Rails, trails and population

There are conflicting claims of the viability of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad and the trail that is proposed to replace it.

I have to admit, predicting the future looks like something of a dark art to me. This is strongest when attempting to estimate what the future performance of something might be when that something doesn’t exist yet.

Still, we have some ways of knowing things, and that includes taking a look at the performance of similar facilities, projects and so on.

Speaking for myself, the real measure of economic performance of a project or enterprise is whether it promotes job growth, which in turn might be measured by population growth.

Based on some research, I have to say tourist railroads don’t seem to do very well. And truthfully, neither do trails. Some examples that will help illustrate the point:

Pocahontas County, West Virginia, home of the Cass Scenic Railroad, has a population of 8,692 (2012 Estimated). Its peak was 15,002 back in 1920. Cass itself has a population of 52. Other towns in Pocahontas County include Marlinton (county seat, population 1,051), and Durbin (290).

Pocahontas County is one of two counties connected by the Greenbriar Trail. There are no incorporated towns along the trail in Greenbrier County.

Figures here and for all that follow are, unless otherwise noted, populations for 1970, for 2012 (estimated), and peak:


The Virginia Creeper Rail Trail runs from Abingdon, Virginia, in Washington County, through Grayson County, Virginia, to West Jefferson in Ashe County, North Carolina.

Place – 1970 – Latest – Peak

Washington – 40,835 – 51,995 – 51,995 (2012)

Abington – 4,376 – 8,191 (2010) – 8,191 (2010)

Damascus – 918 (1990) – 814 (2010) – 981 (2000)

Grayson – 15,439 – 15,183 – 21,916 (1940)

Independence – – – 947 (2010) – –

Ashe – 19,571 – 27,097 – 21,097 (2012)

West Jefferson – – – 1,299 (2010) –

Although the population has had increases in the end counties of the Virginia Creeper, the towns where the trail are can’t all be said to have done as well. And tiny Damascus is at the location of FOUR trails: the Virginia Creeper, the Iron Mountain, U.S. Bicycle Route 26 and the granddaddy of them all, the Appalachian Trail. Grayson County’s largest town isn’t even on a trail.

What about some other places that are well known as tourist spots, even legendary? These aren’t trail destinations as such (too far to walk to), but they do have railroads and some trails in the area.

The spectacular Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad runs for 64 miles between Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico. It’s been owned by the states of Colorado and New Mexico since 1970 and operates with a third party under contract, an arrangement similar to that of several railroads in New York.

Place – 1970 – Latest – Peak

Conejos County, Colo. – 7,846 – 8,277 – 11,648 (1940)

Antonito – – – 873 (2010) – –

Rio Arriba County, N.M. – 25,170 – 40,318 – 40,318 (2012)

Chama – – – 1,199 (2000) – –

The privately owned and profitable Durango & Silverton runs between its namesake towns in La Plata and San Juan counties, Colorado. San Juan County is particularly interesting for having only 692 residents, of whom 638 live in Silverton.

Place – 1970 – Latest – Peak

La Plata County – 19,199 – 53,284 – 53,284 (2012)

Durango – 10,333 – 17,216 – 17,216 (2012)

San Juan County – 831 – 692 – 3,063 (1910)

Silverton – – – 638 (2010) – –

The privately owned and profitable Grand Canyon Scenic runs between Williams, Arizona, and Grand Canyon Village in Coconino County, Arizona. Again, it can be said this railroad, although profitable, may not be helping out in terms of population growth and attendant opportunities – and neither is the Grand Canyon. Grand Canyon Village has a population of only 2,004, and it’s on the edge of the national park!

Place – 1970 – Latest – Peak

Coconino County – 48,326 – 136,539 – 136,539 (2012)

Williams – 2,386 – 3,023 (2010) – 3,559 (1960)

Grand Canyon Village – – – 2,004 (2010) – –

Let’s come a little closer to home – the counties the Adirondack Scenic runs through or is otherwise associated with:

Place – 1970 – Latest – Peak

Franklin County – 43,931 – 51,795 – 51,599 (2010)

Saranac Lake – – – 5,041 (2000) – –

Tupper Lake (town) – – – 5,971 (2010) – –

Essex County – 34,631 – 38,961 – 38,961 (2012)

Lake Placid – – – 2,521 (2010) – –

Hamilton County – 4,714 – 3,778 – 5,379 (2000)

St. Lawrence County – 111,991 – 112,232 – 119,254 (1980)

Herkimer County – 67,663 – 64,508 – 67,663 (1970)

Oneida County – 273,037 – 233,556 – 273,037 (1970)

Utica – 91,611 – 61,822 – 101,740 (1930)

What stands out about all of this is not that a railroad or a trail is a better tourist attraction, but rather that tourism is a rather limited market to build an economy on and is not a “substitute” for a “real” economy, such as agriculture and manufacturing.

Does this mean tourism is not something worth pursuing? The answer is a resounding “No!” If that were the case, there would be no B&Bs, no parks, no preserved houses, no cruise ships, no pleasure boat marinas, no miniature golf courses, no trails and no tourist trains.

Tourism still has a number of advantages to contribute to an economy. It’s normally “sustainable,” in the sense that it doesn’t depend on extraction of a resource that can run out, like oil or coal. It brings in money from outside the locality. (Keep the Adirondacks green; leave your money here!) It can be a most interesting and enjoyable field to be in, particularly if you are really into people interaction (such as a tour guide might be, or the owners of a B&B would be). And if you’re good at running such an enterprise, and are lucky, you can even make a bit of money at it.

It may also in some cases be the only game available, in which case it can keep a place alive that might otherwise die – take note of Cass, Damascus, Chama and others in the examples cited above, and the towns in your locality.

However, one must be honest about what you can actually do and might actually see in looking at the potential for a tourism development of any kind. An important part of that honesty includes casting aside prejudices, or at least being aware of them.

But that will be for another time.

David P. Lubic lives in Inwood, West Virginia.

All reference links below accessed between July 2 and 6, 2014

Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties, W.Va. (Cass Scenic Railroad, Greenbrier River Trail):






Washington and Grayson counties, Va., and Ashe County, N.C. (Virginia Creeper Rail Trail):








Conejos County, Colo., and Rio Arriba County, N.M. (Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad):





La Plata and San Juan Counties, Colo. (Durango & Silverton Railroad):





Coconino County, N.M. (Grand Canyon Scenic Railroad):




Franklin, Essex, Hamilton, St. Lawrence, Oneida and Herkimer counties, N.Y (Adirondack Scenic Railroad and various trails):