Sierra Club NationalWest Virginia Sierra Club
Explore, enjoy and protect the planet
> Chapter Home
> Newsletter Home
> Archives
> Editorial contact

Perspectives on Outings - Rail Trails: A Great Idea
click for print view

by Dan Soeder, Chapter Outings Chair | 2012

Many old railroad beds now have a second life as a local rail-trail and here is how it all began!

As human civilization has evolved, so have the forms of basic transportation. In the United States, passengers and freight transitioned from ship, stagecoach, horseback and Conestoga wagons in the early 1800s to canal boats following major rivers, and then to railroads in the years before the Civil War.
The Conestoga wagons and canal boats that hauled freight for a young nation no longer exist, replaced by semi-trucks, freeways and jet aircraft. The railroads are still around, but services are much more limited than a century ago, and many rail lines and spurs have been abandoned. The legacy of these old transport ation corridors lives on, however, with the idea of the rail-trail.
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is the oldest and largest advocacy group for rail-trails in the U.S. ( Based in Washington, DC, they advocate nationally for turning abandoned railroad rights-of-way, canal boat towpaths, and other old, unused infrastructure into recreational hiking, biking and rollerblading trails. Beginning in 1986, when there were fewer than 200 rail trails nationwide, the Conservancy has worked tirelessly to grow the number of preserved pathways to more than 1600, with the goal of linking communities, states and eventually the nation with a network of safe, multi-use trails. The long, narrow strips of land that make up old railroad rights-of-way could not have been put to a better use, and just in the nick of time. Once an abandoned right-of-way is lost to new development, it is extremely difficult to reassemble.
West Virginia, Ohio, western Maryland, and western Pennsylvania are blessed with a number of these trails, several of which are featured on our current outings calendar. The history is there for the taking. Most were built as railroads in the 19th or early 20th Centuries to serve specific markets, and were no
longer needed as times changed. Two former canal towpaths in the area have also been turned into trails: the C&O Canal from Cumberland to Georgetown, and the Ohio & Erie Canal trail featured in our Cuyahoga Valley National Park outing. As far as I know, the canals are the oldest pieces of infrastructure in the region that have been turned into recreational trails. I have often wondered what the immigrant laborers and slaves who dug these canals by hand, and physically carried every bucket of dirt that makes up the towpaths would have thought of the present-day use of their product. Recreation, leisure time and exercise for fun would have been very foreign concepts to the working classes back then.
The Western Maryland Rail Trail follows the path of the old B&O Railroad along the banks of the Potomac River. During the Civil War, this was an important Union transportation corridor for moving troops and supplies out of the Port of Baltimore and into the hinterlands. Confederate artillery shelled the tracks on a regular basis from fortifications in the hills across the Potomac River from the town of Hancock, MD. Significant parts of the town got taken out by the guns as well.
The Great Allegheny Passage or GAP trail runs from Cumberland, MD, to Pittsburgh (all the way down to the Point if you care to go that far). We have a bike ride scheduled in July on the GAP up the Allegheny Front from Frostburg to Meyersdale, and we will hike another piece of it along the Youghiogheny River at Ohiopyle. Come on out and join us for some fun, exercise, scenery and history.
One product hauled west by the Conestoga wagons was fresh cigars rolled in Lancaster, PA. The green tobacco was supposed to dry out and cure inside the wagons during the long trip to St. Louis along the old National Road (Route 40). Some of the drivers couldn’t wait, however, and would occasionally try to smoke a raw, green cigar. The smell was reportedly pretty bad. To this day, a stinky, cheap cigar is called a “stogie,” after the Conestoga wagons. And that is a true story.
See you outside!

Other Articles

  • 2012
    Table of Contents


© copyright Sierra Club 1892-2012