Trail of the Month: July 2011
Maryland's Indian Head Rail Trail
On a warm summer morning, Maryland's Indian Head Rail Trail is buzzing with activity. Not with the two-wheeled or two-footed variety; people and their machines are scarce on this weekday. It's the winged, finned, shelled, furred and other forms of life that dominate a marshy stretch alongside this 13-mile asphalt path.
Red-headed woodpeckers flit back and forth between their roosts in dead tree trunks and stands of oak across the trail. Frogs thrump and squeak. Fish splash briefly to the surface of the water. A red-winged blackbird darts into a stand of cattails, calling raucously. Bluebirds and cardinals sing as they move through the trees. Painted turtles sunbathe on a log floating only a few feet from a beaver lodge. Dragonflies hover and zoom out of sight. Down the trail, a young deer browses in the grass while rabbits hop for cover. The sweet scent of lizard's tail—a plant whose flower has a fragrance somewhere between jasmine and honeysuckle—washes through the air.
And Tom Roland is apologizing. "Normally there would be bald eagles here," says the Charles County, Md., chief of parks, straddling his bike on the side of the trail and craning his head to look for the majestic raptors. An ecotourism consultant who visited a few years back told Roland that, outside of Alaska, this area had some of the most accessible bald-eagle-viewing opportunities in the country. "I'm sorry we're not seeing any this morning," he says.
The absence of the nation's symbol is barely noticeable, given the abundance of other wildlife on this trail—especially considering that it's located less than 20 miles outside the Washington, D.C., beltway. For Washingtonians and others weary of battling traffic on city roads—and on crowded urban biking trails—the Indian Head Rail Trail offers a blessedly peaceful respite.
Yet it wasn't peace that the underlying railroad's founders had in mind when they laid these tracks—it was war. In the summer of 1918, in the midst of World War I, the U.S. Navy needed a reliable land route to bring supplies to and from its gunpowder factory at Indian Head, Md. (The town's name comes from its early history as an Algonquin Indian settlement on a strategic peninsula, or 'head,' jutting into the Potomac River.)
A route was surveyed from the naval facility along the Mattawoman Creek valley to the nearest existing rail junction, 14 miles away in White Plains, Md. In May 1919, only about six months after the first tracks were laid, trains began rolling to and from the powder factory. The rail line stayed in use for a few more decades, but as the county's road system developed and the functions of the naval base shifted away from gunpowder production to weapons research and testing (the base is today known as Naval Support Facility-Indian Head and is the county's largest employer), the trains eventually stopped running.
County officials first identified the route as a potential recreational trail in the mid-1990s, but they faced resistance on a number of fronts. Some people worried that permanently losing the railroad might harm the local economy or jeopardize the status of the navy base. A local utility wanted to run a wastewater line along the corridor. Business interests pushed for the creation of a dinner-train to serve tourists.
With the help and advice of staff at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's national office, trail advocates won out in the end. In 2006, the Department of the Interior gave the unused railroad corridor to Charles County under the federal lands-to-parks program. The county spent $3 million to convert the old railroad into a trail and opened the entire path to the public in October 2009.
"This is the first rail-trail conversion in southern Maryland," Roland says proudly. "Since 2009, we've probably had close to 170,000 visitors, and it's been very well-accepted by our community. We're seeing families, runners, bikers, birders, photographers, artists. It has been really nice."
The trail's appeal to artists was something Roland and others never anticipated. Shortly after the trail officially opened, three local plein air (the French term for "outdoor") painters discovered it. The three—Barbara Stepura, Lynn Mehta and Sally V. Parker—were on the lookout for safe and scenic spots to paint. With its views of lush wetlands, forests, creeks and farms; abundant wildlife; a profusion of wildflowers and brilliant fall foliage, the Indian Head Rail Trail beckoned.
"[The trail] was ideal, because it had parking places, and there was a nice path
it was real wide, so we could set our things up and not impede the flow of traffic," says Stepura, a retired hospital executive from White Plains, Md..
For about 18 months, the artists were regular fixtures along the trail, setting up their easels and canvasses and immortalizing life along the path—both the wild and the human varieties—in oils, acrylics and watercolors. The 65 paintings they produced were recently the focus of "Rail Trail Impressions, "a popular show at a local gallery."
"I could see people walking around the exhibit saying, 'I know where that is,' or 'that's where I saw an egret last time I was down there,'" says Roland. "It was really awesome. The artists did a really wonderful job."
For Roland, the unexpected attraction of the trail to painters is just one example of the wide variety of advantages the rail-trail provides to the community. "This trail has social benefits, it has recreational benefits and it has economic benefits," he says. "In addition, because Charles County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state, the trail also preserves some of the best natural resources of the area, including crucial wildlife habitat."
That sounds like something the area's bald eagles would support—even if they're not always in sight.
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