Offer reignites debate over future of 30-mile rail line
By Tim Rowland
The Open Space Institute has made a $1.5 million offer for the abandoned Tahawus Line of the Saranac North Creek Railway under a railbanking plan that would permit its use as a recreational trail, while not entirely ruling out future commercial service should a viable freight carrier present itself.
The offer was not accepted by a bankruptcy court trustee who controls SNCR’s assets, but the ultimate fate of the 30-mile line will rest with the federal Surface Transportation Board. The entry of OSI, whose plan would allow for recreational use while protect the rail infrastructure for at least three years, fills a missing piece for the state, which has argued that the spur should be abandoned, but did not itself have immediate plans to buy it.
OSI has been actively protecting lands in the Tahawus area, and has invested considerable funds improving access for hikers and paddlers.
Environmental groups and the Department of Environmental Conservation are hoping to convert the Tahawus line into a rail trail, while the bankruptcy trustee, Essex County and the Town of Newcomb are holding out hope a freight carrier can be enticed to once again run the rails, spurring economic activity.
Rail-trail advocates, however, believe it’s tourism that holds the best economic potential, while maintaining a more natural environment. The railroad runs through long stretches of the forest preserve.
“Securing the line would create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to develop a world-class rail trail and a year-round recreational destination,” Eileen Larrabee, senior vice president for OSI communications said in an email. “Still, whether OSI manages the right-of-way for commercial or for recreational purposes it is important for it to be controlled by a conservation-minded operator to ensure the line does not become a parking lot for dilapidated rail cars.”
The line had drawn comparatively little attention until 2017, when a parent company of SNCR parked dozens of oil tankers in what amounted to the middle of the wilderness. The tankers were removed, but not before the 30 mile line between North Creek and the old mining community of Tahawus became a rallying point for conservationists.
Newcomb Supervisor Robin DeLoria said the tankers contained only canola oil and were never an environmental threat, but that the negative publicity frightened off a couple of carriers that had expressed interest in purchasing the line.
At Tahawus, where the railroad ends, an 80 million ton pile of mining waste and stone remains that Mitchell Stone Products is processing and shipping out by truck for road bases, landscaping and other uses. DeLoria said opening the line to freight service would remove this eyesore from the wilderness more quickly and in a more environmentally friendly way than removing it by truck.
In an STB filing, the Town of Newcomb also said the waste might have considerably more value depending on the presence of rare earth elements used in dozens of technologies, from military applications to electric car batteries. Currently, sources of these elements are largely held by China, but geologists have noted their presence in Adirondack mine tailings.
In a joint letter, the Town of Newcomb and Essex County wrote, “These rare earth elements remain of strategic importance to the United States Defense Department and further study of the quantity of these materials justifies the STB’s denial of the adverse abandonment. Today, the search for these elements is considered the gold rush of the 21st century.”
But in court filings last week, the DEC said freight advocates have failed to find a carrier that believes hauling material from the mines can be profitable. The only other bid for the line has come from bike-rail company Revolution Rail, which offered $700,000. If no carrier is found, the trustee could auction off the railroad, using this $700,000 figure as a floor.
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The DEC meanwhile has asked the Surface Transportation Board to declare the line abandoned, contending that a rail trail “has the potential to serve as a significant economic driver in what is already a tourism-dependent region,” according to STB filings.
Pointing to the developing rail trail between Lake Placid and Tupper Lake — which is expected to attract an annual 245,000 visitors and generate $20 million in spending, filings say the “DEC believes that the (Tahawus) line, once railbanked, has the potential to provide an ecologically responsible means for public access to the beautiful High Peaks region of the Adirondack Park while generating significant revenue for North Creek and other nearby communities.”
The railroad was built during World War II when the need for titanium mined at Tahawus was critical. The mines closed in 1982, and freight was last hauled from Tahawus in 1989, according to the DEC. The line was sold to SNCR in 2011, and no freight carrier has been able to make a commercial success of it since. SNCR’s parent company, the San Luis & Rio Grande, sought bankruptcy protection in 2019, and SNCR, which is a separate legal entity, filed for bankruptcy in 2020.
“While bankruptcy procedures are always complicated, those involving rail lines are even more so, we look forward to working with local communities, state agencies and other stakeholders to optimize the rail line for access and use,” Larrabee said. “As this process proceeds, we are in steady conversations with representatives of both the state and local governments to keep them informed of this unique opportunity to transform the recreational economy of this southern Adirondack region.”