Saturday, July 7, 2018

Dick Beamish: Adirondack Rail Trail For All

As the Adirondack Park Agency once again ponders the fate of the Tri-Lakes rail corridor, the return of a temporary, for-profit rail-bike business is being considered for the stretch of track between Saranac Lake and Lake Clear.

The popularity of these machines gives a hint of the potential benefits that will accrue from a bike path on this state-owned right-of-way once the tracks are removed. This much-discussed Adirondack Rail Trail now awaits a final okay from the APA and perhaps (here we go again!) a final round of hearings on the state’s Unit Management Plan governing use of the rail corridor.

Bicycling promises to be the Next Big Thing in the Adirondacks, an outdoor activity that will be hugely enhanced by this 34-mile trail connecting Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. Cyclists will no longer have to risk their lives braving traffic, especially on the hair-raising stretch of NY 86 between Placid and Saranac. Locals and tourists of all ages and physical abilities will be able to enjoy the Adirondack Rail Trail on a regular basis, in every season and free of charge. And not just for bicycling. This safe, peaceful, scenic pathway will also lend itself to walking, jogging, skiing, and communing with nature.

The local economy will certainly benefit from this recreational amenity, something my wife Rachel and I have seen firsthand as we explore rail trails in other parts of the country. Everywhere along these rail-to-trail conversions we see new businesses springing up, including restaurants, B&Bs, motels, art galleries, bike retail and repair shops, you name it. Former station houses have also been adapted for every conceivable purpose, from tourist- information centers to libraries, snack bars, bike rentals, museums, and overnight accommodations.

A major challenge facing rural communities are aging populations and falling school enrollments. To help counter this worrisome trend, the Adirondack Rail Trail will appeal to younger couples looking for a healthy, community-minded, naturally beautiful place to live and raise their children. With the advent of telecommuting, more and more people can now live where they chose as they conduct their business via the internet. The presence of an inviting rail trail could prove irresistible to many young telecommuters when combined with everything else the Tri-Lakes has to offer: a lovely setting, friendly small-town character, good schools, flourishing art scene, excellent libraries, a range of restaurants and (in Saranac Lake) a beautifully remodeled centerpiece hotel.

Public health also benefits from the regular use of rail trails, which provide an easy and pleasant way to enjoy regular exercise while getting out in nature. It’s telling that two of our favorite rail trails — the Swamp Rabbit Trail connecting Greenville and Travelers Rest in South Carolina, and the western section of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail in Vermont — are sponsored by local hospitals.

Speaking of the Lamoille Valley RT, here’s an excerpt from the current issue of Stowe Magazine about the progress being made on this rail-to-trail conversion that will extend all the way across northern Vermont.

“Let’s say you’re a normal person who owns a bicycle. You love riding your bike — inhaling the rich smells of a Vermont summer, slowing down or stopping when you find something interesting, getting that good feeling when your muscles ache just a little.

“But you’re not fond of biking along roads with fast-moving traffic, and mountain biking seems a little too kamikaze. Have we got the ticket for you — the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail!

“Trains are big and heavy and not good at climbing, so railroad lines were always as straight and flat as possible. What’s left when a railroad is abandoned is a reasonably straight, level right-of-way. Pull up the track and ties and you have a flat-as-a-crepe recreation trail.

“The Lamoille Valley RT was once the route for the St. Johnsbury and Lake Champlain Railroad Co. The line, constructed in 1877, transported passengers and freight between St. Johnsbury and Swanton for nearly a hundred years. Service stopped in 1973, when the railroad went bankrupt. Vermont acquired the right-of-way, and in 1997 the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers began using it as a snowmobile trail.

“The Lamoille County section of the trail winds through forests, open fields, farmland hills, and wetlands. The trail offers stunning views of the Lamoille Valley, and opens up snapshots of the Lamoille River, Elmore Mountain, and the Green Mountains that weren’t available before. The trail crosses more than 40 bridges and runs through more than 900 wetland areas, great places to see birds and other wildlife.

“The target year for completion is 2021. When finished it will be 93 miles long, travel through 18 towns, and span Vermont from the Connecticut River to Lake Champlain. The trail is closed to motor vehicles, although snowmobiles use it in the winter, along with cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and fat-tire bikers. In the summer, cyclists, runners, walkers, and horseback riders flock to it…”

The Lamoille Valley project is one of thousands of rail trails that have cropped up throughout the United States during the last 30 years, with new ones opening all the time. When the Adirondack Rail Trail is completed, hopefully within the next two years, it promises to be one of the best of them.

Photo of tourist train by Susan Bibeau.


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Dick Beamish

Dick Beamish was a staff member of the Adirondack Park Agency from 1972-78 and the founder of Adirondack Explorer. He now lives in Middlebury, VT; he was a founding member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates (ARTA).

