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Vanishing demand ended rail service

November 8, 2012
By Tony Goodwin , Adirondack Recrational Trail Advocates

The ongoing debate over the best future use of the Adirondack rail corridor has produced many claims by rail supporters. One is that Oval Wood Dish in Tupper Lake closed "because of lack of rail service." And yes, the original OWD did close in 1964 in part because of declining rail service, followed by the next occupant of that complex in 1969 due in part to inadequate rail service.

One single industry, however, could not provide sufficient freight business to justify operating more than 100 miles of rail line through challenging territory - not then, before the Northway (I-87), and certainly not now. In light of the proposal to revive Pullman service, remember that there once was such service, but that service attracted fewer than 20 riders per trip and ended in 1959 - again, long before the Northway.

Henry Harter, author of "Fairy Tale Railroad" and clearly a fan of this "Golden Chariot Route," offered the following realistic assessment of the decline of Adirondack rail service:

"It is always a sad time when one of our railroads withers away and finally comes to the end of its time. So it was with the Mohawk and Malone Railway which so gaily started out its life as the Adirondack and St. Lawrence Railway. By the time it was 30 years old (1922) the decline had set in. New and improved highways had siphoned off great blocks of passenger and freight business. Private railroad cars were becoming passe forest lands under private ownership were being depleted mechanical refrigeration was replacing ice cut on the northern lakes." (1)

In September 1952, the New York Central unsuccessfully petitioned the Public Service Commission to end the day train to Lake Placid. (2) Again petitioning in 1958 to abandon all passenger service, the railroad claimed that ridership in January 1958 amounted to 305 riders in coach and 573 in Pullman. That amounted to less than a busload of passengers on each run. (3)

In May 1963, the railroad petitioned for full abandonment. This prompted several meetings and hearings at which local businesses protested the railroad's proposal by citing traffic figures. Sunmount said it received 6,000 tons of coal each year. (Fifty tons per carload equals 120 carloads per year.) Gerald Hull of OWD said OWD had made 2,811 less-than-carload-lot shipments the year before by truck because rail service was poor. Hull also said they shipped whole hardwood logs to furniture makers by rail, but would lose that business and would cease all operations without rail service. Three Saranac Lake businesses said they received a total of 240 carloads in the past year. Counting Sunmount's coal deliveries, there were fewer than 10 carloads of freight per week coming into the Tri-Lakes. (4)

In 1964, OWD shut down, with U.S. Plywood ultimately owning their plant. The Adirondack Daily Enterprise reported, however, that OWD had already closed plants in Quebec and Potsdam, where, significantly, the company continued to have rail service. (5) U.S. Plywood started with the grand promise of producing 5,000 sheets of plywood per day but never achieved it. In announcing the end of operations in 1969, U.S. Plywood blamed a lack of enough skilled workers, a downturn in the housing market and inadequate rail service. The Tupper Lake Free Press editorialized that U.S. Plywood should have known about the state of rail service at the time they bought the OWD plant. (6)

The Penn Central Railroad filed the final petition for abandonment in 1971. The Free Press editorialized that "'Abandonment' is a relative term. Freight service has dwindled to the vanishing point, with one train making the run through the lonely reaches of Adirondack backwoods every other week. From a practical standpoint, the branch line has been 'abandoned' for years. In all honesty, we fail to see where's there much justification for requiring Penn Central to continue a service which has long lost any real significance to the economy of the area." The editorial further noted that insisting on the continued operation of this line and other "losers has been a significant factor in compounding the troubles of the nation's railroads." (7)

At a July 13, 1972, hearing in Saranac Lake, Frank Wood, former station agent in Saranac Lake, spoke against abandonment, estimating as optimistically as possible the demand for freight service at 600 cars per year in Saranac Lake, 125 in Tupper Lake and 30 in Lake Placid, or about 15 cars per week. (8) The abandonment petition was approved two weeks later.

Efforts to revive the line began almost immediately. Frank Menair, described as a "Pennsylvania railroad engineer and expert on railroad restoration and excursions," conducted a tour for two assemblymen and other elected officials from Lake Clear to Sabattis. Menair said the road bed had been "rebuilt in 1928 to mainline quality standards" and that the 40-year-old ties were in "pristine condition," being "hard and dry." (9) Given the many derailments later encountered by Menair's Adirondack Railway Corporation (even after the investment of several million dollars), it's fair to say this is the first gross underestimation of the actual effort required to restore the track.

Despite being allowed to abandon its Adirondack Division, the Penn Central Railroad was never able to emerge from its 1970 bankruptcy. In 1976, the Penn Central and five other bankrupt eastern railroads were merged into the federally supported Conrail, which ultimately did return these railroads to profitability. In deciding which lines to abandon, Conrail used the Interstate Commerce Commission's figure that a line needed to carry 34 cars per day to be profitable. Consequently, 15,000 miles, or 25 percent, of Northeast rail mileage of line was declared "potentially excess." (10)

Some lines were sold to short-line operators, but this rail corridor through the Adirondacks is just too long with too little traffic to be revived for any rail service. However, other uses of the rail corridor, such as its use as a recreational trail for biking, running, walking and snowmobiling, would seem to hold great promise for the region.

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Tony Goodwin lives in Keene and is a member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.

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Footnotes:

1. Harter, "Fairy Tale Railroad," p. 246.

2. Ibid. p. 248.

3. Adirondack Daily Enterprise, March 24, 1959

4. Adirondack Daily Enterprise, May 9, 23 and 28, 1963

5. Adirondack Daily Enterprise, May 21, 1964

6. Tupper Lake Free Press, Aug. 21, 1969

7. Tupper Lake Free Press, April 28, 1971

8. Adirondack Daily Enterprise, July 14, 1972

9. Adirondack Daily Enterprise, July 16, 1974

10. Rush Loving, "The Men Who Loved Trains," p. 168

 
 

 

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