1965A Nation Derailed

Across the United States, once-busy rail lines have fallen silent as passengers and freight increasingly travel by road and air. Some people see an opportunity in these rights of way, now freed up by disuse.

In Wisconsin, a 32.5-mile abandoned stretch of the Chicago and North Western railroad begins its transformation into the first rail-to-trail project in the United States. Known as the Elroy-Sparta Trail for the towns at either end, it passes through three rock tunnels.

2000Here Come the Bike Commuters

The Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis opens its first phase. This bike and pedestrian route, built on an abandoned rail bed in the heart of the city, is extended to 5.5 miles by 2006. It provides a key connection for bike commuters, adding to Minneapolis’s reputation as one of the nation’s top bicycling cities.

1968A Movement Gets a Boost

The National Trails System Act is signed into law, calling for “instituting a national system of recreation, scenic and historic trails” in the United States.

1986Getting Organized

The nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is founded to advocate for rail trails across the U.S.

1990Legal Protection

The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of railbanking with a 9-0 vote in Preseault v. Interstate Commerce Commission.

201421,000 Miles

Rail trails in the U.S. surpass 21,000 miles, with tens of millions of users every day.

The
Rails to Trails
Legacy

The High Line, New York City’s famed linear park, made a huge splash when the first section of it opened in 2009. But the underlying concept behind it—the conversion of a disused rail corridor into a welcoming public space—didn’t come out of nowhere. The decades-old Rails-to-Trails movement had a major influence on the project, along with dozens more like it across the United States and around the world. By Sarah Goodyear

Scroll
  • 1965
    1965: A Nation Derailed
  • 1968
    1968: A Movement Gets a Boost
  • 1978
    1978: Seattle’s Gem
  • 1982
    1982: Great Minds
  • 1986
    1986: Getting Organized
  • 1987
    1987: March of the Trails
  • 1990
    1990: Legal Protection
  • 1993
    1993: A Vision in Paris
  • 1999
    1999: Atlanta’s Dream
  • 2000
    2000: Here Come the Bike Commuters
  • 2009
    2009: A Game-Changing Park
  • 2012
    2012: Global Influence
  • 2014
    2014: 21,000 Miles
  • 2015
    2015: Until We Meet Again

1965A Nation Derailed

Across the United States, once-busy rail lines have fallen silent as passengers and freight increasingly travel by road and air. Some people see an opportunity in these rights of way, now freed up by disuse.

In Wisconsin, a 32.5-mile abandoned stretch of the Chicago and North Western railroad begins its transformation into the first rail-to-trail project in the United States. Known as the Elroy-Sparta Trail for the towns at either end, it passes through three rock tunnels.

1968A Movement Gets a Boost

The National Trails System Act is signed into law, calling for “instituting a national system of recreation, scenic and historic trails” in the United States.

1978Seattle’s Gem

The first section of the Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle opens to the public. The trail, one of the nation’s first urban rail-to-trail conversions, will eventually extend to more than 18 miles in length and link up with adjacent trails. It uses an old rail corridor to connect many of the city’s neighborhoods, and has since become one of Seattle’s signature attractions.

1982Great Minds

The city of Columbia, Missouri, begins construction on the MKT Nature and Fitness Trail, a 9-mile recreational trail in the right-of-way of the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad. Efforts to create a longer rail-trail in Missouri, named the Katy Trail for the railroad’s nickname, “the K.T.,’ are promoted in part by Ted Jones, founder of the investment firm Edward Jones. He had ridden the Elroy-Sparta Trail on a trip to Wisconsin and envisioned a similar facility in his home state.

1986Getting Organized

The nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is founded to advocate for rail trails across the U.S.

1987March of the Trails

Plans to extend the Katy Trail further take off when John Ashcroft, at the time the governor of Missouri, starts the first-ever process to “railbank” an old railroad right of way, allowing it to be remade for public use. Today, the Katy Trail is 238 miles long, making it the longest rail trail in the country.

Nebraska’s Cowboy Trail, still under construction, will eventually surpass this mark at 321 miles long.

The first 9-mile section of what will become the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage opens. Finally completed in 2013, the route now runs from Cumberland, Maryland, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, mostly on the former right of way of the Western Maryland Railway and the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad.

