“The forgotten outdoorsmen of today are those who like to walk, hike, ride horseback or bicycle. … for them we must have trails.” — Message to Congress from Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, said to be inspired by his wife, Lady Bird.
I’ve spent much of my life paddling the Chesapeake Bay and its far-flung tributaries, but more recently I’ve derived equal enjoyment from pedaling the bay, following a growing network of blissfully car-free trails throughout its six-state watershed.
Jamestown to Richmond, some 50 miles in Virginia; western Maryland across the Eastern Continental Divide, 150 miles into Pennsylvania; Annapolis to York, Pa. — it won’t be long before a cycle route connects Lake Ontario to the Chesapeake. Meanwhile, an East Coast Greenway linking the bay region to Key West and Maine is about a third complete.
A key component of all this exciting pedal-ability is the legacy of what might seem the antithesis of the humble and serene bike: the thunderous Iron Horse, locomotives of a hundred tons or more hauling millions of pounds of freight in a single train.
Railroads at their peak about a century ago extended more than a quarter of a million miles. That’s five times the length of today’s interstate highway network. The bay watershed had more than 25,000 of those miles, including the oldest commercial track in America: a 14-mile line out of Baltimore that still carries daily freight.
Today, close to half of all those rail miles have been abandoned. In the District of Columbia and bay states of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York and Delaware, abandoned tracks total about 15,000 miles (though not necessarily all of them fall within those states’ portions of the watershed).
In scattered places, abandoned rails became trails as early as 1949. The 20-mile Stony Valley Rail-Trail near Harrisburg is the second oldest trail of its kind in the nation. But the enormous opportunity for outdoor recreation wasn’t seriously envisioned until the 1960s, when interest in trails of all types began to get more attention.
Railroads, with their massive yet precise engineering, remain a pinnacle of human technological achievement. They pioneered where highways never went. They followed the flattish floodplains of rivers, bored through mountains, crossed wild gorges atop spectacular trestles, forded swamps and transected and connected the hearts of cities and villages.
Nationwide, roughly 25,000 miles of that abandoned rail have been either repurposed as trails or are available for creating trails that can be enjoyed by cyclists, hikers and horseback riders. About 5,000 miles, with more than 400 separate rail trails, lie within the six bay states and D.C.
To accommodate trains, the corridors were engineered to be relatively flat, and their hard-packed roadbeds still offer surfaces suitable for most bicycles. The potential for many more rail trails remains, including the completion of the remaining 48% of an east-west, coast-to-coast trail network.
The compelling story of how this came about is told by Peter Harnik, an Arlington, Va., resident and Johns Hopkins graduate who witnessed “a miracle” as a teen in New York City in 1966. That was the day the city closed Central Park to cars for one day: “The quiet was profound, birdsong in the city, no fear of being sideswiped, forced into a guardrail or flattened,” Harnik wrote in “From Rails to Trails,” which is both a fine sketch of U.S. transportation history and an inspiring guide to the power of trails to reconnect us to nature and lure us around the next bend.
It was never easy. A railroad corridor while operating, Harnik explains, seems immutable. But once abandoned, it often turns out to have been underlain by a hodgepodge of agreements, easements and other mechanisms both public and private that were used to assemble the right of way. He calls it a “bundle of sticks” and “a lawyers paradise.” Reassembling it for a trail involves politics at least as daunting as the physical engineering of a railroad’s original route.
A legal gamechanger, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, was “railbanking,” which lets abandoned track be kept on hold by government while trail advocates negotiate to reassemble and convert it.
Money was always key, and in 1977 the federal government allocated $5 million to jump-start nine rail trails nationwide, some in the Chesapeake watershed — one of which would be particularly influential. Creating the Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail, extending 40 miles through forests and farms along the Gunpowder River between the Baltimore suburbs and Pennsylvania, was a years-long fight, but by 1984 it was under development. Today it has more than half a million users annually and has inspired Pennsylvania to extend the trail to York. Strollers, runners and bikers recreate along the route that was part of Abraham Lincoln’s trip to give a brief talk in Gettysburg.
The trail set a pattern that has proven essential to rail trail success everywhere. The Torrey Brown (aka the North Central trail, for the old railroad) succeeded because of citizen advocacy, a clear plan of action and strong government support. Wherever all three of those ingredients are present, success usually comes, Harnik wrote; but where even one is missing, progress often fizzles.
In 1986, as rail abandonments were snowballing, Harnik and David Burwell, a lawyer with the National Wildlife Federation, cofounded the Rails to Trails Conservancy, which remains the nation’s leading advocate for rail trails.
Today, more than 18,000 miles of rail trails have been built, with thousands more miles in the works or at least with potential to become the delights of the “forgotten outdoorsmen” acknowledged in Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 “special message” to Congress.
A route linking trails from the Potomac River to Puget Sound, approximately 3,800 miles, is a little more than half complete.
Harnik, now riding an E-bike, his legs weakened by childhood polio, may not ever ride a coast-to-coast trail, but one can always dream and dream big, which has always been a hallmark of rails-to-trails projects.