck by the enormous amount of interest and enthusiasm that has been generated by the idea of a recreational path. The Adirondack Recreational Trails Advocates, for example, in just the three months since its inception, has enrolled more than 1,200 supporters, and that number is growing by the day. On the other side of the debate, in fairness to those who are not similarly enthused, the prospect of a recreational path replacing the tracks and ties on the existing rail corridor from Placid to Old Forge has generated a fair share of resistance. The Adirondack North Country Association, an economic-development group, along with Historic Saranac Lake and Adirondack Architectural Heritage favor keeping the tracks in place and pretty much leaving things as they are. These are thoughtful, committed organizations, and I'm not looking to pick a fight with any of them. It's just that I think they are wrong.
The tourist train from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake, from what we are told by its proponents, may be a potentially profitable venture. I'm not convinced, however, that it has contributed significantly to the economic improvement of the region. And with all respect to the historical preservation organizations, it seems they are looking to leave the rail bed's tracks and ties in place in order to have a visible reminder of what the railroad was like in its heyday. If we are looking, however, to commemorate the railroad's colorful history, what better way to achieve this than by once again putting the rail corridor to use, this time as a year-round recreational path with interpretative signs along the way? What better way to honor that history than to share it with many thousands of trail users, as opposed to the comparatively fewer number of passengers who ride the train a few months of the year between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake?
Finally, I am puzzled by the preservationists' suggestion that removing the tracks somehow will have "an adverse impact on a major historical property." There is really nothing about the tracks and ties that makes them exceptional and worth preserving, or even interesting. They are just in the way. As it is, about the only people with access to the entirety of this "historical property" are the engineers who bring the tourist train up to Lake Placid in the spring and back to Utica for storage in the fall. Meanwhile, the tracks and ties are slowly but surely deteriorating, and the suggestion that their restoration, at considerable cost, will one day lead to the rebirth of freight and/or passenger service is, at best, wishful thinking.
So where does that leave us? Well, I guess that depends on your point of view. If you are an ardent fan and lover of trains, period, you probably support the various arguments in favor of keeping the status quo. If, on the other hand, you believe a multi-use recreational path would attract a significant population of outdoor enthusiasts to the region, that it also would greatly benefit those of us who live here year-round because we, plain and simple, love this place, and that it would provide a major economic boost to the entire Tri-Lakes community and beyond - in short, that it is an idea whose time has come - then please go to ARTA's website at www.TheARTA.org and add your name to ours.
And welcome aboard!
Joe Mercurio lives in Saranac Lake and is on the ARTA Steering Committee.