15 Responses

  1. Keith R Gorgas says:

    I am going to preface my remarks by saying that I have never had anything other than pleasant and respectful personal interaction with Dick Beamish, and I very much appreciate his devotion and care for the Adirondacks, so it’s a challenge to write vehemently against a concept, while avoiding what might seem like a personal attack. I hope it will not be taken that way.

    First of all, why is the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, the current lease holder of the Railroad Corridor, being referred to now as a for profit business? It is a not for profit business. One of the big talking points against the railroad has been that it doesn’t make enough money ( Just for the record, contrary to ARTA’s claims, the ASR has serviced it’s past debts, operates in the black, and is self-supporting for operating expenses)

    With the bankruptcy of the NY Central RR, back in the 1970’s, the State purchased the Right of Way, using railroad bonds, for the specific purpose of maintaining the possibility of restoring rail service in the future. The clear intent of the APA’s designation of the ROW as a “Travel Corridor” was to preserve and facilitate that option.

    Now the APA, against a significant majority of public comments which favor the fulfillment of the 1996 Unit Management Plan, calling for restored rail service with side by side recreational trails where possible, is attempting to re-write the State Land Master Plan to aid with the destruction of the railroad. Let’s be very clear about this: if the APA proceeds with this short sighted plan, it will take two sessions of the State legislature to approve it, before overthrowing the NY State Supreme Court’s ruling that the plan is illegal. That would put any action at least two years away.

    However, the definition of the Travel Corridor is only one of three major areas in which Judge Maine found the the DEC’s plan to be “arbitrary and capricious”.

    The DEC has falsely represented that the State owns the underlying private land throughout the right of way, at one time claiming to have taken the land via eminent domain, a claim now removed from their web site. The State doesn’t own the land, and will have to settle for new easements on over 50 parcels of land along the route if the rails are removed. This will take considerable time, and millions of taxpayer dollars to do.

    Presently downtown Saranac Lake has over 28 closed business fronts, with several more prepared to close soon. Without a doubt, the restoration of the Hotel Saranac is bringing tourists and shoppers back to our village, but over 40,000 per year are missing since the State forced the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and Rail Explorers out of the local business scene. The negative economic impact is felt by many businesses, from shops to restaurants, hotels, and gas stations.

    While the matter is being resolved, one way or another, the Adirondack Scenic Railroad is planning to utilize the tracks to return what was the #1 tourism and ecotourism in the Northern Adirondacks, according to TripAdvisor; rail bikes on the railroad. In 2016, Rail Explorers, the company then operating on the rails carried 21,873 paying passengers on the section of rail from Saranac Lake to Lake Clear. I know, because I was standing by the computer when the last sale was made , and read the year end total.

    Without arguing out the long term economic, environmental, historic, cultural, and social merits of restored rail service connecting the Tri-Lakes area with the nation’s mass transit system, I think it should be obvious to folks on either side of this issue that, while this matter plays out in the courts and in the legislature over the next few years, using the rails for what is now a proven solid eco-tourism attraction is a sensible and judicious use of a current resource.

    Respectfully, Keith Gorgas Saranac Lake

  2. Bill says:

    Interesting points, although I’m confused as to why the Hotel Saranac is included as one of the things that will supposedly lure young telecommuters to move to the Tri-Lakes area. If they move here they won’t be staying at a hotel, and if they’re telecommuters they’ll already have jobs and won’t be working at the hotel, either.

    • Phil Brown Phil Brown says:

      The hotel has a beautiful bar on the second floor and a restaurant on the first floor.

      • Larry Roth Larry Roth says:

        And don’t forget the luxury spa in the basement. They take people by appointment.

        Of course, the rail station is within walking distance of the hotel too. Seems to me those young telecommuters would like the option of being able to travel without having to use a car for everything. If they’re coming from the big cities, they expect to have choices – including rail

  3. Larry Roth Larry Roth says:

    Why does Mr. Beamish assume the rail bikes will be only temporary? The ASR and the Rail Explorers shared the rails for two years before the state drove them both out. The Rail Explorers share the rails on some of their other operations. If the ASR is running trains as well as rail bikes, sharing the rails should be even easier.

    At least Mr. Beamish admits rail bikes are popular – but somehow he translates that into a demand for cycling. Is it because they use pedals? Riding a rail bike is nothing like cycling. You can sit back, you can take in the scenery – because you don’t have to steer. You don’t have to dodge rail bikes going the other way, worry about ruts or wash outs.

    If thousands of rail trails have popped up in the United States in the last 30 years with more on the way, as he claims, he is hardly being deprived. Why must the last railroad into the central Adirondacks be sacrificed for his personal convenience? The rest of the world is willing to invest in trails and rails – and other transport modes. It’s not an either – or choice. What Mr. Beamish fails to mention is that there are also many successful trails with rails.

