Antique ‘speeder’ rail car rides on the edge of Adirondack Park
By Tom French
One of the best parts of a speeder ride out of Croghan, along the western edge of the Adirondacks, is Floyd Graves, the motorman. Born in 1943 and a lifelong resident of Croghan, he tells stories and points out landmarks for the entire 1.5 miles down the tracks, and back, over the din of the Hercules 4-cylinder flathead and the scream of metal wheels rolling on metal track.
Floyd and his son, Brian, restored the 1945 Kalamazoo Rail Motor Car in 2010.
“It sat in Castorland for 6 or 7 years and then it sat here for 2 or 3 years, so one night after a meeting (of the Railway Historical Society of Northern New York), I said, ‘You care if I take it home and see if I can get it running and fix it up’ because it was all tumbling down. So I did.”
Floyd continues, “We completely stripped it, sandblasted and painted it. I had tracks in my garage for running it back and forth. We had more fun working on the project than we ever did on anything else.”
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Less than 10 miles from the Blue Line, Croghan is the gateway to some of the most remote parts of the Adirondacks including the Croghan Tract, Watson’s East Triangle, and Stillwater Reservoir. It could be considered one of the most distant areas away from the hustle and bustle of the tourists’ crowds.
The Railway Historical Society of Northern New York, a not-for-profit 501(c)(3), has roots into the 1960s. The Lowville and Beaver River Railroad, one of the oldest short lines in America, was running commercial freight until 2007. The Historical Society purchased a 1918 steam locomotive Shay engine in 1989 and for a time offered excursion rides in the early ’90s, but several mechanical issues have put the Shay out of commission. Its current goal is a tourist line between Croghan and Lowville with railbikes as well, which are already sitting on the Croghan turntable.
But like many small rail lines, the Lowville & Beaver River has its challenges. Despite the current use of the line, Lewis County is attempting to acquire the tracks through eminent domain and convert the right-of-way into a multi-use trail.
When we arrive, Laurie Halladay, museum curator and Croghan town historian, was offering a bit of history to a full load of passengers about to leave for Beaver Falls. The tracks belong to the Batavia-based Genesee Valley Transportation Company and include a swing bridge first built for canal boats. The Historical Society has an arrangement for use of the tracks. The 10 miles of rail between Croghan and Lowville are all intact except for a crossing near Lowville that the county pulled up and are supposed to put back. Most crossings are simply paved over.
The day we visited, a movie production crew was filming the combine car in Lowville for a documentary, The Conductor, about gambling in the ’40s.
Laurie escorts us into the station lobby which looks much the same as it did when it was built circa 1904. History wafted into our noses. We weave through the office and a narrow corridor with two steps into the freight house, which is filled with railroad memorabilia and Croghan history. A large HO layout, a model of the L&BR commissioned by Railroad Model Craftsman magazine in 1989, dominates the room along with a 1905 velocipede and homemade railbike literally made with an old bike.
A few minutes later, the speeder returns and we find a seat next to Floyd.
“This isn’t going to sound like it’s going to start. But it will.” The starter grunts once and pauses before the engine hums. “See? Second time it goes. Old six-volt system. It’s pretty dead.”
As we head down the tracks, he points to the old milk station, the cheese factory next door (now Roggie’s Machine Shop), and where AMF had a dry-kiln for shoe last and bowling pins before it burned in the fifties.
“There were rail tracks in here to all these places,” Floyd says.
As we roll out of town, the tracks arch downward. The elevation difference between Croghan and Lowville is 111 feet, so it’s mostly downhill. Floyd cuts the engine, and still we accelerate, the only sound above Floyd’s voice the whir of wheels on track. We reach the bridge over Black Creek. Floyd stops the speeder and points to the confluence with the Beaver River in the distance which flows from Lake Lila and the Stillwater Reservoir.
“If you live in Croghan, this is the first rapids. There’s another rapids downriver, that’s the second. Kids in Beaver Falls call it the other way around, that one’s the first and this one’s second. But I call this the upper one because this is the higher one.”
Continuing on, Floyd explains how speeder cars were used by maintenance crews. “My father worked for the railroad out of Castorland. He rode speeder cars like this. They would come to a spot where they wanted to work and push these things off the track. A guy would climb up a pole, hook on the telephone line, and tell them they were off the track and the track was clear so they could send the trains.”
When we reach Route 126 where the tracks are paved over, we turn around. As we cross School Street back into Croghan, Floyd blows the speeder’s horn. “Two long, short, and a long. The last one’s supposed to last until the engine crosses the street. That’s the way I understand it.”
A chance to ride
The Historical Society plans to run speeder rides again on Saturday, July 30 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with a barbecue. The annual Iron Horse Days will be in late August/early fall, and foliage rides are planned as well. Call (315) 346-6848 for more information.