Can you imagine what life was like over 150 years ago? In the mid-19th century, the United States was expanding rapidly westward. Railroad technology was state-of-the-art. Thousands upon thousands of miles of track were laid, and locomotives carried people and supplies to new frontiers.
Before the invention of automobiles and the creation of a massive interstate highway system, railroads were the lifelines connecting cities. Without trains, industrialization and settlement of the western U.S. could not have occurred so rapidly.
Over time, however, cars were invented. Roads and highways spread across the country at a much faster rate than railroads ever did. What used to be shipped on trains would eventually be carried by large trucks.
Although railroads remain active all across the U.S., thousands of miles of track have been abandoned over the years. Additional sections of railroad are abandoned every year. So what happens to all those old train tracks?
The physical parts of the old railroad tracks are usually recycled. The rails can be removed and sold as scrap , which eventually gets recycled into new products. The wooden railroad ties can find new uses as landscaping timbers.
The now-empty corridors often represent prime real estate that is flat and long and connects small towns. While some of these old rail lines may be bought by adjacent landowners, many old railways are converted into trails that can be used for multipurpose recreation, including walking and cycling.
These "rail trails," as they are known, have become quite popular all around the U.S. Local governments at the city, county, and state level, as well as conservation organizations and private groups, have eagerly sought out abandoned railways to develop trail projects that benefit local residents.
The first such rail trail was the Elroy-Sparta State Trail in Wisconsin, which opened in 1965. The 240-mile Katy Trail in Missouri is currently the longest developed rail trail in the U.S. However, when finished, the Cowboy Trail in Nebraska will reach 321 miles.
Over the past 25 years, communities seeking to convert abandoned railways to trails have received assistance from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), a nonprofit organization "dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors to build healthier places for healthier people." The RTC currently oversees over 30,000 miles of trails and is working to add over 8,000 more miles of new trails to that total.