Whenever I ride my bicycle on a rail trail, I am reminded of what used to be and of how much has changed. That’s because of the nature of rail trails, railroad line right-of-ways that have been converted to walking and biking trails after train service is terminated. Take note, by the way, of my pun – rail trails are a result of changes in our country’s industrial history and are surrounded by nature. In any case, riding these trails makes me sad. Why? Because I cannot hear the whistle of the train, smell the diesel of its engines, or touch the structures and lives that graced its path.
On Memorial Day weekend, my wife and I went to southeastern West Virginia to bike the Greenbrier River Rail Trail. It’s 78-miles long, passing through National Forest, State Forest and a State Park, and running along the Greenbrier River, the longest free-flowing river in the eastern U.S. While we pedaled under the thick forest canopy and next to abandoned pastures, the packed gravel track crunching under our tires, we had constant vigil over the shallow, slow-flowing river. Flashes of red, blue and yellow shone off the water as canoes and kayaks, loaded with coolers and camping equipment or equipped with fishing poles extending off the sides, floated downstream.
There were relatively few cyclists compared to what we’ve seen on other rail trails closer to eastern metropolises, so our ride was quiet and peaceful. With temperatures in the mid-80s, we relished the occasional cool spots where shaded mountain streams joined the river. And we found similar respite in two tunnels that pass through the mountains where the river makes hairpin turns. Each is over 400 feet long and unlit, meaning they’re pitch black in the middle and scary – or should I say, chilling? – to ride through. More to our comfort were the trestle bridges that provided more ample views of the river, and a bouncy footbridge that gave campers on one side of the river access to a beach on the other.
The history of the rise and fall of this rail line was similar to those of other rail trails. The Greenbrier Division of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad was built at the turn of the last century (1900, that is) to transport cargo across state lines. Unlike many of the railroads in this part of Appalachia, the trains on this line did not carry coal. Rather, they hauled timber to be turned into pulp and paper. As the forests were tapped out in the 1920s and the Depression hit in the 1930s, the transport of wood products declined. However, the railway was used for other freight, bringing household goods to Marlinton, the largest town on the line, and to other smaller outposts. It offered passenger service for over 50 years, until 1958, closing down for good in 1978. The rail trail opened just two years later.
While I ride rail trails often because I enjoy the traffic-free views and fresh air, they sadden me. I regret the loss of communities that once existed and the social and economic vibrancy that the railroad generated. Once tracks were laid, trains towns and villages sprouted up in once-isolated places to cater to rail line workers and the cargo they hauled. Communities flourished because people suddenly had a connection to the larger world (in a time before the internet, of course), and children relished the daily passing of the snake of railroad cars and red caboose trailing behind. Now, however, there are few signs of the hustle and bustle that revolved around the train’s comings and goings. All that is left on the Greenbrier line are stone posts with a large W etched into them – the engineer’s signal to blow the whistle to announce the train’s arrival into town.
In response to my sorrow over a lost past, you might saying that times change and people now generate incomes and common cultures in other ways. True enough, for there are outfitters renting kayaks and canoes, running shuttles for boaters and bikers, and bike shops and cafes serving recreationalists, all businesses which didn’t exist when trains chugged along. Nevertheless, the reality is that many of the communities that were thriving a century (or so) ago are mere shells of what they once were. Buildings, if still standing, are dilapidated, often with boarded up windows; stores are tightly shuttered; and signs are outdated. Most of the former residents have left for the city, and what life exists is languishing. I mourn the vibrancy, the sense of community and shared history that is no longer.
That said, I offer two bits of recent news about the Greenbrier trail that can serve as counterpoints my despondency:
As of early May, enough money had been raised and a contract signed to rebuild the Marlinton Railroad Depot, which burned to the ground in 2008. When it went up in flames early one March morning, it was 107 years old and painted bright yellow, the only depot in the area with its original furniture. It had been restored three times since being placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, but when we saw it last weekend only the chimneys and an old railroad semaphore remained. Soon, however, it will rise out of its ashes to house a historic interpretive center and provide tourism information.
- Tomorrow, on National Trails Day, the Greenbrier River Trail will be inducted into the Rails-to-Trails Hall of Fame. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, state and local organizations, and rail trail enthusiasts will gather in Marlinton for the induction ceremony, barbecue lunch and guided walks and ride. At least for the afternoon, there will, once again, be a bustling sense of vibrancy along the old railroad line.