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Life by the Rail Trail
by Craig Della Penna
In the mid 1990s, I authored my first book on rail trails and it was around this time that I started to get more involved in the advocacy end of the rails-to-trails movement.
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Life by the Rail Trail
by Craig Della Penna
(This is one of the few silver linings to the sad state of rail travel in the United States. Abandoned rail beds might one day be the largest–and thinnest–network of National Parks in America.)
At that time, my wife and I were living in a suburban community in western Massachusetts that right after WWII, went from farms to sprawled-out subdivisions. Sadly, with single-use zoning in effect, it is a place where many residents have to spend nearly a gallon of gas to get a gallon of milk.
We were so smitten by the healthy life style possibilities that came with living near a rail trail, that we started to look for a new place to live that was near a rail trail. Besides, as an advocate, it was important for me to not just ‘talk the talk’, but to actually ‘walk the walk’ so to speak. We also were looking to live in a community that still had a vibrant and functioning downtown. Hmmm... . A house close to a trail and have a decent downtown nearby too? A tall order to say the least.
One night, while coming back from one of my lectures before an embryonic group of rail-trail advocates in New Hampshire, I decided to stop off in Northampton, Massachusetts, or more specifically, Florence—a village within Northampton. I wanted to see if any houses were for sale near the rail trail. Low and behold, there was one. I stumbled upon an old revival style farmhouse that was barely visible from the street; hidden behind years of neglected brush and over-growth. The best part was that it sat eight feet [8’] from the rail trail.
We called the realtor the next morning, toured the place and found it to be in even worse condition than it looked from the outside. Nevertheless, we saw the potential and jumped right into a bidding war with three other bidders. We prevailed and in September of 2001, we moved in and started to restore the 1865 house.
We (and a squadron of contractors) spent the next fourteen months restoring not only the interior and exterior of the house, but also the grounds outside. This landscape work included the installation of "period gardens" with plants and themes that were common to the Civil War era. Although we had many surprises in the restoration, most of them unpleasant, there was one interesting oddity.
It seems that in 1868, three years after this house was built, the railroad came to Florence. The railroad was built so close to the house that the railroad officials offered a creative mitigation for the homeowners who were wary of cracked ceilings from the shaking the house was sure to experience. The railroad came in and reinforced all the plaster ceilings throughout the house with lath-strips nailed every few inches. Below that, they installed canvas ceilings. The thinking was that if the passing trains cracked the ceilings, they would not be noticeable since they would be above the taut, but flexible canvas. When we came onto the scene 130 odd years later and restored the house, two rooms still had these unusual canvas ceilings.
The village of Florence, like many New England villages, is laid out in a grid pattern with houses close together. As you get further from the village center, the feel is suburban with typical 1950s to 1970s era housing. One different feature in our community is that shortly after the railroad stopped running in 1969, some local visionaries suggested that the derelict and trash strewn former railroad corridor be improved and become a linear park.
At that time, the corridor was filled with trash and neer-do’ wells that spent all day drinking or drugging. The idea of converting something bad, into something good, like a bike path (the term ‘rail-trail’ wasn’t even invented back then) was a ‘new fangled idea’ and something that not too many people could grasp.
In fact, the woman who owned our house at that time was the leader of the opposition to the idea of a bike trail. She would regularly trot out her then toddlers before the TV cameras and say that their lives would be endangered by the proposed conversion into a trail. She was not alone in that thinking. Most of the neighbors also thought that the construction of a formal path would only invite more bad guys. Well, after several years of discussion, the pathway opened in 1984 and things have not been the same since.
One of the most notable things about America—that most people do not realize—is the super-abundance of unused former railroad corridors. In fact, since the 1960s, there has been over 70,000 miles of former railroad corridor taken out of the nation’s inventory.
The rails-to-trails movement in the U.S. got its start in September of 1963, when a woman in Chicago by the name of May Watts wrote a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune. Her letter began, We are human beings. We are able to walk upright on two feet. We need a footpath. Right now there is a chance for Chicago and its suburbs to have a footpath, a long one. The right-of-way of the Aurora electric road lies waiting. If we have the courage and foresight, such as made possible the Long trail in Vermont, and the Appalachian trail from Maine to Georgia, and the network of public footpaths in Britain, then we can create from this strip a proud resource. . . Several years later the corridor was developed into a path known as the Illinois Prairie Path—over 60 miles long and passing through a score of communities. [to see the entire letter, go to: http://www.greenwaysolutions.org/maywatts.html ]
Around that same time, back in the late 1960s, the New Haven Railroad was abandoning all of its unprofitable branch lines. This included an obscure branch line in the small Cape Cod community of Woods Hole. A woman by the name of Barbara Burwell lived with her family next to this corridor and thought it might make a good bike or hike trail so she started to advocate for that to happen. As you know, it was not easy as there were many people with many reasons why it could not, or should not, be done. Anyway, years later, she and her band of helpers succeeded and the path opened in 1975 as The Shining Sea Bikeway.
