Saturday, January 29, 2022

Discussion time: The latest rail/trail debate

Tahawus Rail Line (Phil Brown Photo)As reporter Tim Rowland wrote this week on the Adirondack Explorer’s website, the 30 mile rail line that ends in Tahawus is on the auction block. Among the first bids to be made public are the Open Space Institute, which aims to turn the corridor into a recreational trail, and Revolution Rail, which currently runs rail bikes out of North Creek and other U.S. locations. The company is also working with another rail operation to make freight runs available on the line.

What’s your take on this decades-long debate? Does rail still have a chance on this line? Or is it time for another rail trail?

Photo by Phil Brown/Almanack archive

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Melissa is a journalist with experience as a reporter and editor with the Burlington Free Press, Ithaca Journal and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. She worked as a communications specialist for the Adirondack North Country Association and is currently digital editor for Adirondack Explorer, overseeing both the Explorer's website and its community forum the Adirondack Almanack. She enjoys hiking, camping and other outdoors activities, and spending time with her husband, their twin daughters, and rescue animals -- two dogs and two cats.




32 Responses

  1. Mark Friden says:

    I am in the “Save the Rails” Camp. While it would be a nice recreational trail, railroads are an important part of the history of the Adirondack Park. No more rail lines will ever be built within the Blue Line. Why can’t we save the few that are left? If Revolution Rail were the successful bidder, tourists and residents alike would be given the unique opportunity to see a slice of the Adirondacks from an historic perspective.

    • Scott Willis says:

      Spot on.
      Dick Beamish and ARTA got their rail trail.
      Let’s take a break from the rail trail fever and see what plays out regarding the extraction of rare earth minerals from the former NL mine.

  2. Andrew Bowes says:

    I have only visited Tahawus area once or maybe twice. I found it to be a very unique area offering access to the high peaks. Henderson lake with it’s well maintained trail was a joy to paddle. I give great credit to OSI for what they have done in coordination with NYS. It would seem to me opportunities in preserve the rail line should be given much consideration. Minerals come in and out of economic favor, tourism as well. Could an electric train in the dead of winter make sense in the future? Who could have foreseen the pandemic driving the rediscovery of Nature and all it’s glory. Any option that can preserve and maintain access would be preferred.

  3. Boreas says:

    I believe a concerted effort needs to be created to remediate the mine BEFORE removing the rails. It is the only reasonably “fast” way to remove the tailings. But this needs to be done with state and/or federal help to get it done in a short time span – say 5 years – while filling in the pits on-site. Not a long-range wish, but a short-term project. The existing stone company (currently shipping via trucks/roads) could be contracted or perhaps bought out by a larger firm or the state.

    Then, re-wild the river and either re-wild the mine or build a year-round visitor center. This would be the terminus of a recreation trail starting somewhere to the south after removing the northernmost rails. Hopefully, the center would have lodging or camping so you could hike/bike/ski to the center, stay there or in Newcomb, then return on another day. Newcomb could be a center for bike rentals, or it could be done at the visitor center. Something similar to a VIC could also be built, explaining the history of the area and a trail leading to the Upper Works center and trailheads.

    I think the debate between rail vs. trail on this line needs to be carefully thought out and not sold to the highest bidder. Do some creative long-range planning and not get the cart before the horse.

    • Scott Willis says:

      Filling in the pits ? Have you ever been there ? Were you there when the mine was active ? I was. Do you have any idea how deep those pits are ? First you have to pump out 10,000,000 gallons of water, and keep it dewatered.

      And where would the fill come from, and how would you get it there ?

      The southern gateway to the High Peaks is a hidden gem. Let’s keep it that way. There are already a sufficient number of ‘Visitors Centers’ in the ADK’s.

      • Boreas says:

        Yes I have been there. I would fill the pits with the tailings as I said. If they aren’t totally filled, it would be better than they are now – right? Read the rest of my post about how any additional material could get there (if even desired). Rail. Pumping?? Where I come from, water is displaced by rocks. Taking deep pits and making them less deep.

