This past week, the rail-trail movement lost one of its greatest friends, Jeffrey L. Doppelt of Great Neck, New York, an enthusiastic ambassador and philanthropist for rail-trails who passed away from COVID-19.
During a memorial broadcasted by video, his closest family members and friends celebrated his life, remembering him as someone who lived enthusiastically and loved sharing his passions with others. A perfectionist. Quirky and brilliant. Jeff’s passion for rail-trails was as particular and brilliant as his personality.
A member of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) for over 25 years, Jeff was truly a railroad enthusiast. He was enamored with the history and simple complexity of the railroad system, traversing the nation’s landscape and bringing with it both industry and commerce. He was often awestruck by historical trestles and tunnels as relics of ingenuity in art and design, and he was similarly taken with the intricacy and marvel of old roller coasters—the idea that something built before the time of modern technology could endure and continue to have meaning long into its life.
“Jeff firmly believed that every mile of trail had to be ridden and every mile had to be preserved."
—Keith Laughlin, past President of RTC
This is where his passion for rail-trails originated—in the role of these trails as tools of preservation, connecting people to the legacy of the railroad and the beauty of the American landscape.
From the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail to Wisconsin’s Elroy Sparta State Trail, the oldest rail-trail in the country—to Missouri’s Katy Trail State Park, Idaho’s Route of the Hiawatha, Washington’s Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail, Vermont’s Island Line Rail Trail and dozens of trails in between, Jeff rode hundreds of miles of trails, built and unbuilt, in his quest to experience and preserve as many miles of potential rail-trails as he could.
“No one has supported the work of trail building for as long and with as much enthusiasm as Jeff,” said Gail Lipstein, a member of the RTC Board of Directors and a friend of the Doppelt family. “I always enjoyed his friendship and humor, and his zest for the trestle and tunnel construction that always captured his attention and enthusiasm. Jeff was the best friend RTC—and rail-trails—has known.”
Jeff’s zest for preserving rail-trails could be perceived as an example of his particular brand of perfectionism. A staple of RTC’s annual Trailblazer Tour, he was determined to make sure that every inch of trail was explored. If the planned route began a few miles before the trail’s terminus, Jeff was known for waking up early and logging those miles on his own. If the trail met a dead end, he was known for trekking the unfinished corridor anyway … especially if there was a trestle or a tunnel to view on the other side.
“Jeff firmly believed that every mile of trail had to be ridden and every mile had to be preserved,” said Keith Laughlin, past president of RTC. “He and I worked together to define the Doppelt Family Trail Development Fund to make sure that his philanthropy could do the most possible good. His fund was catalytic—providing resources that could be used as leverage to generate more investment in projects that otherwise might not have been noticed.”
Over the years, Jeff invested over $800,000 in the nation’s rail-trails through his support of RTC’s work and the Trail Development Fund. Launched in 2015, the grant program was designed to support organizations and local governments that are implementing projects to build and improve multiuse trails. It is a unique source of funding designed to support trail projects that, though critical to vibrant trail, walking and bicycling networks, may be too small to be eligible for federal or state programs. True to Jeff’s strategic approach to solving complex problems, grant funds have also been used to match federal or state funding awards—encouraging municipalities and other levels of government to seek this funding, and amplifying the fund’s already significant impact.
While the impact of Jeff’s philanthropy is far reaching, it may be best understood through the lens of the grant program, which has provided direct support to more than 40 projects nationwide, including the iconic Pinkerton Tunnel on the Great Allegheny Passage (gaptrail.org), Nebraska’s Cowboy Trail and the developing Rock Island Trail in Missouri.
When asked in 2019 about the importance of the grant program he started, Jeff commented on the return on investment the grants and the projects would provide: With significant momentum behind the rail-trail movement, he believed that these projects could lead the way as models for trail development that can spark community transformation.
“Jeff’s deep passion for trails was put to work through his practical fiscal perspective,” said Ryan Chao, president of RTC. “Jeff understood that his philanthropy could be used more strategically and preserve more rail-trail corridors when it could be leveraged. While he never forgot a project, or never stopped advocating for grants that would improve his favorite trails, he also prioritized those projects that would lay the groundwork for significant trail development, or invaluable connections or infrastructure like tunnels and trestles. One example of this support is an early grant he provided to the Cowboy Trail project in Nebraska, which revived energy around that corridor and was crucial to moving the Great American Rail-Trail forward.”
While Jeff valued the infrastructure, he celebrated the ingenuity necessary to bring that infrastructure to life and the impact that trails could have on their community, lending his name and support to two other RTC programs—the annual Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champion and Rail-Trail Hall of Fame awards. Both acknowledge leadership in the movement, from the people who go above and beyond in the name of rail-trails to the trails that deliver exceptional value to their communities.
“Jeff didn't believe in constraints—of imagination or impact,” said Laughlin.
RTC mourns the loss of a dear friend. His legacy will endure through every person who enjoys the numerous trails he helped grow and make possible.
Gifts in memory of the life of Jeffrey L. Doppelt will honor his dedication and commitment to support trail building in every community across the country: railstotrails.org/jeffdoppelt.