Would you believe an EMD E-8 and a BL-2 would be teamed up leading a tourist train through the Adirondacks in 2011? Saratoga & North Creek is the new operator of the former Delaware & Hudson Adirondack Branch in upstate New York. Morning train 189 is seen passing the 1000 Acres Golf Course on October 30, 2011. Arizona Eastern 6070 started life in 1953 as Chicago & North Western 5029B, while SLRG 52 was built for Bangor & Aroostook as their 552 in 1949.
Photo by Chris Stilson
The North Country's Odd Couple
By Otto M. Vondrak/Photos as noted
Mention "tourist railroad" to some railfans, and they instantly shudder as they imagine mis-matched consists of exotic equipment running from nowhere to nowhere. In many cases they are correct, as it seems the oddball equipment has a better chance of surviving in a museum or tourist setting as the more common pieces go one to have very long service lives. Though sometimes, it is the unusual format that draws railfans to these interesting operations.
The "North Country" of New York State includes the six-million-acre Adirondack Park, the largest preserve in the United States. The Adirondack Branch of the former Delaware & Hudson runs from the main line at Saratoga Springs, New York, to the village of North Creek. The branch was extended to Tahawus to tap rich titanium ore for the war effort in 1942. Mining ceased in 1989, and freight traffic on the rest of the branch was suspended in 2003. In 1997, Warren County purchased the tracks within its borders to save the rail line for potential future use. The first attempt at reviving the branch for tourist traffic came in 1998, with the base of operations at North Creek.
Engineer Larry Pitbladdo poses with EMD BL-2 #52 at North Creek, New York, on October 30, 2011. The blue and gray colors are a tribute to the Delaware & Hudson, former operators of the branch. Photo by Otto M. Vondrak
The county sought a new operator and in 2011 and announced an agreement with Iowa Pacific to operate the line as the Saratoga & North Creek. Hoping to capitalize on the approaching summer tourism season, equipment was quickly gathered from other Iowa Pacific operations around the country. Crews were trained, timetables developed, and a marketing plan put into place. By the middle of July, the railroad was operating packed trains complete with dining car service.
And what of the motive power? The local railfans were abuzz when it was learned that Arizona Eastern E-8 6070 was on its way east, in full Southern Pacific-inspired "black widow" paint. The buzz reached a fever pitch when it was announced a rehabilitated BL-2 would soon follow, in blue and gray paint inspired by D&H passenger colors. Clearly the new operators had big plans.
Nothing symbolizes the streamline era more than EMD's ubiquitous cab units, and the E-8 is near the top of the list. These six-axle big brothers to the four-axle F-unit series were only in production for five years, but more than 400 units were cranked out in that time. They could be seen heading up passenger trains from coast to coast throughout the "golden age" of postwar streamliners. Sixty years later there are less than 60 units remaining, and even fewer operating.
It seems anyone can appreciate the classic lines of EMD's streamlined E-units, but railfans seem to have mixed reactions when it comes to the BL-2. It was EMD's early attempt to create a locomotive that would be equally useful leading a passenger train or performing local freight duties. Retaining some of the streamlined looks of EMD's successful F-3, designers tried to incorporate better visibility and access for switching crews. Only 58 units were produced, and only 7 are known to remain. Of those seven, only three are known to be in operation. Rare birds, indeed. Or are they just ugly ducklings?
For the first time since 1956, through passenger service was being offered from North Creek to Saratoga Springs, with connections timed to meet Amtrak trains. It was clear a great deal of effort was being put into this new operation to ensure its success. Even with the slightly mismatched consist, the draw of the freshly outshopped BL-2 was hard to resist. My friend Chris Stilson and I made the trip north to see this operation for ourselves. While at times the pairing of disparate EMD products made for a bizarre scene as the train made its way through the Adirodack north woods, it was exciting to see these unique diesels working hard at one of the jobs they were originally designed to do.
While spending a weekend chasing tourist railroads can be a questionable activity for a railfan, in this instance its meant the chance to see a rare combination of vintage diesels at work. They may indeed be the "odd couple," but I doubt our trip would have been half as memorable had there been a more "common" pair up front. Besides, visiting this new start-up tourist operation gave us an opportunity to see something different. In a day when many railfans bemoan endless sterile intermodal freights headed up by "not another widecab," different is good.