By Tim Rowland
Essex County has stepped up its efforts to keep what’s known as the Tahawus railroad open to commercial train traffic, even as other state and local jurisdictions have indicated the best use of the 30-mile line would be a recreational trail.
“We have enough trails, what we need is economic activity,” said Shaun Gillilland, chair of the Essex County Board of Supervisors. Specifically, supervisors want freight cars to be able to access a massive, 80-million-ton mountain of crushed stone in the heart of the Adirondack Park, left there by a long-gone mining concern.
To that end, the Town of Newcomb has produced “Environmental and Economic Restoration of an Adirondack Mining Village, a PowerPoint presentation that argues that rail service would support jobs, but also would reduce truck traffic and dispose of a scar on the landscape at the same time.
Essex County is a secured creditor of the railroad, based on $172,000 it’s owed in back taxes—a position that could give it added leverage in any further negotiations, county officials believe.
The county’s position got a boost on April 17 when the court trustee for the Saratoga North Creek Railroad said he felt the road could be commercially viable, and asked the federal government for more time to find a buyer for the troubled line, which was placed into bankruptcy on March 30.
The line had previously failed as a freight carrier and as a scenic railroad, and gained notoriety in 2017 when it was used to store mothballed oil tankers in the forest.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has applied for an adverse abandonment application that would allow interim trail use—a matter that will be decided by the federal Surface Transportation Board. “If the board grants DEC’s Request for Interim Trail Use, it would permit DEC to enter into negotiations with SNCR regarding the future management of the corridor,” a DEC representative said in an email.
In his April filing, however, bankruptcy trustee William A. Brandt, Jr. asked that the abandonment preceding be delayed until Dec. 31, and wrote he “is opposed to the application to abandon the SNCR railway.”
Brandt said the delay is needed because, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state’s attention is elsewhere. “The Trustee needs time to determine if SNCR can be sold as an operating railway in order to maximize the return to SNCR’s creditors,” he wrote.
To the south of Essex County, Warren County Board of Supervisors Chairman Frank Thomas said while it might be worth a shot, he doubts a carrier can be found. “I wish Essex County all the best,” he said. But he added that Warren County tried for 20 or 30 years to find a viable carrier, either for tourism or freight, without sustainable success.
Warren County’s view is important because it owns the southern reaches of the line, which is a necessary link for any rail activity in the north.
Thomas said the county has approved a resolution for abandonment proceedings, but if a viable carrier is found, the county might be convinced to reconsider. From Warren County’s standpoint though, a carrier would have to pay for maintenance and repairs on the railbed, including damage done by the Halloween storm of 2019.
“The track is in fair shape, but I wouldn’t say it’s great,” he said. “And Warren County just doesn’t have the money to fix it up.”
Essex County, meanwhile, has written the federal Surface Transportation Board in support of a delay while negotiations continue to find a commercial carrier willing to haul freight.
“The SNCR railroad (the Tahawus line as we know it) is an asset to Essex County not a burden,” the county wrote. “It possesses sound commercial freight rail prospects and now with the economic consequences the coronavirus has brought to us, it remains invaluable.”
The towering heap of mine tailings is near what is known as the Upper Works trailhead that accesses the High Peaks from the south. The varying grades of aggregate are currently owned by Mitchell Stone Products of Tupper Lake, which is hauling it out by the tractor trailer load for sale as crushed stone and finer materials that can be used in the production of asphalt and as a patio base.
Newcomb Town Supervisor Robin DeLoria said hauling out by freight car would be both economically and environmentally advantageous, eliminating truck traffic and allowing the site a more rapid return to its natural state. “From an environmental standpoint alone it would save 2 million trucks trips,” he said.
Larry Roth says
The Adirondacks are getting a hard lesson. Building an economy solely around tourism is like building on sand – it’s too easily disrupted, especially in an age of increasing disruption. Abandoning a piece of irreplaceable infrastructure for frivolous use is a waste of resources we can no longer afford. Essex and Warren County need to come together on this – and the state needs to update its priorities. Play time is coming to an end.
Scott Thompson says
So, who will benefit ? Who will have jobs? If cars brong recreation tourists, they stop every where as do snowmobiles. Where will the stone go? Won’t long distance hauling cost more than the stone? Then won’t it still need trucking to project sites? So where is the environmental gain?
Dave Whitbeck says
Just another stupid delay for something that hasn’t worked for over 30 years.
Considering the rail’s route, I personally can’t see much of a long-term future for the line – at least to its terminus at Tahawus. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be useful for clearing up the existing mine tailings and and returning the mine to a semblance of a natural state in the short-term. In addition, it can be a test of how useful the line can be. Not just talk, wishes, and prayers, but actual development of the line for activity that is not supported by taxpayers alone. Give it another 5 years, get the mine re-naturalized, and see what happens to the lower section in the meantime. Closing a wild corridor to taxpayers without any rail activity other than railcar storage is a waste of the resource. If cleaning up the mine turns out to be the line’s last hurrah, then so be it.
Scott Thompson says
When do you get off the pot??
In the greater scheme of things, the mine and remnants are more historic than blight and the tailing are a good source that won’t need to be brought from distance when needed in the Adirondacks. Don’t you think the last three attempts have been adequate to show ” It ain’t gonna work”? Really I don’t care much, but selfishly, it is just another example of how much better converting the Remsen to Lake Placid Corridor to a trail will be.
“More historic than blight?” I don’t see the mine being used as a historical monument or attraction. If you have ever viewed it from the air or the High Peaks, your first thought isn’t “How quaint, a deserted, open mine scar!”. If indeed you want the rails gone, touting historical significance is likely going to work against you.
Curt Austin says
More delay, based on nostalgia and wishful thinking, not the clear history of the situation, and contrary to a rational analysis of the cost of transport for a commodity product. The potential customers of this stone will not be writing letters to the STB – there aren’t any. Imagine if the line had become a trail after the last train from the mine – 31 years ago. 31 years of public benefit, 31 years of economic benefit for Newcomb. We can’t get back the 31 years this resource has been wasted, but we can stop wasting time.
Scott Thompson says
The Adirondack has been a (poor) snowmobile trail for almost as many years as it was a railroad. Now biking is the fastest growing outdoor activity ( surpassing golf)
and the perfect activity in these troubled times yet here we sit trying to extend the third failure of the railroad. A once very important asset now outmoded and out dated.
Curt Austin says
Some want to keep the rail in order to reclaim the mine – I don’t think that would work out. If the stone-by-rail business had potential, it would continue for decades. The big pile would be gone within a few years – I’ve done the calculations – and then other, partially vegetated piles would be uncovered and crushed. Ever hear a big crusher operating? The two pits will not be filled in.
Better to allow nature have its way. The big pile is already two-thirds gone (source: NL’s former manager); the current trucking operation will remove it soon enough.
But again, there will be no stone-by-rail business – pick a cost per ton-mile somewhere in the range of two to five cents, do the calculation, and compare it to the price of stone.
I certainly am not saying removing the tailings or pushing them into the pits would be profitable. I am saying the state’s EPF could be used to help pay for re-naturalization, as well as previous owners if toxic waste problems are found. If NYS is fine with leaving the environmental scars from the mine, then I am all for re-purposing at least the Tahawus section of the line. If they don’t do it now, the line will just deteriorate further until they can’t use it.