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Hands-On History: Places Matter

Posted on: March 21st, 2016 No Comments

By Steven Engelhart

7toSave_ImageThere are lots of ways to learn about and understand history. We read about history in books, magazines, and from original sources. We see history through the photographs of Matthew Brady or Seneca Ray Stoddard, paintings by Benjamin West or by poring over old maps. We hear the recollections of those who experienced war, depression, and other events great and small. But the most tangible access that we have to history is through our daily contact with historic buildings and places.

When I walk across Keeseville’s Stone Arch Bridge, I am inspired by the work of Solomon Townsend and his men who created this span with nothing but their ingenuity and the rock they quarried from the banks of the Ausable River. When I sit in the Beth Joseph Synagogue in Tupper Lake, I can hear the voice of Moses Ginsberg, a peddler, who settled and thrived there and who helped build this 1915 house of worship. If we open our eyes, we can find history all around us in these preserved places.

The miner’s cottage, corn crib, cemetery, courthouse, church, and countless other places we see every day speak to us because they are the physical expressions of our common past. Their continued use and creative re-use provide historic centers to our communities. Signs are a poor substitute for places.

When advocates fought to save the Wilderness Battlefield from becoming a Wal-Mart, it was because standing on that hallowed ground was the best possible way to truly understand what happened there. When Adirondackers from all backgrounds came together to save Camp Santanoni , we did it so that an entire era could be physically preserved for anyone to visit and learn from. Places like these capture the imagination and put history in our hands.  Place does matter.

UnionDepot_SaranacLake_1909

Union Depot, Saranac Lake, 1909. Carriages from local resorts pick up passengers.

The Remsen to Lake Placid rail corridor IS an historic resource, in use and with the potential for even greater use. The question here is WHY should a significant part of this National Register listed resource be destroyed? Neither the DEC nor trail advocates have made a compelling case for the need for this trail, especially in light of what we’d lose. We live in a region with thousands of miles of hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling trails. Why do we need thirty-five more trail miles at the cost of a scenic railroad with a growing ridership and the popular and successful Rail Explorers, the first rail-biking venture in the nation?  We will also lose forever the opportunity for greener mass transportation into the heart of the region. And we would replace this existing physical link to Adirondack history with a bunch of signs.

SnowTrain_Thendara_1940

Snow Train passengers with their skis at Thendara Station heading for the slopes, 1909.

When historic places are lost and destroyed, we are all the poorer for it. Sometimes the loss is unavoidable but more often it is the result of a lack of imagination, disregard for historic preservation, ignorance, or greed. The rail to trail proposal is three of these.  The DEC is required by law to explore all “prudent and feasible” alternatives before proposing to destroy this section of the rail corridor and this they have not done.  The NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation has just ruled that the DEC plan is an “adverse impact” and this should force the DEC to stop and reconsider their demolition plans.

Let’s go back to the drawing board. We can save an important piece of history, keep the economic engine that is the railroad corridor alive and growing, develop multi-use recreational trails alongside, and preserve this resource that matters to our past, to us today, and for the future.

Reprinted from the Adirondack Explorer, March/April 2016 issue, “It’s Debatable” feature.

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