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.