By Tim Rowland
An attorney for the Saratoga & North Creek Railroad has indicated that the company no longer supports a state plan to make a rail trail out of a neglected stretch of tracks running from North Creek to an abandoned mine at Tahawus on the south side of the Adirondack High Peaks.
The railroad had originally voiced no opposition to a state request that the railroad be declared abandoned by the Surface Transportation Board (STB), a move that would facilitate a recreational trail. Cylists envision a southern route to complement the Lake Placid-Tupper Lake trail that the Adirondack Park Agency approved this month. But circumstances have changed, wrote David Michaud, representing SNCR.
“SNCR hereby rescinds its statement of having no objection to proceeding with the pending abandonment,” Michaud wrote in a May 11 filing. “The non-objection previously agreed to was predicated on a reasonable proposal being made in a timely manner from the State of New York, or its agents, for interim trail use. To date, seven months later, no such proposal has been made.”
Citing “pending litigation,” the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation declined comment.
In his filing, Michaud also indicated that a sale of the line to another freight hauler is appearing more likely. The bankruptcy trustee for the SNCR agreed, saying that he is talking with nine carriers that have expressed interest in line, and while some are “tire kickers,” some are seriously interested in hauling freight.
“The goal of the STB is to enhance railroad operations,” said William A. Brandt Jr., Chapter 11 bankruptcy trustee for the SNCR and its parent company, the San Luis & Rio Grande. “It’s clear to me that there is substantial interest in operating a railroad.”
The new developments add a layer of intrigue to a simmering fight over the future of the 30 miles of track, which follow the upper reaches of the Hudson River headwaters from North Creek into the heart of the High Peaks.
Warren County and the DEC see recreation as the future of the old rail bed, while Essex County and the Town of Newcomb believe freight cars can once again roll down the line, specifically for the removal of a towering mountain of crushed stone left by mining operations that ceased in 1989.
In a filing with the STB late last year, Warren County said it supported abandonment, and more recently stressed to the board that it “is in no way, shape or form currently negotiating with these parties regarding a sale of our railroad assets.”
The line had remained out of the public consciousness for nearly 30 years, until the Iowa Pacific holding company in 2017 made an ill-fated decision to store oil tanker cars on the old tracks. Brandt said the practice is common for short-line railroads and that the tankers had been used for cooking oil, not petroleum. But the image of an industrial junkyard in the middle of the Adirondack Forest Preserve caught the public’s attention, leading to momentum for a recreational trail.
Warren County remains skeptical that a hauler can be found, and is already making plans for a permanent shift away from rail traffic on the line. Unlike Essex County, Warren County owns its section of the SNCR, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it could block freight traffic from the Tahawus mines to southern aggregate markets if a buyer for the Essex County portion of the line can be found, Brandt said.
Brandt also said it appeared the DEC—which was pursuing a trail under a concept known as “railbanking”—had gotten in over its head trying to parse the complexities of railroad law. “They were not well versed in railroadology,” he said. “They grabbed a term that sounds good, but doesn’t work here.”
Railbanking would theoretically allow the state to construct the rail trail, while the federal government would maintain jurisdiction should it ever want to reinstate a railroad—which presumably it never would.
But the state never fleshed out its plan, according to railroad representatives. The DEC “indicated they would come up with a plan, but they never did,” Brandt said.
North Creek is perhaps the most storied station in Adirondack history, serving as the jumping-off point for legions of 19th century city dwellers seeking wilderness adventure. It was also the station where Vice President Teddy Roosevelt, who had been hiking on the flanks of Mount Marcy, embarked on a ride into the presidency and history after the shooting of President William McKinley in Buffalo.
The 30 miles from North Creek north to Tahawus were tacked on by the federal government during World War II to haul ore containing titanium—a valuable metal once thought to be a bothersome impurity by early Adirondack iron miners. The mine petered out 35 years later and the railroad fell into disuse. But the different grades of crushed stone left behind—a full football field in height—has value in a variety of applications and is currently being trucked away by Mitchell Stone Products.
An unlikely wild card that has just appeared on the scene is the novel coronavirus, which Brandt said could increase the pressure to keep the line in the revenue- and job-producing stream of commerce.
Newcomb Town Supervisor Robin DeLoria said the line can be of value both as a hauler of freight, and as a snowmobile trail in the winter. “There are great long-term benefits to keeping the (Tahawus) rail line open,” he said. The purchase of significantly greater amounts of crushed rock would benefit the county’s sales tax receipts, while snowmobiles would feed the town economy in the winter, he added.
Largely because of snowmobile traffic, two new restaurants on Newcomb netted over $100,000 in sales in two months in 2020, before the economic shutdown, DeLoria said.
I like both ideas – at least on the upper N.C – Tahawus section. My thoughts would be to wait on the trail until the tailings are gone AND the mine reclaimed and naturalized. But I would also stipulate it must be done in say 5-10 years at which point that section would be re-purposed as a trail. Don’t leave it open-ended so that it sits unused as it is now. The corridor is too useful to be collecting dust.
Launce Erickson says
Iowa Pacific before storing empty clean tank cars there . Should have gone on a public education program.
Kenneth Friedel says
I have ridden every train that I could over the years at North Creek. I was sad to hear how bad Mr. Ellis was treated. The tailings pile at these old mines are worth a lot of money. That is why your short lines what to get involved. Follow the tracks that lead to Newton Falls. A steel company has purchased an option on the old J an L property. The have an operating blast furnace in Geneva, N.Y. An also, The Bessemer and lake Erie is set to operate the line from Montreal to the finger lakes railroad. Another short line, of approximately 400 short lines nation wide. I have only bits an pieces of information to bring to the table. There is a big picture here, very few people can see it.
Curt Austin says
Ironic that the debate is now between trail advocates and people in charge of a bankrupt railroad. I’m not aware that any rail trail has declared bankruptcy – let’s go with success.
I also wish we could dispense with the reclamation idea. The stone-by-rail investment plan is to establish a very large gravel pit that will operate indefinitely. The highly visible “big pile” of stone is not the only target. It is dwarfed by many, much larger piles — not so visible since they’re covered in trees. Adirondack conservationists should prefer that Nature continue her efforts.
LeRoy Hogan says
All rail trails are bankrupt failing to ever make a profit with an absence of the trail users paying for trail usage. In the Catskills, Catskill Mountain Rail Road pays a lease to Ulster County and funds their own rail maintenance.
Worth Gretter says
We need to find some company that is serious about hauling the mine tailings by rail instead of truck. Then we can get that temporary culvert crossing, that connects route 25 to the mine, out of the Hudson River. It is an abomination in a wild river.
Dave Whitbeck says
Don’t you all think if a rail operator saw any profit in hauling the tilings out of the old mine they would have done it by now using the rail. Iowa Pacific couldn’t make it happen, so why would anyone else try. It’s been a unused rail line since the mine closed YEARS ago. Iowa Pacific tried to run a scenic railroad on part of it & THAT FAILED. Time to move on & convert it all to a trail
LPG by Rail says
While I’m not well versed in the geological formations in this region, but what if the area (the mine) were to be re-purposed into an underground cavern storage for hydrocarbon products (i..e..propane). Hell will freeze over before pipelines are laid in the NY/New England area, but a “mobile” pipeline like rail opens up a HUGE potential for quality, good paying jobs, and an even bigger reward with clean, affordable energy. Although remote, this would still be an ideal distribution point to serve many areas within ~4/hour trucking run, or loaded LPG could go back out by rail from this point. Bath, NY is a similar example in this case.