Why are Rail Trails Called Rail Trails?

rail trail

Hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions of people, visit the rail trails annually to go for a hike or have a quick stroll. If you’ve never seen one, it’s worth the trip to check it out for yourself. These often scenic corridors are incredibly popular recreation spots for a good reason. Rail trails are unique, and each one has its own history. Plus, they can be found all over the country. What makes these hiking and walking trails so different? Why are rail trails called rail trails?

The Rapid Rise And Fall Of The Railways

To understand the rail trails, first, you have to look at the rise and fall of the railways. The history of railroads is deeply tied to the progress of the United States. With vast tracts of land to traverse and motor vehicles still a long way off in the future, trains were the best way to move quantities of material and large groups of people quickly. In 1862, the construction of the transcontinental railroad was all the rage. This project was the spark that lit the true railway revolution, a massive undertaking by the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific Railroad Companies to connect the two coasts. People would soon be able to go from Omaha to Sacramento without ever getting off the train. From an elephantine, disconnected, and mysterious land, the railways changed everything and carved paths that connected everyone. Trains were safer than wagons, and they took a lot less time. Soon the map of America was covered in crisscrossing lines with train stations everywhere. Sadly it wouldn’t last. In 1886 Karl Benz would patent his ‘motor wagon .’ By 1908, Ford Motors was selling the Model T to the public. At first, automobiles seemed like an extravagance or a novelty, or at worst, an annoyance that spooked the horses. However, cars rapidly grew in popularity, and by the 1950s, far fewer people cared about traveling on trains.

In 1956 President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act. According to the Federal Highway Administration, “The Interstate System has been called the Greatest Public Works Project in History.” However, it also helped reduce the need for trains and train tracks. As the need for rail service declined, some routes closed down or became limited to local use only. As more highways were completed, people drove and even took buses. Soon the US had as many unused railways as occupied ones. Old train tracks were removed, and the materials repurposed. Creating a level corridor for trains to pass through alters the landscape like laying a road. A cleared railroad was a great open space where locals could take a stroll with no chance of getting lost. Before they were ever called rail trails, these unoccupied former train track sites made for perfect pathways. Scenic bridges and other unique features added to the appeal of these newfound trails. Finding an old abandoned rail platform or tunnel made an ordinary walk into a potential adventure with a delightful, real-world easter egg hidden around the next bend if you wandered far enough. While the urban and superhighway culture progressed at an ever-increasing rate, these hidden gems were only beginning their second life.

Rail Trails

The first official Rail Trail, Elroy-Sparta State Trail, opened in 1965. However, the rails-to-trails were in use from the moment tracks were removed. These wide, clear paths are perfect for recreation and exercise. With no trains and not even old tracks to disturb them, only people and some wildlife used these spaces. People walking the easy paths wasn’t enough to make rails to trails a significant movement. Nature would have easily reclaimed the spaces within a few decades as the railroad system slowly fell apart. However, Congress stepped in to help both the railways and the corridors they left behind. As The Rails-To-Trails Conservancy points out, “In 1980, the U.S. Congress passed the Staggers Rail Act, which largely deregulated the nation’s struggling railroad industry and allowed for the discontinuation of unprofitable routes… In 1983, Congress became concerned about the potential permanent loss of thousands of miles of railroad corridor and amended the National Trails Systems Act to create “railbanking,” a tool to preserve inactive corridors for future rail use, while providing for interim trail use.” Will we ever need to place train tracks in these spaces again? It’s hard to tell, but preserving the cleared corridors is starting to look like a wise and forward-thinking move considering climate change. With more people looking to lower their carbon footprint every day, the rail trails might someday house new, energy-efficient transportation systems or not. Still, they are a spectacular way to spend an afternoon for now.

The Rail To Trails Conservancy

Saying that we need to preserve the rail corridors is not enough. The next steps were clear. Someone had to step in and advocate, build, repair, and make the public aware of the rail trails. So three short years after Congress passed the National Trails Systems Act, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy opened its doors. The conservancy helps advocate for funding and implement physical programs to maintain and develop the rail trails. Some are paved for bikes and skateboarding, but others are kept in a more natural state. Either way, you can find the rail trails scattered from coast to coast, connecting communities that were once a short train ride apart. By taking unused rail corridors and turning them into thousands of miles of hiking trails, the Rails To Trails Conservancy became the caretakers of an integral part of the American trails systems. If you enjoy the outdoors, you may even have walked along one of these superb developed trails without realizing what it is.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re a lover of American history in general or the railroads in particular, the rail trails offer a unique insight into how trains connected the world before highways and personal cars were the norm. You can wander through a beautiful piece of history and imagine what early settlers saw along the way to their new homes or see how things changed. You never know what unexpected gem or new experience you’ll find along the way, but at least you know why they’re called rail trails.

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