Train and trail projects making progress
While work continues on the railroad corridor projects north and south of Tupper Lake, communities are preparing for the crowds of train and trail riders they’ve been promised.
Those crowds include enthusiasts of trains, bikes, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and walking.
After years of debate over what the state should do with the former New York Central Railroad’s Adirondack Division on the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor, which has been out of full operation for decades, the state forged a compromise in 2019 between those who wanted the train to run all the way from Remsen to Lake Placid and those who wanted the rails ripped up along that stretch and turned into a multi-use trail. The state split the corridor in two — with rails running south from Tupper Lake to Remsen, and a trail running north from Tupper Lake to Lake Placid.
Though both camps wish their method of travel could have gone the distance all the way from Thendara to Lake Placid, they’re also grateful for the compromise, which joins the two ways to use the corridor at the Junction in Tupper Lake.
State Department of Transportation spokesman Mike Flick said DOT’s rail removal northeast of Tupper Lake and rehabilitation of the rail line south of Tupper Lake is “substantially complete.” Ownership of the trail heading northeast has been transferred to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
After a long hiatus, a passenger train will make the trek on the rail line from the hamlet of Thendara near Old Forge to the Tupper Lake Depot today.
The trail connecting Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake and Lake Placid is attracting cyclists and walkers while exciting skiers and snowmobilers — even in its unfinished condition — as the state collects permits to finish the job next year.
And rail bike excursions on the tracks south of Tupper Lake have had sold-out weekends since they started in early August.
The owners and operators of the organizations leading the different recreation promotions on this corridor say their recreation opportunities will be a huge economic boon for the Tri-Lakes. The fruition of these projects still waits to be revealed, but with rail and trail projects eyeing completion or the starting of operations next summer, local leaders are also preparing for the influx of tourists they have been promised.
Capitalizing on the trail
The state’s job is just to complete the trail. Then it’s up to other groups to promote it; seek finances to create visitor amenities, maps and entrances to towns; and keep it running.
Adirondack Rail Trail Association Secretary and Treasurer Lee Keet predicts a large economic influx as visitors come to use the trail, and said the ARTA board is “aggressively shifting to support the business communities and municipalities along the corridor.”
“According to independent analyses, we expect $20 million or more in new tourism dollars from over 250,000 new visitors once the entire trail is open,” Keet wrote in an email, pledging its support for what it calls “trail towns” along the corridor.
ARTA, a 12-year-old nonprofit with a 14-member board, is looking for an executive director to lead its efforts. ARTA is also seeking board representation from elected officials and representatives from the business community. Keet said it will also need volunteers to pick up trash when the trail is open.
Since the removal of the tracks last year, bikers have been using the corridor.
“Way more than anybody expected,” Keet said.
When the crowds start coming — they already have, he said — they’ll need information to find amenities on the trail.
Keet said the trail between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid is currently very rough and only caters to fat tire bikes. But the trail between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake is smoother and anyone can ride it.
He said the state’s work is taking slower than ARTA would have liked, but he’s happy to see progress, even if it is slow and steady.
Keet said ARTA will hold an “all-hands” meeting in October to alert the business community to the trail’s growth.
‘Best of both worlds’ in Tupper Lake
Tupper Lake Mayor Paul Maroun said he is excited to ride the train into Tupper Lake today, adding that the rail-trail compromise puts Tupper Lake in a good position.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” he said.
Personally, he wanted the train line to go to Lake Placid, but he’s happy his town will get both train and trail traffic. He thought, once a track is torn up, it never gets re-laid, but an existing track can always be repaired.
With high gas prices, he said the train is a cheap transportation option. It can bring in mass transit — people traveling to the Adirondacks for work or play — or scenic riders.
To make the most of it, Maroun wants to put packages together to tie Tupper Lake into the Amtrak system in Utica and connect it to trains throughout the state.
Interim Tupper Lake town Supervisor Mary Fontana said she’s been rail-skeptical in the past, but she’s excited about the combination rail and trail project.
But she does not want Tupper Lake to be a “pit stop” on people’s journey elsewhere.
“I just don’t want to see them land in Tupper Lake and then take a bus to Saranac Lake or Lake Placid,” Fontana said. “They need to stay here.”
She said there are lots of moving pieces to make Tupper Lake a destination by developing lodging and attractions. Fontana said there needs to be more communication with local business owners to bring in tourists, and Tupper Lake has a serious need for more transportation options to get train visitors around town.
Beaver River frustrations
Not everyone is happy with the rail-trail compromise. In Beaver River, a town with a year-round population in the single digits and no formal paved roads into town, Thompson family members run the Norridgewock Lodge and have been some of the major proponents of tearing up the rails to convert the whole line into a trail.
“So far we’re stuck with this stupid train thing,” said Mark Thompson, who feels the groups traveling on the train are small.
Currently, there’s no platform to let passengers off at Beaver River.
“They sit out here and billow smoke out of the engine. People are looking around, they must think it’s a fright they can’t even get off,” Thompson said.
He said it’s frustrating knowing they could be spending money there.
The state plans to install a platform there eventually. Flick said DOT is still researching additional improvements, including new platforms. Adirondack Railway Preservation Society board Vice President Steven Potter said the state has told him it plans to build these platforms next summer.
Scott Thompson said it’s going to cost state taxpayers millions of dollars and believes it is a waste of money.
Saranac Lake earmarked $25,000 in its general budget this spring for rail-trail amenities, including entry signs and a capital improvement plan. Saranac Lake Village Clerk Amanda Hopf said the village’s rail-trail tie-ins to bring travelers into the business district have been 100% funded by a Smart Growth Grant so far. The village Department of Public Works graded the land in preparation.
Village Mayor Jimmy Williams said the railroad was historic, but he’s long thought a trail would be better for the village.
“I think it provides all kinds of opportunity for activity and recreation in our area that wasn’t being fully utilized in the past,” Williams said. “I think it will definitely positively effect the local economies.”
The town of Harrietstown is planning to use money from Franklin County with the village to promote the new trail.
“The town has not currently allocated money towards any aspect of the rail trail beyond the joint money with the village on the promotion of the rail trail through funds from the county Office of Tourism,” Harrietstown Supervisor Jordanna Mallach wrote in an email.
Mallach said the town is considering creating an access trail to the town-owned airport in Lake Clear and repairing a bridge that existed previously. The Harrietstown Bike Park has a connector trail to the rail-trail, which Mallach said the town plans to sustain.
“A lot is left to still figure out,” Mallach wrote. “I have expressed to the DEC my concerns about the Rail Trail, such as garbage collection, illegal parking around the Rail Trail the blocks resident’s driveways, garbage along the road where people park, and people leaving the trail and trespassing on private property and I think they have many things they are still working on finalizing.”
North Elba town Supervisor Derek Doty said the planning for the rail-trail on his end is still in its infancy.
The town has not earmarked any money for developments near the trail yet, but he said there are plans to build expand a parking lot at the train station, which Essex County public buses stop at on their way around town.
Doty said he has “no question” that it will be a boon for the town.
Lake Placid Mayor Art Devlin hopes for development around the former Lake Placid train station — bike rentals, bathrooms and parking. He said the rail-trail will be an attraction for families.
“I think the biggest thing with the rail-trail is it gives people a safe place to bike,” Devlin said. “Our roads are very narrow.”