In the meantime, one of her sons went through college, worked to get his law degree and took a job with the National Wildlife Federation, working out of national headquarters DC. In the late early 80s, NWF was inundated with calls from their hunter members in the mid-west. It turns out that they were upset that all their favorite places to hunt grouse and partridge were being bulldozed out by the local farmers. Their favorite places to hunt were the inactive and former railroad corridors that when grown-in, allowed for perfect cover for the game birds to flourish. The hunters want help in preserving the corridors for hunting, walking etc.
The NWF attorney, David Burwell went out to assess the situation. He said, “Hmmm, this looks a lot like what my mother went through back on Cape Cod.” “Wouldn’t it be great if a national clearinghouse of information could be set up on how to do this conversion?” A few years later in 1986, he and some friends formed Rails-to-Trails Conservancy RTC—a national clearinghouse of information on how to do these conversions.
At the time he formed RTC, there were only 200 trails open around the country. Now there are over 1300 totaling nearly 14,000 miles. And as Paul Harvey says, “Now you know the rest of the story.”
In our neighborhood next to the trail, each day begins with pretty much the same scenario. Starting at around 5:30 a.m. or the crack of dawn, joggers and power walkers pass by. By 7:30 a.m., the dog walkers are out and by 8:00 schools kids pass by. In fact, scores of kids. Most are walking, but a substantial number are on bikes and even a smattering use roller blades. So many kids here walk/bike/blade to school that I hazard a guess and say one or two school buses aren't needed because of this safe route to school.
Around 8:30 a.m., a number of utilitarian bikers ride by—people biking to work. In the mid-day, the users are mostly retirees and mothers pushing baby carriages. The dog walkers are back out late in the afternoon. Finally, the evening strollers, joggers, and walkers pass by. My wife, who is a dedicated power-walker, is on the trail twice a day for a two-mile walk with our Scottish Terrier—Ivan.
On weekends the complexion of the path changes. There are more bicyclists, who tend to be tourists, but the local joggers, power-walkers, strollers, and dog walkers still are out there in force. To call these facilities bike-paths is a misnomer. In fact, to call them recreation trails is a misnomer too. They are true transportation facilities. The city has come around to this realization as well because a few years ago they began plowing the trail in the winter, so it can be used for the transportation use as a “Safe Route to School.”
After the restoration of our old house, we were honored when we received both the city's Historic Preservation Award and shortly after that, our work was featured on House & Garden Television's (HGTV) acclaimed series, "Restore America."
Our house was one of the closest houses ever to have a railroad built next to it—and it is certainly one of the closest houses to sit next to a rail trail. In addition, as an advocate, it is a just a perfect place to offer up complementary room nights to people fearful or concerned about the rail trail in their community. We make only weeknights available to trail opponents however because we want these people to wake up to the laughter of children biking to school—as they remember, but probably don’t see anymore in their community.
Many people living in suburban-style developments, as we used to, probably feel a longing that cannot easily be explained. I think it is the longing for neighborhoods like those many of us grew up in. Places where you knew your neighbors, places with porches, certainly places with sidewalks.
This longing can also be explained by the lack of quality "third" places in society today. The first place is your family life. The second place is your work place. The third place is the place where people meet outside of the first two places. This concept of ‘Third place was brought forward by Ray Oldenburg - an urban sociologist from Florida - who wrote about this importance of informal public gathering places. in his book The Great Good Place. The third place experience in many lucky communities today is the pathway known as a rail-trail. This longing for the third place is why these projects are so successful. And it is one of the reasons we love living next to our rail trail.
(Craig Della Penna and his wife Kathleen operate Sugar Maple Trailside Inn http://www.sugar-maple-inn.com located in Northampton, Massachusetts. He was the New England Representative for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, but today is a REALTOR® in Massachusetts specializing in the sale of residential property next to or near to rail trails and other greenways—all over Massachusetts. http://www.CraigDP.com . His innovative real estate practice has garnered national attention when it was featured in the Smart Growth section of the National Association of REALTORS® magazine where it was seen by 1.3 million real estate professionals.)