New York state residents fight over saving old railroad route or turning it into an Adirondack trail

Several years ago, locals here raised around $400,000 to build a replica of a train station that was torn down in 1975, just one of many steps necessary to make a locomotive roll through this old railroad town once again.

The next step is paying to rehab a 68-mile stretch of dilapidated tracks that cut through some of the most remote and scenic areas of the Adirondacks, either with state funds or private donations, or both.

But after decades of delays, the fate of those tracks is now dividing this town and those around it.

Some residents say they should be fixed up and used to extend the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, which runs seasonal tourist trains with themes ranging from zombies to wine tastings. In the long-term, the tracks could establish an Amtrak link for passenger trains between New York City and Lake Placid.

Amtrak is, in general, "interested in the expansion of passenger rail," said spokesman Steve Kulm. "And where it can connect with Amtrak, it will provide even greater benefit."

A growing opposition, though, insists that the tracks should be torn up and the path instead used as a trail for hikers, bicyclists and snowmobilers. In June, officials at the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Transportation said they would review this plan—a small but important victory for advocates of a trail.

The track through Tupper Lake was part of the Adirondack Division of the once-mighty New York Central Railroad, which did a brisk business hauling lumber, animal carcasses, tourists and wealthy people (in private railcars) to their camps.

The railroad went into a long decline starting in the 1930s. Now there is barely a train in sight. New York state owns the tracks, which are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The leg of track in question is so deteriorated that it rarely sees any action. Nearly every fall, a work train moves heavy equipment from Lake Placid to points south for use on other trains and for maintenance. Work trains aren't able to move faster than 10 miles an hour. The cross ties are so rotted that the spikes can be pulled out by hand.

"It's a hell of a way to run a railroad." said Tony Goodwin, 63 years old, an activist from Keene, N.Y., who supports turning the stretch into a hiking trail. "They have been trying to do this for 40 years, and it never gets done."

"It is absolutely absurd" to rebuild the tracks, said trail supporter Lee Keet, an eight-generation Adirondack resident and chief executive officer of private equity fund Vanguard Atlantic Ltd. in Saranac Lake. "The only argument you can muster for train restoration is nostalgia."

He suggested the Tupper Lake depot could become a "wonderful café and information center" for trail-goers.

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