At Cumberland, it connects with the C&O towpath, which leads 185 miles to Washington, D.C. All along the way, businesses have sprung up to outfit and service bike tourists. “A lot of these small towns were created because the railway came through,” says Keith Laughlin, president of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

1990Legal Protection

The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of railbanking with a 9-0 vote in Preseault v. Interstate Commerce Commission.

1993A Vision in Paris

The Promenade Plantée, also known as the Coulée Verte, opens in Paris. Built on the site of an abandoned railway line in the 12th arrondissement, it is almost three miles long and includes sections both at street level and up to 30 feet above the street.

1999Atlanta’s Dream

For his master’s thesis, a graduate student at Georgia Tech named Ryan Gravel comes up with an ambitious idea to convert a 22-mile-long rail corridor looping around the city of Atlanta into a network of trails, transit, and parks.

The Atlanta BeltLine project is now in a decades-long process of becoming a reality, financed through public-private partnerships. Four trail segments and six parks are already open. The full project is slated for completion in 2030.

2000Here Come the Bike Commuters

The Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis opens its first phase. This bike and pedestrian route, built on an abandoned rail bed in the heart of the city, is extended to 5.5 miles by 2006. It provides a key connection for bike commuters, adding to Minneapolis’s reputation as one of the nation’s top bicycling cities.

2009A Game-Changing Park

The first phase of the High Line, a linear park on abandoned, elevated freight tracks on Manhattan’s West Side, opens in New York City.

Subsequent phases are completed in 2011 and 2014, bringing the park to a total of 1.45 miles in length. Its enormous popularity, and soaring real estate values in the adjacent area, lead to a scramble among cities proposing to replicate the model.

2012Global Influence

Australia has embraced the rail-to-trail movement, in many cases using the routes of disused narrow-gauge timber tramways that carried lumber from forest to sawmill. In 2012, the Great Victorian Rail Trail opened about an hour’s drive north of Melbourne and claimed the title of Australia’s longest, at 134 kilometers (about 83 miles).

Many European countries have built extensive rail trails as well. Germany leads the pack with about 690, spanning nearly 5,000 kilometers (more than 3,000 miles). Another 82 trails are in the planning stages there. The United Kingdom, France, Sweden and Spain are also leaders in the movement.

201421,000 Miles

Rail trails in the U.S. surpass 21,000 miles, with tens of millions of users every day.

2015Until We Meet Again

The Bloomingdale Trail, a linear park on an old elevated railroad line, opens in Chicago. The 2.7-mile long park runs through what was once an industrial area, where Lincoln Logs, Excelsior motorcycles, and Ludwig drums were manufactured. Philadelphia is also planning an elevated rail park that would include the abandoned Reading Railroad viaduct. The project is still in the planning stages.

Back to Top

Your journey through the legacy of Rails to Trails has come to an end, but the movement continues. Click below to explore three more proposed projects around the world, including one that would convert not a former rail line but an elevated highway—a sign of yet another new direction for this powerful idea.

PRESENTED BY
IMAGE CREDITS (TOP TO BOTTOM)
Iwan Baan/Friends of the High Line; Marion S. Trikosko via Library of Congress; AP Photo/Hans Von Nodle; AP Photo/Don Brinn; Eric Reischl/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy; Dave Jonasen/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy; Bryce Hall/Seattle Parks and Recreation; Library of Congress; Rails-to-Trails Conservancy; Rails-to-Trails Conservancy; Nebraska Game and Parks Commission; Rails-to-Trails Conservancy; AP Photo/Gerald Herbert; Derrick Mayoleth/Rails-to-Trails Conservancy; sutefanii/Flickr; Atlanta BeltLine; Rigler Creative/City Walk; Midtown Greenway Coalition; Iwan Baan/Friends of the High Line; Great Victorian Rail Trail; Region Vogelsberg Touristik GmbH; Bryce Hall/Seattle Parks and Recreation; The 606; Friends of the Rail Park.

INTERACTIVE CREDITS
Executive Producer: Sommer Mathis; Producer: Clarissa Matthews; Art Director: Libby Bawcombe; Lead Developer: Frankie Dintino; Associate Producer: Mark Byrnes

SPECIAL THANKS TO
Rails to Trails Conservancy City Walk