        There is no remediation that would totally erase the environmental damage done by the mine. My suggestion is to turn it into usable space or re-wild it as best we can and not preserve it as an ugly monument to the past. Let’s not ignore that before we remove the rails.

        Yes, the southern gateway is a gem – but with a toilet in the middle of it. Why not do what we can to make a less-obnoxious toilet, while making the terminus of a future trail (or even a rail terminus) an inviting place?

        • Scott Willis says:

          Lest you forget it’s the tailings that are the valuable commodity.
          And the pits are FULL of water, they are not draining on their own.
          And lastly, the former mine site is privately owned. It is a business, and private property. It is far from being a “toilet”. The area and the surrounding area is beautiful, historic, and interesting, as is.

          • Boreas says:

            Lest you forget, those tailings have been there for generations WITH a rail line available for removal! I guess they aren’t valuable enough to move them by rail, so it is being done via truck with the current company expecting at least 20 more years of business. Do you feel the current owner would refuse a reasonable offer by the state to be done with any potential environmental liability/remediation costs in the future?

            Personally, as you seem to have intentionally ignored in my comment, sell/remove them, fill the pits, I don’t much care. Just get it done in 5 years and move on to some kind of remediation – including re-wilding the river. Your arguments for preserving the tailings and mine in their current form are feeble.

          • Dana says:

            Who said anything about removing the water from the pits?

  4. Dave West says:

    The first three comments above are well considered. Looking at just the economics, the answer seems pretty simple…

    NY State has spent tens of millions of dollars over decades (start with the 1980 Olympics revitalization) in support of the Adirondack Railroad. The ridership of the scenic tourist railroad has yet to exceed 74,000 passengers a year for all of the ADK Railroad operations, inside and outside of the ADK Park. The Thendara to Tupper Lake will represent only a fraction of their total. The question is whether the Adirondack Railroad Preservation Society can sustain their operations without future State dollar infusions, even with their dedicated volunteer labor force. I am a fan of tourist railroads and railroad history, but only ride them occasionally.

    Now look at the yet to be launched Lake Placid to Tupper Lake rail trail. For one tenth of the State’s ADK RR investment, I expect you will see up to ten times the riders and walkers use this trail annually as will ride the ADK RR’s extended route. You only have to look at the statistics of other “destination” rail trails such as the Great Alleghany Passage (GAP) rail trail. That rail trail logs over 200,000 users a year. (Granted one end of this trail is in Pittsburgh and sees recreational users who live nearby. Eliminate half of the reported trail users as locals and you still have a number that is still many times larger, for a tenth of the cost.) I’m also a cyclist and walker who regularly uses rail trails.

    So, should NY State repeat the Adirondack Railroad investment? Tahawus is interesting, but not a world class tourist destination like Lake Placid. Neither is Cumberland, MD, the other end of the GAP rail trail. Yet, tens of thousands of riders arrive there each year to start their long, multi-day rides south to Washington DC or north to Pittsburgh. If the game is to attract tourists who spend time (and money) in the Adirondack Park, then the answer is clear. The State’s money is better spent on year-round rail trails and not more scenic railroads in the decades to come.

    • JohnL says:

      Well said David. Seems pretty clear to me too. BTW, haven’t we discussed this subject before? Like….ad nauseum!

    • upstater says:

      “NY State has spent tens of millions of dollars over decades”… source?

      Recalling the 1980 Olympics and the Lake Placid line, I do not believe the rehab costs exceeded 7 figures. The line had been out of service for 7 or 8 years, not the decades since the early 80s. The operator for the Olympics had a dog’s breakfast of third-hand equipment. It was never intended to be a long-term operation based on the investment.

      Whatever state funding has gone to the volunteer Adirondack Railway Preservation Society certainly doesn’t amount to “tens of millions”.

