Couple plans to reopen railway and mine titanium
By Tim Rowland
The Saratoga and North Creek Railway, a World War II-era spur running to the old mining community of Tahawus in the Town of Newcomb, will remain an operational railroad, after its assets were purchased at auction by a New Mexico couple who plan to resume mining for titanium at the long-shuttered works.
“We are here to help the region as far as jobs, bringing back tourism and working for environmental protection,” said Carol McLean Wright, who with her husband John Wright bought the railroad at a private auction on Thursday in Denver for $3.33 million.
The ante for the old line has been upped over the past year due to geopolitical and economic considerations that have placed a premium on titanium and rare earth elements deemed critical for national defense and multiple technologies including those used in car batteries.
Tahawus began its life in the 19th century mining iron, but later was rejuvenated by the discovery of titanium. That development was a matter of national defense as well, as it proved valuable during World War II and was the reason the railroad was built in the first place.
Carol Wright said the couple, owners of Doc N Duchess Rails LLC in Alamogordo, N.M., are in negotiations to buy the mining property, currently being worked for reclamation of aggregates by Mitchell Stone Products.
Among other ventures, John Wright served as a United Nations Inspector for Biological Weapons in Desert Storm, while Carol was ambassador to the UN for the Royal Sultanate of North Borneo.
Along with industry, they hope to run tourist trains with a focus on ecology and astronomy.
Conservation groups had hoped the scenic, 30-mile spur along the Hudson and Boreas rivers might become a signature rail trail, a southern echo of the evolving Adirondack Rail Trail connecting Lake Placid and Tupper Lake.
But ultimately, the overgrown road, barely a scratch through the wilderness and unused since 2018, became tied up in global issues of supply chains, national security and fear of Chinese monopolies — and the vagaries of U.S. railroad and bankruptcy law.
The railway filed for bankruptcy a year ago and court trustee William Brandt Jr. accepted a “stalking horse” — or baseline — bid of $700,000 from Revolution Rail, which wanted to expand its rail-biking business out of North Creek, and also contract with a hauler to serve industry in the corridor. Two other bidders, the Wrights and Sierra Railroad, also qualified to bid.
Quashing rail trail hopes
Although the Open Space Institute had offered $1.5 million for the line, it was not permitted to participate in the auction without a provision for hauling freight.
Neither was the state Department of Environmental Conservation — which has petitioned the federal Surface Transportation Board asking that the line be abandoned.The court said the state has no authority over the federal easement and does not have any financial interest.
Brandt said that now that the road has been auctioned with a specific freight use in mind, he believes the STB will dismiss the state’s abandonment petition.
Eileen Larrabee, OSI’s communications director, said that it had decided to pursue a different path given the court rulings. “OSI determined that the best way to achieve our recreational and conservation goals for the former rail line is to engage with the successful bidder for the property,” she said in an email. “In the meantime, OSI will continue working with the local communities, state agencies, and other stakeholders for the protection, health, and economic prosperity throughout the Adirondacks.”
World events, meanwhile, may have played a role in the railroad’s fate. In 2017, the Trump Administration issued an executive order asking the Department of the Interior to compile a list of critical minerals essential to economic and national security, and that were vulnerable to supply chain disruptions that would have “significant” consequences. The department identified titanium among 35 elements deemed of critical importance.
According to court documents, Mitchell Stone Products had indicated it was considering reopening the mine for production of titanium, something the DEC says it is not permitted to do.
Nevertheless, the court agreed that the presence of an old titanium mine at the end of the line “makes it unlikely that the STB will approve abandonment of the rail lines on the Saratoga Easement.”
Brandt said the line will require some upgrades to return it to good condition, but not as much as might be expected. Because it was built to federal standards it’s of higher quality than private roads, and its “bridges were built to rival the Roman aqueducts,” he said.