The rebirth of Adirondack Railroad’s trains to Tupper Lake
By Megan Plete Postol
The shine of steel once again glimmered against backcountry foliage as an Adirondack Railroad train whooshed along secluded portions of the rail.
Inside the train car, sunshine beamed through dusty air as chatty volunteers entertained passengers. The volunteers, older women with big smiles, told silly jokes and delivered winks at the punchline. Curious children jumped on seats and smeared small, greasy handprints on the windows as they looked out at the passing wilderness. The ride bumped at times as the train jerked and lurched and metal scraped and screeched.
This past autumn the Adirondack Railroad hosted its inaugural rides from Utica to Tupper Lake.
First, on Sept. 13, a special ride took dignitaries and regional politicians over the recently reconstructed track to Tupper Lake. On Oct. 16, media members, other interested parties and the public joined the second tour. Both times at the Tupper station, the arriving locomotive was met by the Tupper Lake community, complete with smiles and waves.
Adirondack Railroad Board of Directors President Frank Kobliski appreciated the applause.
“The inaugural train went exactly according to plan, and there was joy and celebration both on board and off the train,” Kobliski said.
He said railroad personnel accomplished all tasks of preparing for the two fall rides while running a full schedule of regular trains to run between Utica and Old Forge. The dignitary run in September featured a welcome by community leaders, a ribbon cutting, a photo op, and short remarks by invited guests. There was, in addition, an optional tour of the Tupper Lake community, which had been awarded a $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant from the state to upgrade the village.
A historic ride
The media and public ride were the first revenue run to Tupper Lake since 1965, and the first time the train had carried customers to that destination since 1981. About 400 passengers rode the rails during this fall’s run, the railroad said.
The very first passenger train rumbled into Tupper Lake station 130 years before on July 16, 1892. That train was operated by the Mohawk and Malone Railroad. At that time, the railroad opened the Adirondacks to a surge of tourists, health seekers and seasonal residents. A region that before the railroad was vastly inaccessible at once became a popular, feasible and reasonably accommodating destination.
For decades, the railroad carried famous families, including the Webb, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Whitney, and Roosevelt clans along with the not-so-famous to locations in the Adirondack Mountains, while also providing freight service to communities along the way. But as the automobile became more common, use of the railroad decreased.
Scheduled passenger service from Utica to Lake Placid ceased in 1965. The line was operated continuously until freight service ceased in 1972 and the passenger and commercial demand for the railroad lost out to trucking and car touring—the “era of personal transportation on an extensive highway system,” the state Department of Environmental Conservation reported.
“Automobiles on a massive road network that grew exponentially after the Second World War doomed smaller railroads,” the DEC said discussing the Adirondack railway. A 1940’s passenger train on the corridor took more than 10 hours to get from Lake Placid to New York City. “This was a good option in a time without the New York State Thruway,” the DEC continued. “But this can be accomplished by automobile now in less than 5 hours, without restriction on departure and arrival times, and considerably cheaper in today’s dollars. Freight trucking experiences the same advantages over a freight railroad to the same location.”
In 1977 the Adirondack Railway Corp. contracted with the state to run passenger service from Utica to Lake Placid for the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, but by February of 1981, problems with the railway’s management of the line forced the state to terminate the company’s lease. Ownership of the property went to New York and the railroad lay dormant.
A group of devoted railroad enthusiasts banded together in 1992 to form what has become the Adirondack Railroad. In 1993 the rail line from Remsen to Lake Placid was officially designated on the National Register of Historic Places and the New York State Register of Historic Places.
‘When roses grow on telephone poles’
Veteran Utica-area journalist and columnist Joe Kelly, aboard the September train, noticed something scarlet on a telephone pole as the train pulled into the Tupper station: a bouquet of red roses.
“Many people were convinced the train would never return to Tupper Lake,” he reported in the Daily Sentinel. “One community person, whose name I don’t know, was quoted back in 1981 as saying this: ‘Trains will come back to Tupper Lake when roses grow on telephone poles.’”
The flowers were on the pole and the railroad came to life after a decade-long and controversial rails-to-trails debate was settled. The compromise that emerged was that the railroad would run north to Tupper Lake, but not all the way to Lake Placid, which was the original destination that the hardcore railroad enthusiasts sought. The portions of the line north of Tupper Lake will be converted to a multi-use rail trail for bikers, hikers and other recreation seekers.
The railroad’s portion of the compromise included a renovation of the tracks between Big Moose and Tupper Lake, which extended the line 45 miles further into the Adirondacks. The railroad renovation involved replacement of more than 84,000 ties on track that has been out of service since 1981. The complete rehabilitation plan also called for additional “side” trackage to be added at two intermediate locations between Thendara/Old Forge and Tupper Lake at Beaver River and Sabattis. The total cost to taxpayers is $31 million, according to Kobliski.
Remaining construction work for 2023 includes more track at Tupper Lake, including a line to turn locomotives and rail cars, new passenger boarding platforms with canopies and a small shop for light repair and maintenance of the locomotives and rail cars at the Tupper Lake station.
Where the railroad ends, the rail trail begins
The Adirondack Rail Trail is also gaining ground after losing years to delays and litigation. Approximately a third of the original state-owned train line has been allocated for a rail trail between Tupper Lake and Lake Placid. It will connect the communities of Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. This route will be accessible year-round and give visitors a way to experience the backcountry in a unique way.
This three-stage project is projected to cost New York State around $23 million, according to the state’s announcements. This sum will likely be adjusted as details are finalized, including expenses for parking areas, retaining walls, stormwater measures, wetland mitigation, signs and snowmobile, pedestrian and bicycle pull-offs.
The first stage of the project is the Lake Placid to Saranac Lake segment of the trail. This portion is scheduled to open in September, with the remaining segments estimated to be open and usable by 2025.
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The future of the Adirondack Railroad
The Adirondack Railroad Board of Directors is optimistic about the growth of the service. They believe that a renaissance of railroad enthusiasm is on the horizon now that the tracks reach to Tupper, and they are preparing for it. This summer the Adirondack Railroad will be offering regular scheduled train rides to Tupper Lake.
“Our future is exciting,” Kobliski said. “After weathering the COVID pandemic, we emerged.” He said the extended service to Tupper Lake, including a dining car, and new rail provide greater opportunities to market the service beyond state borders, including to Canadian visitors.
The board of directors have developed plans, in collaboration with the owner of the Tupper Lake station, to build out the depot’s interior to resemble what the regional North Country train stations looked and operated like 100 years ago.
Kobliski said these and other projects will take at least the first half of 2023 to complete, so it will be sometime in July before the facilities are ready for regular train schedules.
Trains will arrive at Tupper Lake from both Old Forge and Utica, and similarly passengers will be able to come to Tupper Lake and board trains for points south, including optional stopovers at locations such as Sabbatis for a day’s hike and recreation in the remote areas of the Adirondack Park.
Kobliski said the website will have more information about those opportunities. A few themed rides are on the calendar: a Cabin Fever Limited in late January and Easter Bunny Express in April. Tickets for these range from $25 to $75, depending on age and accommodations.
“The new Adirondack Railroad is more than a train ride,” Kobliski said. “It is an experience; a moving, linear experience that enwraps the rider in Adirondack history, scenic beauty, the pleasure of on-board dining in the classic railroad tradition of old, and a conveyance that embraces togetherness with family and friends in all seasons.”