      We don’t need anymore 70 mph snowmobile trails. That is what this is all about. We need less motorized sports and access. How much is spent facilitating highway access and motorized sports?

      • Boreas says:

        Typical trains run on motors as well. For those of us who aren’t fans of snowmobiles, we don’t see diesel locomotives as a better alternative. Trying to turn the discussion into an either/or discussion defeats the purpose. Some of us are actually trying to look at all of the possibilities – not train vs. snowmobile – which people with vested interests try to make it.

        It should be clear on what ultimately opens the corridor up for more VARIED uses – and this includes rail at the southern end and trail at the northern end. It really only takes a little bit of imagination. The details can certainly be worked out later, but first, some sort of concept planning needs to take place – along with time and cost estimates for each concept.

        Perhaps something as modest as a rail terminus in Newcomb and a short bike/ski trail (no internal combustion engines) to Tahawus/upper works. Or perhaps cleaner/quiet electric or propane-powered rubber-tired trains that do not require rails could be another option on the trail section seasonally. These “trains/shuttles” could carry supplies, bikes, gear, and river watercraft as well as people to a possible center at the mine. Increased parking/lodging/camping/food/rental businesses would likely be built wherever the rail terminus is developed.

        But if we continue to debate for another generation or two, the rails will be useless anyway. There is no reason the final vision for the area couldn’t benefit everyone to some degree, and hopefully revitalize the communities in the area. More business in Newcomb for instance will certainly overflow to other surrounding communities. Let’s avoid another “either/or war” where there are fewer winners.

      • David West says:

        Source? – My apologies for not being more specific…
        Source: https://www.adirondackrailtrail.org/trail-history – and their reference footnotes

        The Utica to Lake Placid rail corridor has been a “money pit” for New York State (and the Federal government) for decades. If any of the incarnations (commercial service to tourism) had a chance of being commercial successes, we should have seen it by now. I expect the same can be said of the North Creek to Tahawus corridor. The conservationists, private investors, and tourists will be vocal spectators in a different venue for the same game.

        1974 – New York State (NYS) paid the bankrupt Penn Central $32 million for the Utica/Lake Placid rail line
        1977 – NYS contracted Adirondack Railway to operate the line, primarily for the Olympics
        $1.645 million Federal grant plus $0.105 NYS matching grant
        NYS later added $0.805 million plus $0.100 million for additional emergency repairs
        1990 – An engineering study estimated $17 million was needed for rail line rehabilitation
        1996 – Federal and NYS grants totaling $2 million for rehabilitation of the Utica to Thendara portion
        2000 – NYS spent $7.1 million for Saranac Lake to Lake Placid rail line repairs
        2006 – NYS (DOT) spent $4.1 million to rebuild a railroad overpass for the Adirondack Scenic Railroad
        2022 – ARPS receives $1.5 million from NYS for rolling stock rehabilitation (Adirondack Daily Enterprise 2-15-2022
        NYS (DEC) 10-22-2020 $19.1 million for Big Moose to Tupper Lake line rehabilitation

        Yes, the ARPS and ARTA proponents have beaten the Thendara to Lake Placid rail corridor use issue to death. In the end their arguments were all about the best value of NYS investment dollars and the prospective return from tourist dollars. The future “Saratoga to Tahawus corridor” discussions will boil down to the same thing. I may be a skeptic, but I think the private (land and businesses) interests and conservation interests will again be on the sidelines. If the ARPS / ARTA war of words and law suits are any indication, I probably won’t live to see the end result. Do I dare hope for a “common good” vision to evolve that contains common good for all parties and that this drives the discourse?

  5. Dale Jeffers says:

    I agree with Boreas on the remediation and rewilding.

    Also I have a grave concern that if OSI uses the entire line for a recreational trail, they will have effectively constructed a snowmobile trail into the High Peaks.

