To the editor:
The recent letter to the editor from Historic Saranac Lake ("Railroad is on national historic register") needs to be put in context.
The railroad itself is not on the national historic register. What is on the register is the New York Central Railroad Division Historic District, the corridor that runs 118 miles between Lake Placid and Remsen. The corridor encompasses 23 buildings and 18 structures, including the tracks and ties. From the first sentence of the application for historic-register status, the right of way is the focus of protection. While the tracks are mentioned, it is the buildings and bridges that are singled out as important structures needing protection.
What does it mean to be on the historic register, which comes under the National Park Service? According to the NPS: "From the Federal perspective, property owners can do whatever they want with their property as long as there are no Federal monies attached to the property. If Federal monies are attached to the property, then any changes to the property have to allow the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (www.achp.gov) to comment on the project."
This designation seems to be more about the ability to apply for federal and state grants than being a mandate that "everything must remain the same" on the designated properties. Tellingly, the grant industry seems to be the source of much of the opposition to this trail. The opponents consist largely of groups that write grants, get grants, administer grants or hope to receive grants in the future. It's clear they don't want to lose the opportunity the railroad affords them as a revenue stream.
The state Department of Transportation, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Adirondack Park Agency all agreed on a key point in the 1996 management plan that governs use of the rail corridor. The tracks, they allowed, could be removed and sold for scrap after a five-year test period for the train if the train was not successful and if better use could be made of this recreational resource. That was just three years after the historic designation was approved for the right of way.
Keeping small sections of track around the stations, like many other rail trails do, will help people to understand what was once there. We should preserve the corridor and allow many more people who would use the recreation trail to enjoy the legacy we have been left. The fact is, the trail option offers unlimited possibilities for the public to be exposed to the very history that some groups, such as Historic Saranac Lake, say they are trying to preserve. What better way than on foot or on bike, by snowmobile or on skis in the winter, to see firsthand how this engineering marvel was carved out of the wilderness? What better way to explore the historic buildings and experience the bridge structures up close - as a participant rather than a passerby in a rail car?
We must interpret and share our heritage with the widest possible audience. With the tracks removed, we are looking at easily 10 times the number of visitors than would ever ride a tourist train. Converting the rail to a trail presents us with an opportunity to make history come alive. We must honor and preserve our past, and a world-class recreational trail, attracting large numbers of visitors from far and wide, seems a wonderful way to do this.