"Since most of the land was donated to the railroads by the American public in the first place, we believe it should be returned to the public."
David Burwell, President,
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 1988
A Well-Worn Path
The path you are following was once an active rail line. The trains shipped Pennsylvania' coal, lumber, and ore to larger markets, such as Philadelphia and New York, and returned with finished goods. This process of exchange fueled the American Industrial Revolution, which relied on fast and dependable transportation networks. In the first half of the nineteenth century, newly built canals played this role. After the Civil War, however, railroads increasingly competed with their slower rivals and dominated for the next century. Only the post-World War II proliferation of long-distance trucking and the abundance of cheap fuel stifled the era of railroads.
As trucks increasingly diminished the demand for trains, hundreds of railroad companies were forced to file for bankruptcy and sell or abandon their former lines. Congress' response was the 1980 Staggers Rail Act, which streamlined the process of selling or transferring abandoned rail lines and property. In 1983, the National Trails System Act was amended to allow for "rail-banking"
of dormant lines. Rail-banking is based on the idea that rail corridors (graded, connected, open space) should be preserved, in case the need for rail transportation ever materializes in the future. Meanwhile, these corridors are made available for hiking, walking, and bike riding. Rail-banking was not the only means of creating trails on old railroad right-of-ways. Out of nearly 100 rail trails in Pennsylvania, only seven are on rail-banked corridors. The rest are on land the government purchased from railroad companies or on old rail beds reverted back to private property and publicly accessed through easements.
When not on the canal towpath, the 165-mile D&L Trail follows dozens of miles of former rail beds—26 miles run through Lehigh Gorge State Park alone. A number of regional rail trails intersect the D&L Trail, from the Switchback and Ironton trails in Carbon and Lehigh counties to the Nor-Bath and Spurline trails in Northampton and Bucks counties. These links create a network of trails that restore the vanished connections between communities and natural places.
Not As Easy As It Sounds
Former rail beds provide paths, but ones that are full of large rocks, or ballast, which make riding bikes and walking difficult. Improving a rail trail often requires removing heavy timber ties and steel rails, rolling the ballast, filling it in with soil or cinders, and sometimes paving sections. Even after the construction is complete, regular maintenance is an ongoing challenge that requires long-term partnerships between volunteers, land managers, and local municipalities.