Summer storms damaged rail line between Thendara and Tupper, but season wasn’t a total washout
By Tim Rowland
On Aug. 8, as four inches of rain was flooding highways and filling basements throughout the central New York region Frank Kobliski calls home, his worries were instead a couple hours to the east, where conditions were just as bad if not worse.
“When I heard they had gotten several inches just south of Thendara my heart sank,” said Kobliski, president of the Adirondack Railroad, which was in its inaugural season of running scenic trains north to Tupper Lake.
The rains had come just a few weeks before the colorful fall season, a critical point on the calendar for scenic railroads, which typically depend on robust ticket sales from leaf-peeping excursions to help make ends meet.
When the storm passed, inspectors were hastily dispatched. They rode the rails to Thendara, reporting minimal damage until at Carter Station north of Old Forge they found a major washout. It would take 800 tons of fill to restore. But at least it was within 1,000 feet of a road crossing, making it accessible to heavy equipment.
That wasn’t the case for the worst washout, which was soon discovered near the Beaver River, an inaccessible spot “in the middle of nowhere,” Kobliski said. There, the rails dangled cartoonishly in space above a washout 20 feet high and more than half a football field in length. It appeared the railroad’s season, which had gotten underway scarcely a month before, was over almost before it began.
Yet after “heroic” efforts on the part of a family contracting business and the state Department of Transportation, Kobliski said the track was repaired and the railroad was able to squeeze in two more long-distance runs to Tupper Lake in late October.
The DOT, which owns the line, still has not calculated the final cost of repairs, but the cost to the railroad in lost ticket sales was about $200,000.
Still, while the weather was the big story in the railroad’s first summer in Tupper, it wasn’t the only story. The trains that ran exceeded ridership expectations, and some sold out. The railbikes running out of Tupper Lake proved popular, and the railroad was able to gather feedback that will help them plan for the 2024 season, Kobliski said.
Paul Maroun, mayor of Tupper Lake, said the village has already seen some economic benefits, which he believes will grow as the railroad becomes more established. “It’s fun, it’s nice and it’s something different,” he said. “It’s going to revitalize that part of Tupper Lake (where the station is located).”
The scenic railroad was born of a compromise between those who felt (and still do) that the entire 134-mile line from Remsen to Tupper Lake should be devoted to trains, and those who felt (and still do) that the entire route should be converted into a recreational rail trail.
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State officials walk on the completed section of the Adirondack Rail Trail Friday, Dec. 1. Photo by Mike Lynch
The compromise refurbished the track from Thendara to Tupper and tore it up between Tupper and Lake Placid. The railroad was ready for use in late 2022, and the first segment of rail trail between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake was recently finished. Kobliski said the railroad attracted visitors from all 50 states, but riders were predominantly from the Northeast, along with Pennsylbania and Ohio, with a mix of dedicated rail buffs and general tourists.
Ticket buyers included “rare mileage collectors” who like the feel of riding long-abandoned railroads, and senior citizens and people with disabilities for whom the train is the only way to see genuine backcountry. “You’re going to see sights you couldn’t see anywhere else,” he said.
Some runs, including the High Peaks Limited between Utica and Tupper sold out, while others attracted enough riders to turn a profit. “We’re very happy with 60, 70, 80% capacity,” Kobliski said. “This is something unique and special, and it really was a good year for sales.”
The Adirondack Mountaineer runs to Tupper out of Thendara and includes a longer layover for passengers to eat, shop, ride a rail bike or take a shuttle to other local attractions, including The Wild Center natural history museum.
“We were all excited about the relaunch of the scenic railroad into Tupper,” said Marketing Director Nick Gunn. “Anything that gets folks to this town and explore not only The Wild Center, but all of the offerings that Tupper Lake has in terms of food, craft beer, shopping, art and culture is great for everyone.”
None of it might have been possible without frantic efforts to get the rails serviceable to salvage the last of the 2023 season. “Following the severe rains and flooding that impacted the region in August, New York State Department of Transportation crews and contractors worked diligently – in some instances working during weekend hours – to repair the damaged sections of the rail line used by the Adirondack Scenic Railroad as quickly as possible,” the DOT said in an email.
”They wanted to see it back in service as much as we did,” said Kobliski, whose great grandfather began a family tradition of railroad work in 1871 and, after his own career in public bus transportation, feels a personal connection with the line.
The work was largely performed by Herb Storer, who owns a waste-disposal and excavating business in Western New York, and whose family has prior experience with the Adirondack line.
Given the urgency, Storer recruited his wife Christine and grown children Moriah and Adam to help – they enjoy the Adirondacks, so it wasn’t an unpleasant experience, he said.
When he got a look at the Beaver River damage, Storer said he wasn’t so sure himself that the work could be completed this year. “It was a lot worse than the pictures show,” he said.
There was no nearby road access to accommodate excavators, and no cell service with which to communicate. Messages had to wait until his crew packed out for the night. Sometimes, if atmospheric conditions were right, a feeble signal filtered through the wilderness to one isolated, 50-foot patch of ground.
Storer’s crew at times worked seven days a week using three specially equipped, rail-riding dump trucks, to haul fill a load at a time, until the 4,500 tons of necessary material had been tamped into place.
“He beat what he said it would take by two weeks,” Kobliski said. “Ten weeks after that wall of water, the wheels were turning again.”
The work allowed two more High Peaks trains to arrive in Tupper; riders missed the leaf season, but Kobliski said they appreciated the greater panoramas opened up by bare trees.
Running scenic railroads at a profit is challenging, but Kobliski said the key is to have a good destination and to keep the experience fresh.
Fine-dining rides are popular, as is the annual Polar Express in December and other specialty trips – even the washouts themselves were a curiosity for late-season travelers. The railroad is planning rides from Utica to Thendara for next April’s solar eclipse, the southwestern Adirondacks being the edge of totality. Traveling further north is not an option due to the likelihood that snow drifts in deep rock cuts will not yet have melted.
The railroad has other plans as well, which may include transport for backcountry canoe and fly fishing excursions and tours out of Tupper Lake, with an eye toward history and education.
“We were thrilled with the ridership, and a lot of good things happened this year,” Kobliski said. “We think that portends good things to come next year, too.”
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