ARCTIC RAIL

Corporate History

 

In the early 1850's the Cape Vincent Branch of the Watertown & Rome Railroad was completed to its namesake terminus.  Passenger service was provided in addition to the freight hauls for industries along the right of way.  These included limestone quarries, milk co-op's, fuel oil dealers and coal to and from the docks at Cape Vincent.  In engineering terms there were few remarkable features excepting the swing bridge over the Chaumont River.  As the years passed the line came into the hands of the New York Central by way of leases handed down from predecessor roads.  However, the region's fading economic importance and the increasing ease of highway transportation long foretold of the line's inevitable fate.  Passenger service was discontinued in 1951.  The growth of the automobile industry following World War II was the overwhelming reason.  By 1963, the little remaining freight service was poor at best and non-existent at worst.  The N.Y.C. filed petition for abandonment of many branches in northern New York.  The Cape Vincent Branch was removed as far east as Limerick, where a feed store operated.  A propane dealership in General Brown and a few industries in Brownville comprised the remaining freight business.

In 1968 the Pennsylvania - New York Central merger took place and offered no salvation for the branch.  It was simply too costly to operate with little prospect of making a profit.  As a result service to Limerick and General Brown was discontinued and the track removed back to the Suburban Propane location in Watertown.  As the abandonment took place, little thought was given for the fate of the right of way.  Most assumed that when the tracks were gone, so was the railroad.  In reality, the Penn Central was selling the real estate to an investor in a manner designed to generate bottom line profits without revealing to shareholders where the additional revenue actually came from.

The 1976 formation of Conrail merely accelerated the demise of the remaining mile of track.  Unwilling to supply Suburban Propane with any service, the price of rail deliveries was raised to encourage them to look elsewhere for bulk deliveries.  In a deal that baffled Conrail management, a small operator was retained by Suburban to move the cars the final mile to their facility.  For some time service was provided with a Trackmobile operated on an as needed basis.

In 1977, the line operator announced he had acquired title to the former right of way in its entirety to Cape Vincent and intended to start relaying rail back into Brownville to service the paper mills there.  Little commotion was raised as the region was mired in recession and eager to participate in any scheme that offered new jobs. Business was steady as the rates were attractive and service was tailored to the mill's needs. 

In the mid 1970’s, Allied Chemical had announced the sale of its land holdings in the Chaumont/Three Mile Bay area to Northeastern Mining, a large mineral supply company.  They planned to put the limestone quarries back into operation as a raw material source for the steel industry.  Anticipated volumes were large based on the quality and low cost of the rock.  It was not long before the small operator of the branch was contacted about providing rail service to the quarries.  As the operator already had title to the right of way, there was little difficulty in obtaining the necessary paperwork to begin work on the extension.  Often the case in depressed areas, the public was more than happy to help pave the way around any legal difficulties. The promise of so many new jobs was too powerful a motivation to ignore.   Disgruntled residents along the right of way were reminded that their land plats specifically did not include the former right of way bordering their land but were assured that reconstruction would be a brief inconvenience and operations would be as considerate as possible to residents.  Operation commenced as far as the Chaumont River in late 1979 under the name: ARCTIC RAIL.  

The limestone business grew quickly as steel mills discovered that the rock was particularly suited to their needs.  This steady growth prompted the shortline to upgrade both the right of way and motive power to meet the ever-increasing demands of the quarries.  Other local businesses took note of the stability of the road and the reinvestment of capital into the physical plant.  Soon, both new and former customers were inquiring about shipping by rail again.  Although none of the new businesses were as large a shipper as the quarry, they were all satisfied with the service they received. 

