Thursday, August 13, 2015

Rail Bikes In The Adirondacks -- Travel Thursday (August 13, 2015)

We are back from our annual family vacation in the Adirondacks of upstate New York -- thus explaining the short hiatus from posting here at The Prism.

Pictured above is a four-person "rail bike" that is powered in the same manner as a recumbent bicycle  -- by pedaling with one's feet from a sitting or slightly reclining position.  The rail bikes are custom made and come in two-person or four-person versions.  Two weeks ago today our family boarded two of the four-person rail bikes that we had reserved many weeks earlier for the inaugural season of this unique outdoor experience.  Three generations of the family went for a roughly 6-mile trek on the rails between Lake Clear Junction and Saranac Lake. [Many thanks to daughter-in-law Pamela for discovering this opportunity and for making the arrangements!] 

As some background to this Adirondack experience, a little railroad history is in order. 

In 1890, William Seward Webb, the husband of a Vanderbilt heiress, financed the construction of a railroad (the Mohawk & Malone Railway) through the Adirondack wilderness so he could more conveniently reach his Great Camp known as Nehasane Park.  Webb's railroad later became part of the New York Central Railroad (NYC) system that carried wealthy families such as the Roosevelts, Whitneys, Morgans, Vanderbilts, and others to their Great Camps in the Adirondacks.

By 1961 sections of the railroad line were abandoned, but passenger service from Utica to Lake Placid (known as the Adirondack Division) continued scheduled service until April 1965.  Then in 1968 the NYC merged with rival Pennsylvania Railroad to form Penn Central.  Although Penn Central went into bankruptcy in 1970, declining freight service on the line continued until about 1972 when Penn Central applied to the NY Public Service Commission to abandon the line.  In 1975 the state of New York purchased the abandoned line and it remained essentially dormant and decaying from then on with one notable exception -- an ephemeral return to service for the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in 1980 in order to run passengers from Utica to Lake Placid.

In 1992, some railroad enthusiasts formed in order to found and operate a 4-mile section of track as the Adirondack Centennial Railroad (ACR).  When more than 50,000 passengers took advantage of the ride in the first season, the state allowed continued passenger service on an expanded section and in the summer of 1994 the ACR morphed into the Adirondack Scenic Railroad operated by the not-for-profit Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, Inc.

In the six years between 1994 and 2000, the Adirondack Scenic Railroad restored sections of rail so that passenger service could operate between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake and other sections much further to the south. However, the tracks between Big Moose Lake to the southwest of Lake Clear and Saranac Lake to the east of Lake Clear -- some 60 miles or more that includes the Lake Clear Junction to Saranac Lake leg -- needs a great deal of work to make it safe for sustained passenger train service. In the meantime, the state of New York designated the corridor as a multi-use area for limited seasonal rail traffic and as a snowmobile trail during the winter. This left an opening for the creative entrepreneurs behind "Rail Explorers."

The rail bikes now traverse the six miles of track between Lake Clear Junction and Saranac Lake and thus open this wooded corridor among the lakes and remote meadows along the route for the first time since 1980 -- and without what many consider the intrusive noise and pollution that can be caused by vintage trains. The run from Lake Clear to Lake Saranac is particularly easy given the long stretches of downhill track that allow a whizzing ride with little or no effort by the riders.  The uphill reverse route from Lake Saranac to Lake Clear Junction is another story, but it can be done by almost anyone with a bit more effort. The specially built Adirondack rail bikes are the first in America and the season is very limited, so this is an experience that needs to be planned.  

But the future of this unique Adirondack experience may be in some doubt.  Just this past June, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (the DEC) along with the Department of Transportation (DOT) stated that they will amend the unit management plan for the Remsen to Lake Placid rail corridor.  They reason that since the Adirondack Scenic Railroad runs tourist excursions on small sections of track, the vast majority of the line's midsection between Thendara and Lake Placid (including Lake Clear Junction to Lake Saranac) is unused.  The new DEC/DOT proposal calls for the removal of tracks from Tupper Lake through Lake Clear Junction to Lake Placid in order to construct a 34-mile long route for hikers, cyclists, cross country skiers, and snowmobilers.  The plan has wide support from the Adirondack Rail Trail Advocates.  The plan would also restore 44 miles of passenger rail service through backcountry wilderness to Tupper Lake from points south and the village of Tupper Lake has already completed restoration of its train depot in anticipation of this development.  More about the proposed plan can be seen here.

It is highly recommended that if you are in the high peaks area of the Adirondacks this summer, you should take in this unique outdoor experience.  While we hope the rail bikes have a future in the Adirondacks, use of the current rail bike route conflicts with the DEC/DOT stated corridor plan and therefore the Lake Clear to Saranac Lake experience might be a fond memory a few short seasons from now.

Rail Explorers staff members prepare rail bikes for the run from Lake Clear Junction to Saranac Lake.

All aboard!  The lead bike in our two four-seaters. [Yours truly in the olive drab hat.]

Our second four-seater with son (Christopher) in the headband, sister-in-law (Kathy), and brother-in-law (Patrick).

The rail bikes do not travel linked together. At least 30 feet is required between bikes during
travel. This photo shows the rubber bumpers to absorb any inadvertent contact when gathering
for the few road crossings, which are supervised by traffic flagmen provided by Rail Explorers.

Son (Jonathan) with our granddaughter Nora snuggled in for the ride!

Gathering for a view across backcountry meadows.  Yours truly pointing out some interesting flora.  Nora with her parents Jonathan and Pamela and Christopher all paying rapt attention.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

All photographs taken on July 30, 2015.  All images above are from the originals in the collection of the author.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Copyright 2015, John D. Tew
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

No comments:

Post a Comment