By: Jennifer Tufano
Had you been in Lake Placid over Memorial Day weekend perhaps you heard the familiar train whistle as the Adirondack Scenic Railroad began its summer operation with a scenic train ride between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. At the same time, the Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society’s History Museum began summer operations as well with a second year of the ICE! exhibit. We thought it fitting, with the reawakening of these two institutions from their winter slumber, a trip back in time to how it all began was in order.
The first station at Lake Placid was a wooden building converted from a private home. The present station was built between 1903 and 1905. Face-liftings have occurred through the years including the removal of a long outdoor canopy over the boarding platform (due to a heavy snowfall), a pillared portico at the front entrance and balustrade decoration. In addition to the items mentioned above, the exterior paint color has been returned to original, interior flooring tiles were removed to reveal beautiful, original hardwood flooring, electric system was upgraded, and the entire interior received new paint. In 2011, the LP-NEHS received an AARCH (Adirondack Architectural Heritage) award for careful preservation and restoration of the railroad station building.
Highway contraction after WWII undercut the economic foundations of America’s railroads. The train depot building stood empty and unused since railroad passenger service at Lake Placid came to an abrupt halt on April 24, 1965 after 72 years. The line originated at Plattsburgh and hop scotched here over a period of years. 83 miles in length from its connection with the Delaware & Hudson main line at Plattsburgh, it was built in four pieces under varied ownership.
The first extension in 1878 from Plattsburgh to Dannemora, to service the state prison, was known as Plattsburgh and Dannemora and was taken over in 1879 by the Chateaugay Railroad Company. The latter, to provide transportation for the iron ore industry at Lyon Mountain, 18 miles west of Dannemora, opened a railroad between these two points on March 30, 1880. The entire line became the property of the Chateaugay Ore and Iron Company, which next made tracks to Standish and Loon Lake to reach the furnace, charcoal kilns and woodlands it owned. At that time charcoal from the company’s own kilns was used in its pr
oduction of pig iron. This section was opened on November 15, 1886.
A continuation to Saranac Lake to tap the new and lucrative tourist trade went into operation on December 5, 1887, providing in all about 73 miles of narrow gauge service from Plattsburgh.
Finally, on June 13, 1890 the Saranac and Lake Placid Railroad Company was chartered to lay standard gauge track from Saranac Lake to Lake Placid, a distance of 10 miles. The first train to Lake Placid, with fare at $.10 a mile, rolled in on August 1, 1893. A third rail was laid to accommodate the narrow gauge equipment of the Chateaugay, which eventually controlled the line. The entire 83 miles between Plattsburgh and Lake Placid were thus placed under one control which on July 24, 1903 passed to the newly formed Chateaugay and Lake Placid Railroad Company.
To meet the needs of traffic, the narrow gauge was changed to standard, and when reconstruction was completed in 1903, the Chateaugay and Lake Placid Company had a well built railroad, laid with heavy rail and suitable for operation with the most powerful locomotives. In that year control passed to the Delaware & Hudson. It was not until 1946 that the New York Central took over the historic line.
Meanwhile, a spur had been built from Saranac Lake to Lake Clear in 1892, making possible a connection with the famed Adirondack Division of the New York Central’s main line, and the great era of railroad traffic between mountain resort and metropolitan center was inaugurated. For many years the New York Central ran its Adirondack cars over the Delaware and Hudson tracks to Lake Placid.
The Lake Placid station building is kept in its original state to recall the stirring days of Adirondack railroading at its peak, when some of the nation’s wealthiest families were in residence at sumptuous camps and lush Victorian hotels were flourishing. Early Lake Placid Club members arrived via the ‘Sno Train’ to enjoy skating, skiing and bobsled racing during Washington’s Birthday week. Husbands, after working long weeks in the city, enjoyed the long train ride north to visit their families on weekends. Military soldiers and officers traveled the railroad line in the early 1940s. Even movie stars Roy Rogers and Vera Hruba Ralston, who were to be crowned King and Queen of Winter during Lake Placid’s annual winter carnival while shooting scenes for the 1953 release of Winter Serenade, arrived via the train. After 1965 when passenger service ceased, the village’s railroad station seemed doomed until sisters Francis and Louise Brewster bought the building in 1967, giving it to the historical society that summer for use as a museum.
Back in 1967, then Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society President Miss Louise Williams stated “Francis and Louise Brewster have made a lasting contribution to Lake Placid, and we are hopeful there are great possibilities for the future of our museum. The Society feels assured that the whole town will join us in our efforts to preserve the past and will contribute generously from their collections of North Elba mementos. Whatever is contributed will be carefully preserved. This is a memorable milestone in the history of our Society and the town. We have a big job ahead but feel confident the community will cooperate in full in protecting for all generations to come the records of our roots, and the hardships and great vision of our early pioneers, as well as our continuing history.”