    Take out the railroad and that traffic he hates will only get worse, because cars will be all that is left to get around with. His demand for a bike path comes with a heavy price. If someone can only get to a bike trail by driving to it, that’s part of the problem, not the solution. It’s about having choices – why take them away?

  4. LeRoy Hogan says:

    Rial bikes, trail bikes and tourist trains along the same corridor makes multi-using sense, Anything less is pure selfishness.

  5. tom prevost says:

    Is bringing bike/hiking trails to increase economic gain to the area a pipe dream? We look at other rail to trail ventures being abandon. There are miles and miles of bike/hike paths along the Mohawk valley that have been abandon due to lack of use. The Finger Lakes trails typically have less than a dozen visitors a week. According to the caretaker at Pixley Falls Park, he sees only one or two bikers per week. These are close to populated areas where the biker can be riding within an hour. Also, all articles I read compare these potential trails to those that are close to very large metro areas.Tourist already in the area may use the trails. But, realistically, will they draw additional visitors from distances to bike or hike for a few hours? The trails may be a nice addition, but I feel the economic gain is just a dream.

    • Smitty says:

      I live an hour from the Pine Creek rail trail in NC Pennsylvania, a very wild area much like the Adirondacks. The Pine Creek rail trail is very well used and has been utterly transformative to the valley. Increasing tourism, local shops, restaurants, property values etc. I think a similar boost can be expected for Tupper and Saranac.

      • Boreas says:

        The one along Oil Creek near Titusville is very nice and quite busy as well. It is the site where oil was discovered and first extracted via wells. It was shipped via huge wooden barrels – 2 to a car as I recall. A bike trail follows an old grade on one side of the river and a short excursion train on the other. The park is quite rich in history.

        Interestingly, when you fish you can still see oil seeping out of the ground into the river – as it always has. As usual, Native Americans discovered this long before Europeans set foot on this side of the water. They simply sopped up the oil with blankets and used it for medicinal (?) and other purposes.

    • Scott says:

      Truth is, there aren’t miles and miles of so called abandoned trails hiking/biking trails in the mohawk valley. Just a couple miles from my house is the Rayhill trail (built on an abandoned rail line) in whitesboro that is packed every day with people (walking, biking, jogging, etc), often to the point of not being able to park. Your claim about Pixley park is completely without merit in this discussion. Of course the caretaker would not see bikes because it’s not a bike trail like the proposed rail trail. The primary use of the CANAL towpath is xcountry skiing maintained by BREIA. Mt. Biking is encouraged but that path is not a long community connector like the adirondack railroad. Lastly, the adirondacks are within a half day’s drive of millions of people so there is no issue with access to the masses.

  6. ben says:

    Rail Bikes will only run if the DEC/DoT/APA give them a permit to operate. And why would they give a permit to an organization when they intend to rip out the rails! But then again the state does some pretty stupid things to begin with; they continue to let the ASR survive. Should have put that dog out to pasture a long time ago!

  7. Joe Hansen says:

    I recently completed the GAP/C&O Pittsbugh to DC. This has a significant positive economic effect on the through towns. Yes it is seasonal but speaking to merchants it is growing every year. One does not need to be super fit to ride a rail or canal trail just used to riding a bicycle for 5 or 6 hours a day. The majority of the through riders we met were couples aged 55 to 70 and stayed in b&b’s and hotels and ate in restaurants. Exactly the demographic with the most disposable income.

    • James Falcsik says:

      Do the research. West Newton, a trail town on the GAP, is boasted by the parent trail organization as being “revitalized” by the trail. After 30-plus years and more than $80 million in trail development costs, West Newton has ONE bed-and-breakfast, ONE bike shop, and ONE new restaurant on the trail side of the river. A new Subway was opened last year in town. All four businesses were financed with special terms by a trail lending partner; in other words, propped up. The hotel tax revenue from the B&B in 2017, the highest year received, was less than $6,400. The truth is 85% of GAP users are local, beginning and ending their trail use from the same trail head. Local users = zero economic growth.

      Four new business owners in more than 30 years of development with special financing assistance. It is no wonder last year West Newton raised taxes on its citizens by more than 20%. US Census records show the small borough has been losing population every year continuously since 1970. The non existent trail economy has not come even close to revitalizing or replacing the manufacturing economy that once existed.

  8. Bellota says:

    One has just has to look across Lake Champlain to Burlington, VT to find an extremely high usage bike trail stretching from Burlington to the bike ferry that takes you over to the Hero Islands. Runners, skaters, walkers, bikers in abundance all year round. A rail trail with its manageable grades would be a wonderful recreational asset to the Adirondacks.

    • David P Lubic says:

      And even better if you have the railroad and the trail, too, as so many of the commentators here have expressed.

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