Before They Were Rail-Trails
This month, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is celebrating its 22nd anniversary. Since 1986, we've been helping create and conserve a vibrant network of rail-trails across the country. Looking back, we see how far we have come—from only 200 known rail-trails to more than 1,450 today. And we also recognize the rich history we have helped preserve along these former railroad corridors.
The following are a handful of recollections from people who keenly recall the creation of that history. From hearing the haunting tone of a train whistle as a child, to biking on that same pathway as an adult, these are the kind of stories woven into each rail-trail. We hope you enjoy, and if you have your own rail-trail memory to share, send it to Karl Wirsing at email@example.com.
Kathleen Murray - Washington, D.C.
Jack, one of the neighborhood kids, said that the train came at 2 and 2 (2 a.m. and 2 p.m.) and that there was a man on the back with a salt-pellet gun who would shoot you if you tried to jump on. The salt from the pellet lodged under the skin and stung, but eventually melted, he said. What if you get shot in the eye?
I had seen the train and a man on the caboose many times in the afternoon and heard the train at night. It carried coal, not many cars—six or eight—and went slowly, maybe 15 or 20 miles an hour. The track across the street from our "new" house was on a wide curve, about 100 feet into the woods. The families in the new neighborhood were not friendly, but I liked the woods and the railroad track.
I walked the rails almost every day from the time that we moved, just before I turned six in 1967, until I went to high school at 13. Jack and I first had an underground fort several hundred feet off the tracks, and then a very high tree fort that hung nearly over them.
One day I found a little altar another kid had made on the other side of the tracks—he had arranged stones and plants in a certain painstaking way. I pass a pickup truck with his name on it now; he owns a roofing business.
One of the last times I walked the rails was the day I was accepted into a high school. I walked a long way—down to the spot where a rope swing swung out 50 feet off the ground—and read the letter of my acceptance over and over again. I felt the headmistress' signature. It was box-like and controlled. Each letter perfectly formed with nothing ascending or descending out of the box. I wondered if my signature would ever look this pretty. I felt for an indentation where she had signed, but there was none. She had used a fountain pen.
The tracks Kathleen walked would become the Capital Crescent Trail, which runs 11 miles from Silver Spring, Md., to the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The 11-mile Capital Crescent Trail follows the route of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's Georgetown Branch rail line. In 1986, a year after the last train ran on the corridor, advocates of the rail-trail (including RTC co-founder Peter Harnick) began their work. Ten years later, the first seven miles of trail were officially dedicated.
The corridor remains integral to Kathleen's family, but with a new function: on the Capital Crescent, her sister Susan became a devoted bicycle commuter and trail advocate.
B.J. Bythell - Twin Lakes, Wisconsin
When my wife Kay and I were married in December of 1945, we lived in an apartment in Chicago until we bought our first home at 125 E. Park Blvd., Villa Park, Ill. Just across the street was the "Roarin' Elgin"—actually, the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railway Company.
This was an electric railroad that brought commuters from Aurora and Elgin through all the Western suburbs to downtown Chicago where, in those days, everyone around us worked. About this same time they built the Congress Parkway (later named the Eisenhower Expressway) and everyone drove to work. This signaled the demise of rail transportation, and the CA&E discontinued operations in the summer of 1957. In 1961 came the total abandonment of the line.
In 1966 it became part of the Illinois Prairie Path System (IPPS), and the removal of tracks and clean-up began. Our children now had a new playground just across the street. Our three youngest, Diane, Barbara and Bob, regularly walked to school on the Prairie Path.
The IPPS had complete control over the entire length so no one in any of the towns could develop or build on this right-of-way, and thus, it became one of the first rail-to-trail conversions in the nation. And now, starting 25 miles west of Chicago, you have a 61-mile, multi-use limestone trail through Cook, Du Page and Kane counties.
I remember in the late 70s or early 80s it was decided to illuminate the Prairie Path. They acquired these vintage street lamps from Elmhurst where they had been in storage for many years. People were asked to "buy" individual lights, and they would be installed with an appropriate plaque as a memorial. Another plus to living there was the sweet aroma of chocolate that wafted through the air from the Ovaltine Factory. It was just east of Villa Avenue and along the Prairie Path. It has since closed and been converted to condos.
Don't you just want to get on a plane and come see the trail for yourself?
Betty Chapman - Anacortes, Washington
My dad's job was to stoke the furnace of the old trains. I would guess this was around 1939. He would go to the trains at night where they were stored and keep the furnace hot for the night. I would go with him (around seven years old). The engine room was nice and warm. I could sit there in the engineer's chair while my dad stoked the furnace.
Also, since we lived near the tracks, as kids we would take pennies and put them on the track. When the train went over them they would be all flattened. We also would take wire and write our names and let the train flatten the wire.