On July 19, 20 and 21, New England Rail Excursions had the privilege of conducting a motorcar trip on the track that the Adirondack Scenic Railroad leases from the state of New York. In the course of three days, 30 rail cars and 60 people traveled a total of 250 miles on the rails, through the New York Central Railroad Adirondack Division Historic District from Remson to Lake Placid and back.
This was the first rail car excursion on these tracks since 2002, and I was the excursion coordinator. With the help of the fine folks at the railroad, the weekend went off without a hitch.
During our stay in the Adirondacks, we became aware of the ongoing battle about removing the rails from the historic district corridor and converting it to a bike and hiking trail. If you will indulge me a few moments, I would like to explain why I do not believe that is a good idea.
Twenty-nine “motor cars,” also called “rail cars” or “speeders,” are seen before leaving the Saranac Lake’s Union Depot in July. A group of enthusiasts brought the cars up from the Old Forge area for the weekend.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
While the two sides seem very far apart, one thing is certain: If the rails are removed, they are gone forever, and gone with them is any future hope of access to the wilderness by those who are neither interested in nor physically capable of biking or hiking. If you're not physically fit or you're too old, you're not going to see this beautiful, protected public space.
People say that nobody rides the train between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, which is pretty easy to understand since it is one heck of a drive from the Thruway to either of those towns and most tourists just don't do that. But they say plenty of folks ride from Utica to Thendara or Big Moose. Of course. People enjoy riding trains, and the Utica station is a 9-iron shot from the highway. If they could ride beyond Big Moose and see the Adirondack Park, they would! The rails are in excellent shape. The ties are not, and a great many have to be replaced, which is expensive but not an engineering challenge. The fact that there are almost no crossings to upgrade with new signals makes the cost less onerous and the trip more beautiful.
With one daily round trip from Utica to Lake Placid, about four hours each way, folks of any ability level could see the whole corridor, as we were so fortunate to do, and spend the night in Saranac Lake or Lake Placid. As just one example: With all the millions of dollars going into the Hotel Saranac renovation, I am certain the owners would put together a train-dinner-hotel package featuring the spectacular vistas en route that would be quite popular. Day-trip folks could ride from Utica to Horseshoe Lake in the morning, swim and picnic, then ride back in the afternoon.
This fall, the idea of removing 34 miles of track from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake is going to be discussed. If that comes to pass, because of logistics, it will guarantee that the rest of the track will soon be gone. At a distance of 113 miles, Tupper Lake is too far for a same-day round-trip from Utica and, as far as I can see, lacks the accommodations of either Lake Placid or Saranac Lake which would be necessary to attract overnight patrons. It will become a train to nowhere.
So the decision is whether to destroy the national historic rail corridor in order to create a biking and hiking path that the proponents say will be "better than Vermont's," or to restore it and create the single most spectacular rail operation in the Northeast, accessible to everybody, regardless of age or physical condition. It would be a rail trip that starts in Utica, at Interstate 90, spans more than 140 miles, most of it through unspoiled wilderness, and ends at either of two destination towns with beautiful train stations and many other attractions.
Please take this treasure off life support, and make it the transportation centerpiece that it can be for this beautiful part of the world.
Thank you for the opportunity to express my feelings about this important subject.
Keith L. Knowlton is the excursion coordinator for New England Rail Excursions LLC, based in Brooklyn, Connecticut.