By Tom French
With the issue of rail trails being so contentious, it’s easy to forget that hundreds of miles of old railbeds exist in the Adirondacks, many of which are accessible and offer opportunities to explore unique ecological niches and snippets of history.
One such adventure involves the New York & Ottawa, a largely intact line from Tupper Lake north though Santa Clara and St. Regis Falls. Finished in the late 1880s, the line ran until 1937. In its heyday, it offered two round-trips daily between Ottawa and Tupper Lake and served a number of industries.
About half of the 40-mile bed within the Adirondack Park is privately owned and inaccessible, but the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy has a 7-mile right-of-way to Spring Pond Bog, one of the largest expanses of peatland in the Northeast. A pass from the Nature Conservancy is required, and though accessible by car, it provides an excellent opportunity for bikers to enjoy the relatively flat grade of a railroad bed. Access is weather-dependent, and TNC says it generally closes for the season in mid-October.
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Railroad history buffs will want to start at the Tupper Lake Station. Signs of the railbed can be found in the woods across the tracks. The rail line continues down Woulf Avenue and through backyards and parking lots to the Kildare/Pitchfork Pond Road. If starting from the depot, ride west on Main to 7th and then one block over to Kildare Road. You will then be on the route of the railroad.
The road is only paved for about a mile. The gate into land leased by the Township 19 Recreation and Game Club is just under 6 miles from the Tupper Lake Station. The gatekeeper lives in the house at the gate year-round with his wife. He greeted us, checked our paperwork, and allowed us in.
The next mile borders the upper stretches of the Jordan River. At what would have been Kildare Station, we looked for remnants of a spur to Iron Mountain. We could find no sign of it. The actual Kildare Station, a small building, is on display in the Adirondack Experience in Blue Mountain Lake. Kildare was an active railroad camp with connections to the Oval Wood Dish Co. A nearly 10-mile spur veered to the left, now the road to the Kildare Club.
We continued to the right, following the Nature Conservancy signs toward Derrick, the next station on the line.
The bed is gradually uphill and passes several camps. Old railroad ties occasionally peaked through the recently raked gravel. The narrow road is sometimes sandy and loose, so wide tires are recommended.
Two miles from Kildare, the bed begins bordering several ponds including a causeway across Willis Pond. It enters a wooded section between Mud and Blue Ponds with a fun cut through a small hill. At just over 5 miles from the gate, the road descends into Derrick, the location of the Township 19 Clubhouse. Look to the south as you approach, you may spot remnants of a siding. A quarter-mile later, after crossing a wooden bridge, we came to the left turn for the preserve.
The road ascends more steeply because it’s not an old railroad bed. In places it is rough, especially where it’s been filled to cross a wetland or stream. One sandy section caused me to fishtail and required extra pedaling. The trailhead is 1.5 miles from the intersection.
It had taken us 80 minutes from the gate, though we had stopped along the way to converse with a Township 19 board member. He was in an ATV and was surprised to find people on bikes. He explained how the Club leases the land from several landowners. I asked how I could join. He said we had to be on “the list,” which is quite long. He also warned us not to venture onto the Bay Pond property just north on the railroad bed. With connections to the Rockefellers, they have their own “private patrols.”
The 0.7-mile trail weaves onto an esker within 100 yards, the deposits from a river that flowed under the glacial ice. The bog becomes visible through the trees, but it wasn’t until I turned onto a boardwalk that I appreciated its scope and diversity. The sphagnum moss extends for almost 2 miles as it sprawls out to the south, east and west. Burnt reddish hues mixed with several shades of green that contrasted with skeletons of trees in the distance.
The bog encompasses more than 500 acres. The Nature Conservancy acquired it and most of the surrounding 4,200 acres in 1985 from Geoffrey Cobham. The property was part of the proposed Ton-Da-Lay housing development from the 1970s that envisioned 4,000 lots on 18,500 acres with a goal of attracting 20,000 people – a plan that should sound familiar given the ongoing headlines regarding the shuttered Big Tupper Ski area.
The Ton-Da-Lay development was ultimately rejected and involved a New York Supreme Court case that affirmed the right of the state to regulate private land use in the Adirondack Park.
Cobham actually purchased the property to mine the peat. Fortunately, that plan never came to fruition.
We spotted pitcher plants immediately, but the bog hosts a number of other environmentally sensitive species including spruce grouse, black-backed woodpeckers, and the short-eared owl.
The Conservancy issues about 150 passes annually. During the COVID-19 emergency, they are limiting access to two parties per day. Once the health crisis is over, they hope to lift that restriction. The preserve is not open in winter due to the seasonal nature of the road.
After admiring the bog close up from the boardwalk, we climbed back to the top of the esker and followed the trail to its end on a point of land that juts into the bog. Benches are provided so that you can relax and enjoy the vista.