By Peter Harnik
Have you ever cycled on a rail-trail? I’m not talking of just any old trail, but one created from an old railroad track.
If you’re biking on a path and it’s getting dark, and you’re on the verge of being so late that you’ll get a reprimand when you come home, but the rhythm of your legs and the cadence of your lungs are so perfect, and the glimpse of the view around the broad next bend is so enticing, and you haven’t had to shift gears for what feels like forever or make more than the barest tweak to the angle of your handlebar, and the bridges fly over the passing streams with implacable authority, and you simply can’t bring yourself to turn around or stop, then you’re on a rail-trail.
Of course, there are many other great bicycling experiences that involve hills, shifting gears, twisting and turning, standing hard on pedals, coasting down endless hills, but to my mind the Queen is the rail-trail. That’s because it was built to unmatchable standards of grade, strength, cross-slope and drainage, with superbly constructed bridges, trestles and tunnels to boot. Engineering for hundreds of steel wheels and millions of pounds of freight, now serving lycra-clad enthusiasts on skinny rubber tires.
How this all happened – how, by 1916, the U.S. created a gargantuan, 250,000-mile railroad system that linked every city and town, and then, by today, sloughed off more than 110,000 miles of the track– is a complex story of grit, greed, vision, venality, optimism and overreach. And next, the story of the heroic saving of abandoned corridors for use as multi-purpose trails all around the nation.
This history has now been told in From Rails to Trails; The Making of America’s Active Transportation Network (University of Nebraska Press). In writing it, I had the advantage of getting in on the ground floor with the 1985 establishment of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. I also benefited from RTC’s close working relationship with scores of local rail-trail advocacy coalitions (which were led mostly by bicyclists). But it still took five years of research to pull together the full story that included lawsuits, legislative battles, political demonstrations, fundraising extravaganzas, compromises, heartbreaking setbacks and stirring triumphs.
This is not a tourist guidebook (although your favorite rail-trail might well be in here because of a memorable moment in its past). It’s more a political guidebook for saving abandoned corridors and turning them into trails (or, in some cases, rails with trails if there is room alongside). There are stories of marches (both advocacy and protest), showdowns in court, lobbying campaigns and funding battles, bridges being saved, tunnels being restored, backroom deals being exposed, and more. Some of today’s leading rail-trail states are Pennsylvania (with 186 of them), Michigan (130), California (128), New York (111), Ohio (100) and Wisconsin (99), but every state has at least three, and the total mileage already exceeds 20,000. Next on the agenda is weaving a coast-to-coast string of trails together into what’s being called “The Great American Rail-Trail.”
In addition to recounting the history of the railroad industry, From Rails to Trails traces the roller-coaster trajectory of the bicycle movement. This was a cause that was severely hampered by disagreement between “pro-road” and “pro-sidepath” advocates for much of the 20th century. It was only the last-ditch prospect of saving abandoned railroad tracks – which had never been taken over by cars – that led to the unification of cyclists behind a campaign that could finally work for everyone.
Rail-trails are of course not entirely problem-free. There are still conflicts between different kinds of cyclists, and certainly between bikers, skaters, runners, walkers, stroller-pushers, wheelchair users and dog-walkers. (New York City’s High Line, the most heavily used rail-trail in the world, doesn’t allow bikes, skates or runners – it’s too crowded.) But rail-trails are noticeably changing both our cities (with high-quality non-automobile transportation corridors) and our rural communities (with high-quality recreation facilities that lure tourists and vacationers to otherwise hurting economies).
If you love rail-trails and want to know the backstory(or if you’re just intrigued), get hold of From Rails to Trails by Peter Harnik, available from Amazon (https://amzn.to/40BTDq3) or from University of Nebraska Press (https://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/).
Peter Harnik, a cyclist for more than 60 years, grew up in New York City, where he rode both on the streets and on the trails of Central Park. Since 1970 a resident of the nation’s capital, he served for many years with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association and in 1985 co-founded the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. He reports that he has thus far sampled 203 different rail-trails across the U.S.
Louis Lamoureux says
Growing up in the 70s in NJ, I could cycle for about a mile on an abandoned railroad bed before getting to a washed out bridge, but could go several miles in the other, there was even an old tunnel. It was car-free carefree bliss even though it might not’ve been strictly legal. When wife & I decided to buy a house in ‘98, we looked all over Fairfax County, we knew we found the right house when the realtor pointed out the W&OD within walking distance. I can’t put into words how valuable the W&OD has been for getting around (can’t say how many times I’ve cycled into DC, or on errands to other cities) and for exercise (EVERY Thursday group ride uses the trail at the start to get to light traffic west & returns on it, many cyclists use it to get to the Tuesday group rides). 45 paved car free miles that connect to roughly 60 miles of major trails (Custis, Mt Vernon, FFX CTY trail), maybe a hundred miles of minor trails, and easy access to 335 miles of (while not by definition a rail-trail) the C&O Towpath and GAP rail-trail to Pittsburgh. The W&OD has been a gateway drug to cycling for me and my life is immeasurably better for it.
Doug Kirk, Madison, WI says
Considered the first rail-to-trail in the United States, the Elroy-Sparta State Trail remains one of the most popular trails in the country. With three rock tunnels and five small towns along its 32.5-mile route, the trail is a favorite Wisconsin bicycling destination. Traveling between Sparta and Elroy, the trail stretches through the communities of Norwalk, Wilton and Kendall, passing by wetlands, prairies, farmland and unglaciated areas.
John Noonan says
I live two miles from the Glacial Drumlin State Trail that connects Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin. It is a privilege to have one of these trails nearby.