Rail line travel from Utica once again possible
By Tim Rowland
A northbound passenger train out of Utica rolled into Tupper Lake for the first time in 57 years Sunday, enchanting rail buffs and sightseers, and tantalizing merchants with thoughts of what an extra 200 tourists regularly delivered to their doors could mean for the local economy.
Richard Palmer was a 19-year-old railroad enthusiast when he twice rode the rails through Tupper Lake in 1965, once as part of regular passenger service to Plattsburgh, and once on a charter train to Lake Placid. So, with a career as a newspaperman for the Syracuse Herald-Journal now behind him, he wasn’t about to miss the chance to replicate much of the route.
Still a railroad fan and a member of the Central New York Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, Palmer said he relished the scenery, the rails and the camaraderie, and that he believes the scenic railroad can be a long-term success.
About 250 people rode the inaugural excursion of the High Peaks Limited, an 11-hour odyssey from Utica to Tupper Lake and back, much of it through scenic Adirondack backcountry. Operated by the nonprofit Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, Inc., it was also the first public manifestation of a years-long, often-contentious discussion over the best use for a 119-mile rail corridor between Remsen and Lake Placid.
Rail buffs wanted the entire line open to trains, while recreationists believed it would be better served as a rail trail. In the end, the state did both, refurbishing the rails south of Tupper Lake for rail traffic, while targeting the Tupper-to-Placid segment for recreation.
Passengers Sunday said they were captivated by the history of the line, which was built by William Seward Webb 130 years ago, the first Mohawk and Malone Railroad locomotive steaming into Tupper Lake on July 16, 1892. Through much of the 20th century the line was operated by the storied New York Central. But as the industry declined, passenger service ceased in 1965, freight service seven years later. In 1974, the corridor was purchased by the state, which since 1992 has leased it to ARPS for scenic rides out of Thendera, near Old Forge.
Doug Ellison of Vermilion, Ohio, was a railroad worker who was on the last train south out of Lake Placid on Aug. 5, 1980. “We didn’t know it was the last train at the time,” he said. But he did know that he wanted to be on the first train back.
“There hasn’t been a lot of change, but it’s a thrill riding through the Adirondacks and seeing all the historic sites,” he said.
To greet and celebrate the first train of paying passengers, Tupper Lake arranged a “Junction Function,” with music, arts, tourist information and vendors. Tupper Lake residents turned out as well to welcome the passengers.
“I’m excited for Tupper Lake,” said Becky Trenz, whose family had been watching the track construction from their home. “It’s a great opportunity for the community, and when I saw the train was going to be here I wanted to bring the kids down the hill to watch.” Her children affirmed that now, they too, are rail enthusiasts.
Sarah Pratt, arts coordinator for Tupper Arts, said she believes the state got it right by catering both to railroad aficionados and trail users.
“I love the combination of railroad, bike path and snowmobile trail,” she said. “The impact is going to be tremendous.”
One piece of the puzzle yet to be figured out, she said, is how to connect passengers with the downtown commercial district, more than a mile and a half away. “There’s a lack of transportation to the downtown,” she said, which means the economic benefit cannot yet be maximized.
Some were in town for other reasons, such as to ride the final rail-biking excursion of the season. Deonna Formica and Michael Jim came from Syracuse to enjoy the scenery on the six-mile rail-bike excursion running on the same recently refurbished rails. It was exciting to see the train come by,” said Formica, as the couple found themselves surrounded by disembarking passengers.
Joe Van Ells, director of rail bike operations for ARPS, said the ride, which, along with their High Peaks Limited, will resume in 2023, features views of Mt. Arab, the southern High Peaks and the Raquette River.
“Every time they come back they have huge smiles on their faces, Van Ells said.
The rail bike schedule is timed so that a passenger could ride to Tupper, pedal on a rail bike on their 90-minute layover, and then return to the train.
Adult ticket prices for the inaugural High Peaks Limited ranged from $150 to $235 based on the level of service, with discounts for kids, seniors and military. Seats range from posh, overstuffed chairs to seats in an open-windowed coach where riders snapped pictures and waved to the people along the route who showed up to see the train. “People were out taking photographs (of the train) in some pretty remote locations,” said head conductor Bill Moll. “I don’t know how they got out there.”
More information about the High Peaks Limited and other Adirondack Railroad excursions throughout the year can be found at adirondackrr.com.
Don’t miss a thing
Sign up for our “Adk News Briefing” newsletter, a weekly look at the hottest Adirondack stories