The year 1983 was a pivotal one for the small shortline.  Continued growth of the limestone business prompted Northeastern Mining to investigate additional sites between Three Mile Bay and Cape Vincent for potential development.  Two sites were found to be acceptable.  To transport the rock to the processing plant it would be necessary to truck several thousand tons per month over local highways.  The state was less than thrilled with the proposal as it would mean extensive modifications to bridges along the route.  It was during these discussions that a N.E. Mining representative pointed out that the local shortline held title to the former right of way in the area.  The shortline was asked if they were interested in the proposal.  The answer was obviously yes, but there was one serious obstacle: how to bridge the Chaumont River.  A study was quickly launched to determine both the environmental impact and best design to minimize disturbance to local residents and the boating industry.  The original short span swing bridge design was still the most appropriate with a more substantial superstructure to support the anticipated traffic levels.  A substantial portion was funded by the state with Arctic Rail and Northeastern supplying additional funding.  Construction was started in 1983 and completed in early 1984.  The rails were laid concurrently with bridge construction allowing the first train to run in August 1984.

The privatization of Conrail in 1987 turned out to be more than the shortline had ever imagined.    The Montreal Secondary turned in a relatively poor financial performance despite the additional traffic generated by the local shortline.  They quietly inquired of several shortline operators nationwide whether there was any interest in purchasing the line from the junction at CP JG in Syracuse (including trackage rights into Dewitt Yard for interchange) to the CP/CN interchanges in Canada.  There were several proposals forwarded, among them one from Arctic Rail.  Anxious to cement their ability to get local customers' freight to a Class 1 railroad trunkline, Arctic Rail left no doubt as to the serious nature of their offer.  In January 1988 Arctic Rail became the new owner/operator of the Montreal Secondary.  Interchanges with other roads included: Canadian Pacific at Adirondack Junction, Canadian National at Huntingdon, Mohawk, Adirondack & Northern at Philadelphia (NY) and Conrail at Dewitt Yard in Syracuse.   Customer driven operation was still evident in the new operation as demonstrated by the sporadic nature of early traffic patterns.  As the shippers grew accustomed to having such a receptive operator, the traffic became more regular and started to increase. 

Arctic Rail ran a tight ship in their early years.  A fact not lost on early shippers who saw that capital was wisely spent on roadbed improvement and acquisition of dependable, suitable motive power.  Those principles are still in evidence on the road as one finds the main and branch lines in good condition.  Motive power shows evidence of good maintenance practices.  Operating practices reflect a commitment to employees seen in unusual scheduling which strives to find employees at home every night.  Crews exchange trains at half way points so they can return to their home terminals.  Even local runs are not designed to be out one day and back the next.  Early on it was decided that it was better to have crews home each night that to spend days away or spend money to relocate them via crew cabs.  It still happens, but is much less an annoyance when the crews are more often home.

Motive power is an interesting mix of used units from various rebuilders: SD40-2, SD45, SD45-2, F45, FP45 and GP38-2 units are found on the roster.  With the serious upturn in business from Northeastern and Bensen Mines, Arctic Rail turned to favored builder EMD for new power capable of reducing the total number of road units required.  SD60 units were quickly decided upon based on the success of the Oakway units leased to BN for heavy duty coal hauling.  Ten units were leased from EMD and painted in Arctic Rail colors. 

Business is an interesting mix which reflects Arctic Rails aggressive marketing of their transportation product.  Grain moves in huge amounts to and from a transloading terminal in Cape Vincent.  It is not uncommon to find loaded units trains coming or going based on the status of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the export markets.  Iron ore from a rejuvenated Bensen Mines provides about three to four unit trains a week to mills in the Midwest and Appalachian regions.  Paper is again a steady mover as mills invest in newer equipment in the area.  It has certainly helped that they have a fast, dependable means to get the product to the customer.  An unusual customer turned up in McConnellsville in the form of a large sand mining operation.  A long shot capital investment turned the operation into a profitable investment typically loading 50-60 cars per week.  While these larger customers provide large volume shipments that any railroad would love to have, it has always been Arctic Rails equal commitment to the "little guy" that has helped pay the bills.  There are a multitude of smaller shippers on the route who receive the same expedited service.  It is not uncommon to see a local crew wait a few minutes while a customer finishes loading or unloading a car.  Shippers don't forget the little things and always find a way to move their goods on Arctic Rail:  "The Easiest Way to Expand Your Market!"

 

 

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