Old Forge at a crossroads at first rail/trail meeting

OLD FORGE – More than 150 people attended the first of four public meetings Monday on the controversial Adirondack railroad corridor.

The purpose of the meetings is to help the state departments of Transportation and Environmental Conservation determine if the unit management plan for the 119-mile, state-owned railroad line between Remsen and Lake Placid needs to be updated.

“A lot of people think these meetings are to make a final decision on the fate of that corridor, but they’re not,” state DOT railroad director Raymond Hessingner said. “We’re just trying to get some perspective on people’s thoughts about the Remsen-Lake Placid railroad corridor.”

Four listening tables were set up in the Webb town office building, each with a DOT and DEC representative.

After a short slide show detailing the history of the railroad, attendees left comments at the tables: some on large sheets of paper, others on pre-written letters. Some of the comments were projected onto a screen at the front of the room; they represented a stark division of opinions in those present.

Erica Murray, owner of Old Forge Hardware, praised the railroad and said it has always brought business to her store.

“The railroad was crucial to the business beginning in 1900,” Murray said. “Without the railroad, it wouldn’t have grown to what it is today. The railroad drives business to our town.”

Murray said that her store is often filled with train-goers wearing small, yellow railroad-crossing stickers, especially in July and August.

“No one is going to ride their bike to Old Forge on a trail,” Murray said. “We are a testament to the positive impact of the railroad on this town. I see, on average, a 35 percent growth in sales when the railroad is in town.”

Rusty Thompson’s family owns a different kind of business – the Norridgewock Lodge at the Beaver River station. He said the tracks should be removed to make way for a recreational trail.

“We have a lodge within 50 feet of the rail tracks that we’ve operated for five generations,” Thompson said. “The only economic impact from that right of way for the past 50 years has been recreational use, mostly snowmobiling. We just feel like the rails are impairing that.”

Thompson explained that, because of the tracks, snowmobilers must wait for a couple feet of snow before they can travel safely on the corridor. A trail without rails would extend the snowmobile season at the beginning and end of winter and other low-snow times, and help businesses like his.

“All of the businesses along the right of way are small businesses like ours,” Thompson said. “We can accommodate maybe 30 or 40 people, and can seat maybe 100 people for dinner. To picture a train pulling in with 500 people just isn’t compatible. A recreational trail like we see in the winter, with a steady flow of people, is compatible with a business like ours.”

Jennifer Potter Hayes, executive director of the View arts center in Old Forge, painted a different picture of the train.

“When that train comes to town, you can’t get a seat in any of the restaurants,” Hayes said. “It’s fun, because the people who come up here are open to anything when they get here. It’s families, kids, older people – people who would never come to the Adirondacks.”

Hayes said she has seen evidence of the train’s popularity at the south end of the line, too.

“I was just down at Union Station (in Utica) two weeks ago to pick up my daughter at Amtrak,” Hayes said. “While I was there, the scenic railroad pulled in and more than 100 people got off the train. They had Adirondack sweatshirts on; they had bags from local businesses and cameras. They were taking pictures of the train. It’s all about nostalgia, teaching people about the history of this town, and then also getting them to a part of the state that they’d never normally get to.”

Beaver River residents like Gail Seamon have a different perspective, though. To them, the Remsen-Lake Placid line is nothing more than a little-used corridor with a lot of potential.

“It’s frustrating to see tax dollars being spent on maintaining a corridor that isn’t being used,” Seamon said. “It’s like a forgotten piece of the Adirondacks. Money keeps going into it, but nothing ever comes out.”

Three more rail trail meetings are scheduled:

-Ray Brook: Today, 1 to 4 p.m., DEC Region 5 headquarters, 1115 State Route 86

-Utica: Monday, Sept. 16, 1 to 4 p.m., State Office Building, 207 Genesee St.

-Tupper Lake: Tuesday, Sept. 17, 6 to 9 p.m., The Wild Center, 45 Museum Drive.

Contact Shaun Kittle at 891-2600 ext. 25 or skittle@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.