It began in the mid-1960s as a quiet Midwest phenomenon barely noticed in the major metropolitan areas of America. The idea: To convert the abandoned or unused rail corridors—which were closing at an increasingly rapid pace across America—into public trails.
As tracks started being pulled out, people instinctively began walking along the old corridors, socializing, exploring, enjoying nature, discovering railroad relics and marveling at the bridges and tunnels. At the time, most people simply walked the corridors; although some outdoor enthusiasts skied or snowshoed the local pathways in winter. These early users started calling them “rails-to-trails"—a name that quickly caught on. Of course, none of the corridors were paved or graded; that would not come until later.
The rail-trail movement would see its formal birth with the opening of the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in 1965 and the opening of the Illinois Prairie Path soon thereafter. 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. This prompted the abandonment of 4,000 to 8,000 miles of lines each year throughout the early 1980s. In 1983, Congress became concerned about the potential permanent loss of thousands of miles of rail 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.
When we opened our doors, there were 250 miles of open rail-trails in America. With 30 years of leadership, this “great idea”—to preserve America’s irreplaceable rail corridors by transforming them into multi-use trails—has blossomed into a movement.
Today, rail-trails are continuing to make a significant mark on American communities, with more than 21,000 miles of rail-trails providing a place for tens of millions of people to walk, run, hike, skate and cycle each year.