The power of nostalgia

The heyday of Adirondack railroading, which ended in the mid-twentieth century, can now be followed by a new heyday of bicycling and other recreational pursuits along the old rail corridor. Courtesy of Saranac Free Library
The heyday of Adirondack railroading, which ended in the mid-twentieth century, can now be followed by a new heyday of bicycling and other recreational pursuits along the old rail corridor. Courtesy of Saranac Free Library

Change is always hard to come by, especially when nostalgia clouds the picture. A current example may be seen in the debate (page 56) over the best use of the old railroad corridor that connects Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake—a thirty-four-mile segment of the line that traverses a wild and scenic landscape of lakes, forests, hills, and wetlands.

Though the debate can seem complicated, the basic issue is simple. A tourist train has been running for a dozen years on the ten-mile section between Lake Placid (the end of the line) and Saranac Lake. It has cost taxpayers millions of dollars with nothing to show for it in economic benefits.

Rather than stimulating tourism, the train has impeded it.
By monopolizing the corridor, it is preventing the use of the railroad bed for a year-round recreational trail that would, based on the success of rail-to-trail conversions elsewhere, attract large numbers of money-spending visitors, including an influx of bicycle riders from May through October and snowmobilers from December through March. It would also serve area residents seeking safe, healthy, enjoyable exercise in a superb natural setting.

Now that the movement to remove the rails and replace them with a multi-use trail is gathering momentum, the supporters of the tourist train have proposed a “compromise.” Let’s have both a rail and a side-by-side trail, they suggest, and make everybody happy. There’s only one problem with such a compromise: it ignores reality. The cost of building a separate trail would run between $400,000 and $500,000 a mile, according to latest estimates, and the cost of upgrading the rail line to Tupper Lake would, according to a study last year by Camoin Associates, run $300,000 a mile. That’s $700,000 to $800,000 for each mile of rail and trail. Even if this fanciful project were fundable and permissible, neither of which seems remotely possible, compare it to the cost of $135,000 a mile (a recent estimate from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy) for converting the existing bed to a recreational trail.

The rail-with-trail compromise also ignores the environmental consequences of tampering with wetlands, lakes, and beaver ponds. And it overlooks the stark economic reality that the tourist train, which has been operating between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake for a dozen years, has not delivered. Upgrading the tracks and extending the train service to Tupper Lake, as the boosters propose, would only compound and perpetuate a costly failure.

Trail advocates rally

On August 30, a new citizen group, the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA), held its first meeting in Lake Placid to rally support for removing the tracks, selling them for salvage, and using the profits to surface the bed with finely crushed stone. The end result would be a wilderness bikeway unique in the United States, and a dramatically improved snowmobile trail.

Nearly two hundred people attended the meeting. ARTA’s membership has since grown to more than seven hundred toward its goal of a thousand supporters by year’s end. Yet despite public enthusiasm for a rail-to-trail conversion, official opposition to scrapping the rail and installing a trail remains strong.

The Adirondack Park Agency, the state entity responsible for protecting the Park’s natural resources, has issued a permit allowing a parallel trail to be constructed along the 4.5-mile stretch from Lake Placid to Ray Brook, despite the environmental disruption.

The North Country Chamber of Commerce wants to extend the tourist train from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake, as does the Adirondack North Country Association, which was instrumental in landing a federal grant to help fund the first few miles of a side-by-side trail from Lake Placid. Both organizations are devoted to improving the economy and business climate of the region, yet both would deny a much more productive use of the railroad bed—one that could attract hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.

Commemorating railroad history

Historic Saranac Lake, a group devoted to preserving historic structures, opposes removal of the tracks because, they point out, the rail corridor is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Never mind that adaptive reuse of the rail corridor as the Park’s pre-eminent bicycle path, with interpretive signs in kiosks along the way, could do far more to commemorate the region’s colorful history than retaining miles of rusting rails and rotting ties.

The North Country Healthy Heart Network, dedicated to making the Adirondack Park more bicycle friendly as a way to encourage good exercise, has taken no position on the removal and salvaging of the tracks, even though this is the essential first step in creating a world-class bikeway that could ultimately run through the Adirondacks to Old Forge.

The town board for North Elba, which includes the village of Lake Placid, admits that salvaging the tracks and utilizing the railroad bed for a recreational trail would be the cheapest and best use of the corridor. The board much prefers an easy, safe bikeway linking Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.

But after years of butting heads with the tourist-train lobby, they’ve evidently given up on having the tracks removed and are willing to settle for building, at great public expense, a separate trail running only halfway from their village to Saranac Lake.

All of which attests to the power of nostalgia, a longing for the Good Old Ways and Good Old Days. Most of us love to hear that evocative train whistle as it echoes through our hills and valleys, even though the string of passenger cars trailing the locomotive appear nearly empty as the train toots merrily by at the crossings. That this failed enterprise has gained so much political support also attests to the persuasiveness of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, the nonprofit organization that operates the line and whose dedicated staff of mostly volunteers believes passionately in their cause.

Meanwhile, the forces favoring a recreational trail continue to grow, convinced that the time has come to end the tourist-train experiment and fulfill the potential of an extraordinary economic and recreational asset.

Dick Beamish

Beamish is board chairman of the Adirondack Explorer and founding member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA). For more information on ARTA, visit www.TheARTA.org

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this editorial inaccurately described the position of the North Country Healthy Heart Network. The organization has remained neutral in the rail-vs.-trail debate.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. John says

    So who is going to pay for the rail trail at $130,000 a mile that is a high price to pay we have a rail trail here that is falling apart and brings in so little business that the shopping mall right by it isn’t even interested in building a “off ramp” so bikers can easily get to the mall. In fact more people use the busy road next to the bike trail then the trail itself. Your crushed stone trail also doesn’t sound very handicap friendly. Oh and the railroad does contribute the tourist that come and ride the train bring there money into the local economy.

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