Eclipse Special Runs into a Cloud

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
image description

Bryan Olin Dozier/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

It seems that there were only two topics on everybody’s mind lately: the election and the eclipse that would occur on Monday, April 8. The latter would be the first solar eclipse visible in the United States since 2017, and the last until 2044. The band of totality moved across much of the nation, encompassing several major cities.

One place within the totality zone was Thendara, N.Y., a small town in the rural Adirondack region of Upstate New York. The town is served by the Adirondack Railroad, which ran a special train to take about 370 spectators from Utica to the rare event.

In some ways, Utica’s 1914-vintage Union Station is a throwback to the Golden Age of Rail Travel, even though it is served only by Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited and three other daily round trips on Amtrak’s Empire Service. The station itself is monumental in Italianate style, is located in downtown Utica, has a barber shop, and sports a marble interior that could not be replicated today without an equally monumental cost. For the special train, the ticket line stretched the length of the station interior.

Adirondack Railroad photo

The consist used most of the railroad’s equipment roster, with two vintage diesel locomotives providing the power and a train longer than most Amtrak trains. Most of the ten-car consist comprised coaches that once ran on CN. It also included a lounge car at one end, a dome car outfitted by the railroad at the other end, and a former New York Central dining car that offered hot dogs, meatball sandwiches and Utica-style baked goods for sale. The latter included tomato pie (a thick pizza crust with tomato sauce but no cheese) and half-moons (like the “black-and-whites” in New York City, but the cookie is chocolate-flavored). Most of the seats were arranged facing each other, with a small table in each four-seat grouping. First Class service included a shrimp cocktail, fruit and cheese plate or salad, and non-alcoholic beverages, with seating like coach but including the food.

The train left Utica at 11:15 AM. The atmosphere on board was festive on the way to the eclipse, with much of the conversation directed to that event. Mike Bank of Sherrill, N.Y. gave a brief talk about the eclipse, mentioning the pre-totality stages (Bailey’s Beads and the “diamond ring”) and said that totality would occur from 3:24 to 3:27 PM, lasting slightly less than three minutes. He acknowledged that he was not a “true astronomer” but a hobbyist.” This was his first trip doing narration on the train, but he said that he had “admired the railroad for many years.”

Other locals rode the train a to get to the eclipse without having to drive. One was Carol Hanna of Utica, who had lived in Remsen, a stop along the line where the railroad had rebuilt the station according to the original plan. Her daughter Allison also told Railway Age that the eclipse made the train trip special. She and Matt King, a couple traveling together, wanted to relax on the trip and take pictures of the route. She said, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime event for both of us.” Not everybody came from the local area. Ed and Patricia Lennon had come from Patchogue, Long Island by automobile, but Ed demonstrated his knowledge about railroads during my conversation with him. 

The train arrived at Thendara, a small community once called Fulton’s Chain (after a chain of eight lakes), at 1:50 PM. Shortly afterward, the crew ran the two units around the train to change ends for the return trip. The station is historic, but the community offers little else. The nearby restaurant was closed, but locals hope that it will reopen. The historic Fulton’s Chain town hall is still standing and beautifully painted, but otherwise abandoned. Under normal service, the railroad provides a shuttle to nearby Old Forge that uses school buses, but everybody on the eclipse train brought chairs or stood in a field near the station to watch the spectacle. Food was sold from a BarBQ truck during the layover.

The day got off to a promising, sunny start, but it was not to last. It was also sunny during the ride, but the sky became hazy about 3:00, which made the anticipating viewing questionable. After that time, it got cloudier. As the eclipse progressed and the moon began to encroach on the view of the sun, it started to get dark, but the haze diffused the light enough that the sun still appeared almost round. The darkness was not like night, but seemed more like the appearance of the sky when a severe storm is brewing.

It was difficult to see the eclipse, which apparently put a damper on the crowd’s enthusiasm. Some spectators who had the best cameras got relatively sharp pictures of the diamond ring and the corona during totality, but the experience did not match the hope that was encouraged by the sunny morning. The crowd cheered when the sun began to come out again, but even that cheer was somewhat subdued.

The train waited at Thendara for a scheduled departure time of 4:15 and an actual departure at 4:25. The sun came out about 5:00, roughly 100 minutes too late, and the train arrived back at Utica at 7:05. Ed Lennon’s final comment about the trip was, “I enjoyed it, but I didn’t like the clouds.”

The historic Adirondack Railroad (later part of the New York Central) went from Utica to Lake Placid. The last service there took spectators to the 1980 Winter Olympics, but it was discontinued early in the spring of 1981. The railroad later ran a separate service on the Lake Placid end of the line, with a long gap in the middle, and was pushing to restore service on the entire length of the historic line. That did not work out. It lost the north end of the line, which will be redeveloped as a snowmobile trail instead.

Still, the railroad will restore the middle of the historic line to service and will be running occasional trips to Tupper Lake later this year. Plans call for Sunday round trips from Utica to Tupper Lake and back, about every six weeks. So, there might soon be another reason to ride the Adirondack Railroad relatively soon, without risking disappointment because the day might turn out to be cloudy.