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.