GREENWICH - For Ron Crowd, 1986 is the year business went bad.
Crowd has operated the Batten Kill Railroad for 20 years, providing freight and passenger service to southern Washington County. His lifelong dream was to be in railroads, and he found the chance in 1982, when he bought the former Delaware & Hudson branch line from Eagle Bridge to Salem and Greenwich for $861,000.
But a nationwide strike by rail workers in 1986 caused business woes that Crowd said his railroad has since been unable to overcome.
"We lost $400,000 in business and basically never recovered," Crowd said.
Despite the setbacks and having to operate at a loss for the past few years, however, Crowd said he's going to keep running for as long as he can.
The latest cutbacks on his railroad involved shrinking the passenger service offered by the Battenkill Rambler tourist train, which now runs from Cambridge to Shushan. In past years it ran farther north to the village of Salem.
In addition to shortening its route, officials cut the tourist train's frequency of operation from four round trips per week to only one.
Crowd said there were not enough passengers to support so many regularly scheduled trains, and officials instead decided to focus on trains for special groups and tours, such as fall foliage tours.
But although the passenger trains are the most visible operation of the Batten Kill Railroad, the bulk of its revenue comes from freight service.
"The freight service has always been our bread and butter," Crowd said. "The passenger service is attractive, but it's not able to maintain our operation."
Freight lines run north from Eagle Bridge to Salem and west from just south of Salem to Greenwich and the hamlet of Thompson.
The railroad's freight trains carry feed and fertilizer. The Agway Feed Mill in Greenwich and CaroVail Fertilizer in Salem are two of its larger customers. The freight trains run three times a week on 32 miles of track.
Crowd's railroad is unique in the operation of short-line freight service, being one of only a handful of railroads across the nation to be owned and operated by a black person.
State financing helped Crowd buy the Delaware & Hudson line, which the railroad was threatening to close. The sale agreement covered tracks, bridges, land and some equipment.
For the first few years, Crowd said his railroad was operating at a profit.
Then two separate strikes, the largest in 1986, made a permanent mark on the business.
Crowd said he lost a significant amount of business from the local paper industry that has not come back.
"We were no longer in a position to pay our mortgage," Crowd said.
In 1994, Crowd and a group of railroad preservationist decided to work out a deal that would keep the railroad operating. Crowd donated the land, tracks and equipment to a newly established nonprofit organization called Northeastern New York Railroad Preservation Group, also known as NE Rail, and was then allowed to run the freight and passenger service.
"The primary concern we had was preserving the freight service for feed and fertilizer," said Bruce Ferguson, chairman of NE Rail. "At the same time, we said, 'If we're going to do that, let's do passenger service.'"
In the eyes of the state, the Batten Kill Railroad is a living museum. The two engines owned by NE Rail are vintage 1950s-era machines, and some of the tourist trains use cars that emphasize the history of railroading in the area.
The first year of the passenger services saw the largest ridership numbers for the Battenkill Rambler, but the number of riders has been declining every year since.
"Due to the fact that Washington County has no real tourism push, our ridership has seen a decline year after year," Crowd said. "The county itself does not have the tourism budget that neighboring counties have."
A lack of volunteers willing to help out with the passenger train has also hurt the service, Crowd said. Five people are employed full time by the Batten Kill Railroad, but volunteers are needed for some of the smaller operations, he said.
"Volunteer support has been down, and we need to get people to help run North East Rail," Ferguson said. "We are down from attrition, and we need new members."
By the fact of geography, Crowd and the Batten Kill Railroad could benefit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's plans to dredge the Hudson River to remove PCB-contaminated sediments.
The EPA has said two "dewatering" facilities to treat dredged sediments will be established along the river, possibly in the Greenwich area.
Because of the large quantity of material that is going to be removed from the river, the EPA has told local officials it wants to move the material by rail.
Although the agency has not announced the location of the dewatering sites, the only rail service in Washington County south of Fort Edward is in the hamlet of Thomson, where the Batten Kill Railroad line ends.
Crowd said he wants to stay out of the debate over dredging but realizes the dewatering facility could be the shot in the arm his railroad needs. The Thomson industrial site is ideal because of its proximity to the Champlain Canal and its accessibility to trucks and trains, he said.
Shipping dredged materials by rail is the least obtrusive way of removing them from a dewatering facility, Crowd said. He estimates trains would make several trips to and from the facility daily.
"We would be able to put money in the railroad for necessary improvements," Crowd said. "My goal is survival of the railroad until something happens."