    Woodspirit

  6. Big Burly says:

    The Tahawus mine and the tailings are a source of a number of minerals that are strategic to the NA economy. That local gov’ts support retention of rail for economic reasons needs to be taken into account. Remediation of the site is but one reason.

    Follow the bankruptcy court proceedings. Abandonment, necessary for conversion, is NOT on the horizon. NYS efforts have been summarily dismissed by the court and the Federal rail agency does not support abandonment.

    RevRail operations bring tens of thousands of visitors to the area each year, not unlike what Rail Explorers did for Saranac Lake — but then such a success could not be countenanced at the time.

    Mr. Friden’s comment above deserves to be supported.

    • JB says:

      Big Burly,
      I’m curious, what minerals specifically did you have in mind?

      • Molly Pritchard says:

        .S. Department of Defense (DoD) Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment Program to support the construction of a commercial scale processing facility for heavy rare earth elements.

        HREEs have higher atomic weights and are generally less abundant than light rare earth elements (LREEs). They are essential inputs to many critical defense and commercial technologies, particularly permanent magnets instrumental to the performance of electric vehicles, wind turbines, drones, and missile systems.

        The ability to process HREEs alongside LREEs will enable companies to extract and refine all rare earths required to manufacture high-performance permanent magnets. It will also enable the company to recycle all recoverable rare earths from end-of-life magnets and magnet production scrap, increasing the resiliency and environmental sustainability of the domestic supply base.

        “The U.S. needs to continue to push the scientific envelope to develop secure, reliable, and affordable domestic source critical minerals used in defense and commercial manufacturing in order to reduce its dependence on foreign sources in a time of global economic competition,” said Deborah Rosenblum who is performing the duties of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Industrial Base Policy.
        To meet growing magnetics demand and promote supply chain resiliency.

        Tahawus will have a closed loop, zero-discharge rare earth production facility with a dry tailings process that recycles more than one billion liters of water per year.

  7. Bob Meyer says:

    How about a rail trail from Rt 28N or somewhere north to Tahawus and a rail bike line south to North River. Something for everyone.

  8. Tim says:

    People have been talking about making it a viable freight line for many years. Nothing has happened. The State is clearly promoting the southern High Peaks. Just as the Placid-Tupper bike path has generated a lot of excitement, so would the Tahawus line.

  9. Marta Kolman says:

    I would like to see a rail trail biking path established. A biking/hiking path would be a resource shared by many rather than monopolized by a company for private gains.

    • Steve B. says:

      I’m a cyclist, love rail trails. Having issues with this conversion as it has nothing to offer many casual riders who might want something as a destination. It’s a beautiful 20 miles or so, one-way from North River to the Blue Ridge Rd., Makes it 35-40 round trip. Not a family excursion as there’s nothing but (beautiful) woods and nothing at the Blue Ridge Rd., and 6 miles on road to Newcomb. It’s kind of a good trail for serious cyclists. Making Multi Use Trail south, North River to Saratoga makes more sense.

  10. ROBIN DE ARMAS says:

    Rev Rail has become a productive and beneficial citizen of the North Country and not enough has been said about the merits of restoring Tahaus without increased truck traffic on our roads!
    Robin DeArmas
    Indian Lake

  11. Joe Hansen says:

    I am curious as to any data on assays of rare earth minerals in the tailing. Can anyone point me to a source for these claims?

  12. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Time! Where does it go? Tahawus! I haven’t been back in there for years! Very lonely way back in there, and those old abandoned houses have an air of spookiness about them, which could just be because of my imagination is fruitful. I went into one of them old abandoned homes back in there, gotta be ten years ago by now, and recall the remains of a fat fireplace within, remnants of an age past……. I drove my dad back there one fall when snow was falling down. If memory serves me correct he was familiar with the area, used to go back there in the 1950’s…… I miss the old man! I miss them good old exploratory Adirondack days, the places I remember well, but which I haven’t been to in so long! Time! Where does it go?

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