Rails to Trails

Across America disused railbeds are being converted to trails for hiking and biking. Soon a national trail will link the coasts

Rail Trails
Illustration by Jeffrey Fisher

A spectacular outdoor-recreation experience has only just become available. It occurs near the end of a short bicycle ride along the Cowboy Trail, a new and very long biking, hiking, and horseback-riding trail that is still taking shape across almost the whole of Nebraska. The most exhilarating moments begin abruptly, without warning, a couple of miles south of the feedlots and corrals at the east end of Valentine -- a small ranching town that sits near the northern edge of the vast, grass-covered, almost uninhabited Nebraska Sand Hills. Pedaling southeast from Valentine on the Cowboy Trail last summer on a borrowed bike, the wind at my back, I was pretty much ignoring the scenery and concentrating on building up speed, because the path ahead was magnificently smooth, straight, level, and empty. The Sand Hills cover 19,300 square miles and are the largest complex of sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere; parts of them look at first like the Golf Course That Swallowed the Universe. From one windswept horizon to another the view is of rounded green hilltops, treeless and cow-cropped, separated by sandy gullies and small lakes.

Suddenly the ground on either side of the trail fell away steeply and changed character, sprouting tall trees. I caught a quick glimpse of winding blue water. But the real marvel wasn't just the unexpected difference in my surroundings; there was also an unexpected sameness in my circumstances. I was still furiously moving straight ahead and at the exact same level. It was as though the bike path had extended directly across the middle of the sky. Twenty feet to my right a turkey vulture -- similar to ones I had seen five minutes earlier soaring hundreds of feet overhead in high, lazy circles -- appeared out of nowhere and coasted along beside me, at my speed and height. I stopped pedaling and risked a closer look. The bird was gliding on thermals rising from the wide river valley that had opened up beneath us. But what was holding me aloft?

I was cupped by an extraordinary wooden cradle. It had a solid plank floor about ten feet wide, a five-foot-high wooden railing on either side, no roof, and, from my vantage point, no visible means of support. Rather than stop to figure it all out, I wanted to keep pace with that buzzard. It was much cooler out here in the middle of the air than it had been back in the Sand Hills. The only sounds I could hear were a rush of air and a shuss of tires on wood. And from somewhere I could catch a faint scent of sun-warmed grass. I swept forward, alert, weightless.

A couple of minutes later I saw ground up close on either side of me once again. The vulture had veered off. I was across the valley, and could brake to a stop and think about things such as the physics of the trip. Walking back to the end of the wooden cradle, I peered over one edge. Slender iron legs, carefully riveted together, crisscrossed the valley to support the level iron platform of what had once been a single-track railway bridge across the Niobrara River. I later found out just how big it is -- a quarter of a mile long and almost 150 feet high. The entire Cowboy Trail was until recently a railroad, the 321-mile Cowboy Line of the old Chicago and North Western system.

When it's fully open, the Cowboy Trail will be the longest railroad-based trail in the country -- and will also constitute about 11 percent of what is expected to become over the next decade a coast-to-coast trail corridor, the spine of an interconnected network of similar pathways. I'd gone to Nebraska to see firsthand the coming of age of "rails to trails," as it is called, a citizen-based recycling campaign to convert cast-off rail corridors into public trails for a variety of uses, including biking, hiking, horseback riding, and Rollerblading.

How many uses any trail can sustain depends on what kind of treatment the roadbed gets: mountain bikes, horses, and some hikers can handle minimally improved trails (now about a fifth of the total) from which old rails and ties have been removed. About half of existing rail trails have been given improved surfaces, such as crushed stone and gravel, and family outings on bicycles are much better on these. The interstate highways of the movement -- the one third of rail trails that have been paved with asphalt or concrete -- welcome all comers.

A DOZEN years ago, after more than two decades of local efforts, there were perhaps 600 miles of rail trails in the country, and in the words of a leading national-land conservationist, William H. Whyte, it took "a real hardcore screwball" to tackle such a project. Today there are 10,000 miles of publicly owned and fully open rail trails through cities, suburbs, farm belts, and wild lands, and another 18,000 miles being readied for use. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national nonprofit group, now has 75,000 members and in a dozen years has grown from a staff of one to a staff of forty-five. Rail trails, according to Martin J. Rosen, the president of the Trust for Public Land, have become "one of the most rapidly accelerating land-acquisition movements in American history." Much of this acceleration has a predictable explanation: it's the result of skillful organization by activists who are good at pouncing on changes in the national laws and the flow of federal money. In 1983 Congress passed what could be called the Humpty Dumpty Wellness Act -- a one-paragraph provision in the national trails law that established the concept of "railbanking," which keeps intact rights-of-way for railroads that have gone out of service but that may someday again carry people or freight.

