When Rails Become Trails

When I first came to Pennsylvania, I set out to explore it. My wanderings largely followed water routes, much like the early forays of the pioneers of Penn’s Woods. And one day I found a muddy, rutted, disused parking space next to Buffalo Creek and a sort of trail originating across a mound of rock and rubble meant to keep the 4-wheelers out.

The bed of the narrow quasi-trail was black – something that looked like cinder or coal interspersed with coarse limestone gravel. And it was hardly a trail at all, really – nearly hidden in the knot weed. Views of the stream that always paralleled me were few – I mostly saw a dense vegetable mass. But I could tell that a rail line had run here once, simply by the level grade, the substrate and the berm. I hacked my way along for nearly a mile, feeling I’d arrived at somewhere quite remote, quiet and forgotten.

But that was 15 years ago and today the Butler-Freeport Trail is a first-rate bicycle highway allowing high-speed self-powered transport between its namesake settlements. The invasive knot weed is held at bay by vigilant maintainers. Most of the other weeds are kept in check by a generous layer of crushed limestone. The once-ubiquitous railroad ties are a rare find, layers of moss now working to return those that remain to the soil. For fishermen and kayakers, miles of stream are now far more accessible.

For me, the hundreds

of rail trail miles that surround Pittsburgh are a part of almost daily life, easily taken for granted. Western Pennsylvania boasts about 1,100 miles of these trails currently, a spider-web of crushed limestone thoroughfares connecting cyclists from almost anywhere to almost anywhere else including such destinations as Washington D.C., Altoona and soon Lake Erie, New York State and western Ohio.

There’s so much more to write on the value of rail trails but I’ll stop here for today – more soon!

2 thoughts on “When Rails Become Trails

  1. I enjoyed this post as we are trying hard to get a rail trail up and running here. You explain the benefits and positives – to me they are wonderful resources for everyone to access but unfortunately there is some opposition here. We just spent time in New Zealand riding one of their trails so we know the tourism benefits! Great pics too.


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