Decades before rail trails threaded through all 50 U.S. states—to be enjoyed by countless hikers, cyclists, horseback riders, and others—abandoned railroad right-of-ways stood as sad remnants of a bygone era. The neglected and overgrown corridors symbolized commerce lost in the urban and rural landscape through which they passed.
That those same strips of land, tens of thousands of miles worth, could and would be reborn as new economic engines and scenic connective tissue between communities across the U.S. is a remarkable story. Thanks to visionary naturalists, tireless government bureaucrats, and a national nonprofit dedicated to the cause, the “rail-trail” concept grew into a national treasure.
Consider that in 1986, when the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy was established, there were only 250 miles of rail trail known to exist in the U.S. Today there are 1,952 rail trails spanning 22,319 miles. Another 779 rail corridor conversions are in the works, which would add 8,439 more miles, according to Amy Kapp, editor-in-chief of Rails-to-Trails Magazine, an RTC publication.
That nearly ten-fold increase in trail miles over the past 30 years is what the nonprofit RTC is celebrating this year with its 160,000 members and other backers.
“There is a lot of support in the U.S. for rail trails,” Kapp says. “They’re now seen as more than just recreational amenities. Rail trails generate tourism, economic development, as well as directly benefit the health of people in their communities.”
It took time to convince the American public of this, however. Fearing converted rail corridors would attract vagrants and criminal activity, “abutting property owners sometimes opposed such projects by any means necessary,” wrote James Longhurst in his book Bike Battles: The History of Sharing the American Road. Trail builders still encounter pockets of resistance.
But as far back as the mid 1960s, the U.S. Department of Interior urged the reuse of abandoned railroad right-of-ways as recreational trails. Forty years earlier, 300,000 miles of rail linked nearly every city and small town in America. But other means of transportation—by air, highways, and waterways—led to a massive contraction of the rail system. Today about 150,000 miles of railroad track remain.
First Rail Trails in the Midwest
The actual conversion of rails-to-trails first took off in the Midwest, although there’s some disagreement over exactly which trail came first. The state of Wisconsin has the edge, having paid $12,000 in 1965 for the Chicago and North Western Railway just a year after it shut down. In 1967, the 32-mile Elroy-Sparta State Trail opened, complete with three very dark (and echoing) tunnels—two of which are a half mile long, and the third stretches three-quarters of a mile.
In the Chicago area to the south, the corridor of the Illinois Prairie Path was leased in 1966 and signage went up the same year the Elroy-Sparta opened. Noting the earlier purchase date of the Wisconsin trail, state tourism officials there marked 2015 as 50th birthday of the Elroy-Sparta State Trail.
Illinois Prairie Path historians started the clock with the September 30, 1963, publication in the Chicago Tribune of a letter by local naturalist May Theilgaard Watts advocating for a public path on the former Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin Electric (CA&E) rail line.
"We are human beings," she wrote. "We are able to walk upright on two feet. We need a footpath. Right now there is a chance for Chicago and its suburbs to have a footpath, a long one."
The Illinois and Wisconsin trails won induction, in that order, into the RTC Hall of Fame in August and September 2008 with neither trail description settling the “first in the nation” question. (Other past hall of famers are listed by the RTC.)
What’s more important is that both trails are now the backbone of much more extensive trail systems. The Elroy-Sparta is the trunk of 101 miles of continuous rail trail in west-central Wisconsin that includes the Great River, La Crosse River, and 400 state trails. The Illinois Prairie Path begins west of Chicago and branches out in three directions to cover 61 miles across three counties. Each trail attracts tens of thousands of users annually.
More Connections, Bigger Visions
The push now, Kapp says, is to incorporate as much of the 22,000-plus miles of rail trail into connected and regional “complete transportation systems that aren’t just roads but include bikeable and walkable infrastructure.”
Trail connections—to each other and to other means of transportation—are essential. An example of this, and one of the most ambitious projects in which the RTC has involved itself, is being pursued by the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition.
The coalition of 19 organizations, including trail advocates and land managers, envisions a 1,450-mile trail system radiating out from Pittsburgh and connecting hundreds of miles of existing trail: the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath in northeast Ohio, Three Rivers Heritage and Montour trails in Pennsylvania, and the North Bend Rail Trail and Mon River Trail North and South in West Virginia.
The master plan would also build a short link from the Montour Trail to the Great Allegheny Passage, which would link up another 300 miles of trail leading all the way to Washington, D.C.
Another big project is New York’s Hudson Valley Trail Network, the centerpiece of which is the Walkway Over the Hudson—the world’s longest pedestrian bridge at 1.5 miles—connecting the Hudson Valley and Dutchess rail trails for a total of 18 miles. Some 40,000 people walked the span the weekend it opened in 2007, and an estimated 500,000 visit annually.
The Hudson Valley Trail Network is one of five nominees for in inclusion in the RTC Hall of Fame. For the first time in RTC history, voting will be open to the public. Voting will take place online June 6 to June 15 on the RTC’s 30th anniversary website.
The other nominees include the paved 42-mile Rio Grande Trail in CO; the Swamp Rabbit Trail in view of the Blue Ridge Mountains in SC; the Banks-Vernonian State Trail in the foothills of the Coast Range of northwest OR; and the Shelby Farms Greenline in Memphis, TN.
“These are all exemplary rail trails that are important to the movement and their communities in different ways,” Kapp says.