Thus trails, which had previously been seen as irrelevant to railroad policymaking, were accorded a legitimate, in-the-meantime recreational use justified by future transportation necessity. Without railbanking, abandoned rail corridors would have disappeared overnight as legal entities and could have broken into hundreds of scraps, impossible to reassemble. American law is muddied and muddled when it comes to railroad-corridor ownership, and once trains stop running, it's often unclear whether the land is still a railroad's or reverts to its "adjacents," the property owners along a line. (Out west the adjacent in many places is the federal government, setting up the possibility of very long, skinny national parks between forests and wilderness preserves.)

The railbanking law gave rail-trail activists standing; ISTEA (pronounced ice tea), the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, awarded them funding. ISTEA is the first national attempt since the Second World War to pull the country together without just building longer and wider highways.

The 1991 law is meant to start healing what roads and sprawl have done to American communities and the landscapes around them. ISTEA gives only the slightest nudge to postwar spending patterns, shifting three quarters of one percent of federal transportation disbursements into programs that make it easier to bike and walk through our towns and countryside. But so vast are the totals spent every year that 0.75 percent represents $820 million for bicycle and pedestrian facilities since 1992, more than twenty times the amount spent during the two decades before ISTEA became law. (ISTEA is now up for reauthorization, and leaders in both the House and the Senate are promising next spring to carry forward the ISTEA approach to biking and walking.)

And there is certainly plenty of raw material for rail-trail advocates to work with. American railroad mileage, which peaked at 254,000 miles in 1916, has been declining ever since the 1920s, when Congress made it national policy to build highways between all the county seats across the country. That decline accelerated dramatically in the 1970s, after a number of big, or Class I, eastern railroads went bankrupt, and it continues today, as the remaining large railroads scramble to survive by merging into pared-down megasystems.

Frank Wilner, the author of Railroad Mergers: History, Analysis, Insight, thinks that Class I mileage, which diminished from 192,000 miles in 1975 to 108,000 miles in 1995, may stabilize twenty years from now at no more than 70,000 or 75,000 miles. At that point, Wilner suggests, there will be only one or two supersized railroads left, running coast to coast, and possibly through Canada and Mexico as well. Hundreds of short lines -- new, smaller railroads that are more attuned to the needs of local customers -- might pick up close to half of the leftover rail corridors, and some of the rest might be acquired by tourist railroads and mass-transit lines. Rail trails, if they can keep up the pace of the past ten years, may wind up with more than a quarter of the remainder.

But what would happen to the rest of those early-twenty-first-century castoffs -- 11,000 or so miles of rail corridors? During my Nebraska trip, and on a recent, equally memorable helicopter flight over northeastern Connecticut, I began to think of the permanent loss of any mile of rail line as an enormous waste of creative brilliance. The rapid success of rail trails has in large part to do with what people in the nineteenth century called "the poetry of engineering" -- a superb if literally unsung aspect of our national railroading inheritance.

Thanks to the lasting impact that railways have had on American life, we still teach children songs about glamorous express trains like the Wabash Cannonball, about the courageous engine-driving of Casey Jones, about the legendary rock-clearing and track-laying prowess of John Henry. But rail trails, partly because they are traversed so much more slowly than railroad tracks, are bringing us into direct, intimate contact with the accomplishments of "the other engineers," as they're sometimes called -- the gifted railroad planners who, 170 years ago, began the routes that are now being abandoned. And they are linking us to the tens of thousands of railroad workers who, using only hand tools in the early years, actually did move mountains to make these rail lines real. (It has been estimated that each linear foot of hand-built rail line represents a full day's work by ten men.)

