Off the rails again

Boy, I wish I was going to be around 50 years from now to overhear a conversation with a group dedicated to solving the transportation problem in the Adirondacks.

So many cars, so many people, a toll booth at Exit 30 of the Northway. Two hundred dollars for two days, and don’t violate the time stamped on your pass or the fine could be $1,000. The cost per car is $2,000 for a week.

Now could anyone of us have imagined a few years ago that on Sept. 4, 2020, that there would be 24 cars parked at the Haystack Mountain trailhead and some parked on the opposite side of Route 86 near the Saranac Lake Golf Club? Well, there they were — I counted them.

The chairman for the Transportation Committee in 2050 was Wes Moody III, who always tells that it was his great-great-great grandfather who was the first settler in the region. He says to the group, “Do any of you realize that there used to be a railroad line all the way from Utica to Lake Placid?”

Moody went on: “God almighty, what jerks. They tore up the tracks and put in a biking-hiking trail in its place.

“Newspaper stories I found from back in the 2030s, when they finally got the tracks torn up and the trail in, claim it was quite successful for a while. One can still see traces of the old trail and rail bed.”

“The hikers and bikers would buy a bag of peanuts or even maybe a whole bag of trail mix, put on their backpacks and head out. I guess it was a real boost to the economy at the time.”

“You see, we could have hundreds of electric cars parked at the railroad station,” Moody added, “for visitors to rent, as every hotel now has an electric car for every guest.”

Opportunity lost

When the Adirondack Scenic Railroad was running, it was a real boost to Saranac Lake businesses … especially for the carousel next to the station, but also groups off the train trickled downtown. Shop owners say they could tell almost immediately when the train arrived because there suddenly would be so many more people on the street.

If only the trains and rail bikes could have stayed until the tracks were torn up — but the trail people put the kibosh to that. They got their wish, and Saranac Lake once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

The trail advocates may live long enough to see their grandchildren using that trail, but I believe even that is a stretch.

I am particularly sensitive to the Scenic Railroad because I was on the Board of Directors when it had its maiden run. Henry Parnass was president of the board, so we would occasionally have our meetings here at the village office, but most of the time the meetings were in Old Forge.

The train station here had been restored; we had a huge tent set up beside the station with food, a band and no speeches. Chamber of commerce staff stayed busy making sure everything went off without a hitch. We had high hopes.

However, I have been saving the best for last. I love this column by Bill McLaughlin, as he loved to write about the halcyon days of his youth. Man, I wish he had published his columns in a book. Maybe his daughter Shannon and his son Bill can get right on that for me.

Circus trains parked in Saranac Lake [column from July 1972]

“We are finding out that railroading will simply not die a graceful death up here. The existing road bed of Penn Central represents the life line of several schemes for continuance of rail service.

“Luke Wood, who was dressed conservatively enough for a funeral wake, was perhaps the most hopeful, most optimistic of all who attended the town hall railroad hearings yesterday.

“Luke, a station agent, was rather well known in the village in the days of the dying throes of passenger service, and when that last big double header came through with the International Rotarian convention special, his blood pressure and pulse rate soared high indeed.

“Most of us who wanted a train picture stood on the corners between Ray Brook and Saranac Lake to grab the action if it hurtled off the track.

“It looked like about a 50-50 chance that the tremendous weight and lively speed would combine to put the 85-car luxury train into the woods.

“There were cars hooked to the twin diesels from famous lines in the south, west, north and east, including double domes and sunliners. It was a fitting climax to the glory days of railroading in the North Country.

“Luke was carrying copies of the New York Central timetable for the Adirondack Division dated June 15, 1902 at the hearing yesterday and it would make you cry if nostalgia was your bag.

“Included in the timetable was a list of 140 resort villages and lakes reached by the famous Adirondack Division. Trains on both the New York Central and the Delaware and Hudson made the local station a lively place if you happened to be growing up in Saranac Lake then and even later. [Believe me, it was still our hangout in the 1940s.]

“All the circuses came into the village by rail. The rail yards adjacent to Branch and Callanan and O’Connell’s Mill were a virtual Noah’s Ark as the wild animals were unloaded.

“Promoters parked the famous embalmed whale on the Branch and Callanan siding in August, and if the wind was right, they didn’t have to advertise it downtown.

“John R. Van Arnam’s famous minstrel observation car was usually here in the summer for a weekend as the show played in town.

“Up around the present Texaco plant off Ampersand Avenue was an interesting hobo jungle. Tramps were drawn to the Adirondacks just the same as millionaires and sportsmen. The passenger station boasted telegraphers and baggage clerks, a semi-round magazine and candy oasis, chewing gum machines, a big smoking room where prisoners on their way to Dannemora were allowed to sit in comfort but handcuffed as they waited further transportation to Dannemora prison.

“At night when the southbound division pulled in, there were usually two or three coffins going aboard, tuberculosis patients who didn’t make it.”

[The bodies were always shipped at night — hidden from the eyes of the waiting passengers. Bill survived tuberculosis and could match anyone stride for stride through the woods or up Wright’s Peak. He then died of cancer in his late 60s.]

“If you hung around enough and didn’t act too smart-alec, the engineer of the train going from Saranac Lake to Lake Placid might let you ride in the cab of the locomotive. Of course, you had to walk back, but it was worth it.

“When the railroads stopped being important up here a little of the heartbeat of Saranac Lake went down the drain. Today you can walk through weeds where real drama and excitement made being a kid in Saranac Lake a lot of fun.” [Amen.]


Thanks to Julia Frank for the above. Julia, a summer intern for the Enterprise in the 1970s, wrote an incredible amount of stories, pretty much filling up two volumes of scrapbooks on loan to me. Julia, please email me if you read this column.


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