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Best way to soak up history

November 12, 2012
By Scott Thompson , Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates

A key to celebrating the region's history may be found in the old railroad corridor that traverses the Adirondack Park from Remsen to Lake Placid. This includes the 90-mile section connecting Old Forge with the Tri-Lakes area, a virtually unused resource that could easily be converted into one of this nation's finest recreational rail trails.

Thanks to Historic Saranac Lake, this corridor has been designated a national historic district. It encompasses 23 buildings and various bridges and other structures. Among the venerable buildings is the old station house that once served Nehasane Park, the wilderness estate of Dr. William Seward Webb at Lake Lila. Last winter I photographed this collapsing historic gem, which looks as though it may not survive another winter.

It's helpful to designate this wonderful rail corridor as "historic," but it's not enough. We need to maintain these historic structures, and we need to share the remarkable history this corridor embodies. Moreover, our cultural heritage can best be imbibed up close, the way you would experience it 360 degrees when bicycling or walking or just standing there, contemplating the past.

Article Photos

The old train station house that once served Nehasane Park, the wilderness estate of Dr. William Seward Webb at Lake Lila, is seen collapsing last winter.
(Photo — Scott Thompson)

This recent report from a friend illustrates what I'm talking about:

"When I rode the tourist train from Saranac Lake to Lake Placid, we almost immediately skirted the Pine Ridge Cemetery. An announcer told us that we were passing the graves of Norwegian sailors who had come to Saranac Lake during World War II to be treated for tuberculosis. But we couldn't see this historic site from the train, as it was hidden behind a row of cedars. And by the time the announcer mentioned it, we were long gone.

"Later I visited the cemetery and checked with Historic Saranac Lake for the full story. These sailors had been at sea when the Germans invaded their country, so their port of call became New York City. Some were diagnosed with tuberculosis and were sent to Saranac Lake, an international center for TB treatment. On the grave markers I saw that one of the sailors had died many years after the others - turned out he'd recovered and made Saranac Lake his permanent home. The little Norwegian flags marking the 17 graves were put there by a resident of the village, who has cared for this plot over the years."

This is a wonderful bit of history that could be highlighted all along the corridor for those interested in combining exercise and scenery with some local lore. It's been estimated that more than 200,000 tourists, most of them on bikes, would be drawn here each year by the recreation trail. Many would stop along the way to soak up the history of the region. This would certainly include a visit to Saranac Lake village, whose TB era still resonates from hundreds of buildings with those curious appendages known as "cure porches" where patients endlessly rested in their "cure chairs" and breathed the mountain air; in Dr. Trudeau's laboratory on Church Street, now a museum, where pioneering TB research was carried out; in the restored Union Depot station, the perfect space to create another museum commemorating Dr. Trudeau and the critical role of Saranac Lake in battling the most deadly disease of the time.

Farther along the trail, one of the great milestones of American conservation could be interpreted for passersby. They would learn that the "forever wild" Adirondack Forest Preserve has been the national model for wilderness preservation. They would learn about the St. Regis Canoe Area, which the corridor borders. At Tupper Lake Junction, with its wonderfully replicated train station, trail users could learn about the history of railroading in the Adirondacks - the station would be the ideal place to commemorate the railroad era.

There are intersections with history all along this incredible corridor. At Lake Lila, the former Webb estate - with its sadly collapsing train station - could be interpreted for the bicycling and snowmobiling public. It was here that the builder of this railroad, Dr. William Seward Webb, sought respite at his great camp by the lovely lake (named for his wife Lila Vanderbilt), which is now part of the public preserve. Dr. Webb established the Adirondack line in part for personal convenience, traveling here in his private railroad car. But his larger purpose was to make a smart investment, and the implications for the region were far-reaching. This extraordinary engineering feat - he completed the entire line to Lake Placid in 1892 in just 18 months - opened the region to the outside world, transporting passengers and supplies into the mountains, hauling industrial products out of the area.

Farther down the line is my "hometown" of Beaver River, with its truly distinctive history. At the north end of Stillwater Reservoir, cut off from roads when the reservoir was expanded; this is surely the most isolated community in the state, accessible only by water or by rail corridor. Dr. Webb set up the Beaver River station for his logging operations, and it soon became a regular stop for sportsmen as well. After the old-growth forest was cut over, Dr. Webb kept 180 acres and deeded the rest to the state. For generations my family has lived here, operating the Norridgewock Hotel and restaurant, general store, bar and post office. There are more than 100 seasonal camps at Beaver River, and in the summer our population surges to about 300. But in the winter it's just us, surviving on the snowmobile trade as conditions allow.

There's history all along this corridor, crying out to be interpreted and experienced. Thanks to Dr. Webb's rail bed, what we call the "Adirondack Rail Trail" from Old Forge to Lake Placid is already 90 percent built. All that's needed now is to salvage the old tracks, replace them with a compacted, crushed-stone surface and - voila! - we'll have a world-class recreation trail.

What a great way to celebrate our past and share it with the rest of the world.


Scott Thompson of Beaver River is a board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.



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