NORTH CREEK — The tourist railroad traversing the scenic southeast Adirondacks has taken its last run.
Iowa Pacific Holdings has begun removing equipment from North Creek and expects to be gone within a month, a local official said. And on Tuesday it removed the last of the controversial tanker cars it had stockpiled on a siding near Tahawus, an environmental activist said.
The Saratoga & North Creek Railway’s website offered no clue about its status Wednesday. The cellphone belonging to the railroad’s general manager was continuously busy. The railroad’s toll-free number rang through to an off-site operator who said only that it was no longer operating passenger trains.
Iowa Pacific began operating its excursion train in 2011 after another company, Upper Hudson Scenic Railroad Co., lost its contract to operate on tracks owned by Warren County.
Iowa Pacific had hoped to run freight service on the line to generate revenue that would subsidize the tourist service. But a plan to haul crushed waste rock out of the defunct titanium mine in Tahawus never came to fruition and Iowa Pacific was left in financially untenable position.
It missed some lease payments to Warren County for track, fell behind on property tax payments and apparently didn’t make federal tax payments: The Internal Revenue Service on March 28 filed a $1,357,341.13 lien against Iowa Pacific with the Warren County clerk.
One of Iowa Pacific’s attempts to develop revenue — by storing unused freight cars for other companies on 30 miles of rail a subsidiary owns between North Creek and Tahawus — met with controversy and opposition for being unsightly and potentially unclean.
The situation came to a head in late March, when Iowa Pacific asked Warren County to buy the North Creek-to-Tahawus track (which is mostly in Essex County) for $5 million. Warren County declined.
Town of Horicon Supervisor Matt Simpson, chairman of the county Public Works Committee, said Wednesday that Iowa Pacific has begun moving its equipment out of North Creek.
“They are packing up and everything’s going to be out of here by the first part on June,” he said.
What happens next is anyone’s guess, Simpson said. Warren County still has a contract with Iowa Pacific and can’t just proceed as if it is void, even if the company stops paying its rent and vacates.
When the Iowa Pacific era finally is legally over, perhaps another operator could take over the tourist line, Simpson said, adding that he’s heard some nibbles of interest but nothing formal.
“It’s very difficult to make money on tourist railroads,” he said.
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks!, said Wednesday that his organization sees the development as a potentially positive one. The last of the oil tanker cars was removed from the Tahawus area on Tuesday, he said ending a “sad chapter in Adirondack history.”
The opportunity now is to write a better next chapter, which he thinks would be a recreational trail.
There are two stretches of track Bauer said: The 30 miles from Tahawus and North Creek is privately owned rails on public and private land. It would be very difficult, he thinks, to get all the property owners to agree to replace the rails with a trail. And such a trail would end in the middle of nowhere, with no food, drink or lodging anywhere nearby.
In contrast, the 50 miles from North Creek to Saratoga Springs is owned by Warren County and the town of Corinth, and winds through a populated area with numerous businesses catering to tourists.
“The beautiful thing is, so much of that route is right along the Hudson River,” Bauer said. “It could be fantastic,” he said, a tourist draw from across the Northeast. “It touches a lot of neat places along the way.”
Making that happen would require significant expenditure of time, money and smart planning, however.
“I think we’re now faced with a situation that a lot of folks thought was inevitable over the last few years,” Bauer said. “Now is the time to really bring local communities together to ... see if we cannot put together a dynamic multi-use corridor.”