When I first heard about rail trails, they struck me as admirable mostly because they embodied thrift and making do; if people needed trails, here they were, pre-assembled and pre-engineered. Then I discovered the unusually good fit between the needs of locomotives and the needs of legs pumping bicycle pedals. Steam engines have enormous hauling power, but they don't corner well, and they tend to slide around on steel rails if a climb or a descent is too steep. So the inventors of railroad engineering in the 1830s and 1840s connected towns along lines that were as flat as possible and had wide, gentle curves. In general, rail-line grades are held to two percent: they rise (or fall) no more than two feet for every hundred feet they move ahead.

These kindly dimensions, instituted for completely different purposes, now create royal highways for hikers and bikers. But even the most noble path can be boring, as many of the 45,000 miles of the interstate highway system demonstrate. The true genius of these engineers, hidden until now, was that they, like Frederick Law Olmsted in the parks he designed a generation later, worked with landscapes to fashion experiences that strengthened people's connectedness to the land. The engineers were under strict orders from railroad owners and investors to hold costs down, so they kept the railbeds flat by working along river valleys as often as they could. But wherever possible they included gradually revealed vistas, views that beckoned, and scenes of sudden wonder -- such as the Nebraska bridge over the Niobrara.

Their work remained largely concealed because of the mechanics of a railroad ride. On most trains the only people who see what's up ahead along the track are the engineer and the fireman; everyone else, whether passenger or crew member, has to look either sideways or backward. (The much-loved postwar vista-dome cars, with their glass-bubble roofs, were an attempt to remedy this situation.) But a rail-trail hike or ride puts people back in touch with the views that inspired the planners of these lines -- visionaries with dash, like so many of our early-nineteenth-century nation-builders. Among them were the Middlebury College professor Alexander Twining, educated at Yale and West Point, an astronomer, mathematician, and inventor, and an engineer as well; and Lieutenant George Washington Whistler, also from West Point, a Johnny Appleseed of railroad construction, who deserves to be as well known as his wife, the famous "Whistler's mother." Lieutenant Whistler, the father of the painter and etcher James Abbott McNeill Whistler, helped to lay out five American railways in the eastern United States. In 1842 he moved to Russia to oversee the construction of the 420-mile Moscow and St. Petersburg Railroad.

STRETCHING ISTEA funding still further, Governor John Rowland, of Connecticut, in an unprecedented move two years ago asked engineers from his National Guard to clear and regrade for trail use more than fifty miles of abandoned railroads that run from near Hartford east to the Rhode Island state line. (The move has since inspired Governor Lincoln Almond, of Rhode Island; this fall his National Guard began clearing out a rail-trail corridor almost thirty miles long that connects to the Connecticut trail and runs east to Providence.) The National Guard is constantly looking for what it calls "leave-behinds" -- tangible results of training projects for its engineers which actually benefit communities; armies have traditionally been accused of simply digging holes and then filling them in again. Soccer fields are a favorite leave-behind -- but a town can use only so many soccer fields, and the Connecticut Guard has eagerly embraced rail trails as an alternative. Northeastern Connecticut, sometimes called the quiet corner of the state, is still astonishingly rural. The Guardsmen who took me up in the helicopter to fly over their handiwork told me that they had encountered wild turkeys and an albino deer along the trail. From the air I could see red barns, cows, white steeples, thousands upon thousands of acres of deep woodlands, and some early leave-behinds -- mile after mile of stone walls in the middle of forests that back in the eighteenth century were cleared fields. And I saw the rail line that the Guard was bringing back to life, which flowed elegantly through the woods, bending softly on the hillsides.

Not everyone loves rail trails. Nonetheless, the fears of vandalism and trespassing expressed in advance of a trail's opening have seldom been realized once the trail is in use. In fact the opposite has been true -- people who won't speak on the street greet one another on rail trails. They are in fact so successful that even as the coast-to-coast network of rail trails (supplemented by old canal towpaths) emerges, they've given impetus to a parallel movement of hybrid long-distance trails that stitch together rail trails, country roads, and other overlooked corridors. There are now plans for an East Coast Greenway from Boston to Washington, D.C., which will incorporate the Connecticut and Rhode Island rail trails, several canal corridors, and even a bike path next to the historic Merritt Parkway in Connecticut. The American Discovery Trail -- part rail trails, part back roads, part traditional footpath -- will soon stretch from California to Delaware. And every new mile of railroad-provided trail will recapture the experiences planned by those other engineers, the ones who went to work in our behalf so long ago.