Setting the Stage

David Burwell – Recycle the Railroad!

Founding the Rails to Trails Conservancy – When David Burwell, I and several other hikers, bicyclists and environmentalists began holding brown-bag lunches in Washington, D.C. to talk about the visionary concept of rails-to-trails, back in the early 1980s, the idea was so fleetingly known that we were barely able to find examples to study. There were rumors of track conversions in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and Illinois, but everything we heard was vague and conflicting. The concept was too exciting to ignore, however, so we kept calling around and the picture gradually came into focus. We also learned that a fair number of different types of folks were interested in the idea of reusing old railroad tracks.

Runners and hikers wanted car-free corridors, so a few of their organizations were attuned. Railroad buffs, if they weren’t successful in their battles to save economically faltering lines, were often willing to settle for trainless corridors as long as industrial mementos and architectural creations could be rescued and highlighted. Small-town chamber-of-commerce types wanted to preserve lines in case a new industry moved in and needed rail service again. Electric transmission companies, gas utilities and fiber-optic firms saw the advantage of running their cables and pipes along or under the tracks. Bird hunters in the Great Plains, surprisingly, were fanatically devoted to abandoned corridors as the only places where pheasants and other trophy birds could find brushy breeding grounds among endless miles of flat, plowed, cultivated fields. In the north, snowmobile clubs were enthusiastic supporters, along with a smattering of off-road vehicle enthusiasts and some cross-country skiers and snowshoers.

It was an unwieldy coalition of wildly different kinds of people. An evening together in a bar (not that that would ever happen) might have been a distinctly muted, uncomfortable affair. But the unifying bond forged by the desire to save and preserve abandoned railroad tracks was strong enough to trump everything else. We can argue later about how they’ll be used, we would say. First, let’s get organized and conserve the corridors.

Of course, questions nagged. Was this realistic? Were there enough old railroad corridors around? Could we create an actual organization? Would anyone join?

It seemed possible, since any time we gave the “elevator speech,” the response was rhapsodic. People were enchanted. They wanted these trails to happen, they wanted to do it themselves, they marveled at the simplicity of the idea, the obviousness. They laughed and called it recycling. They shared railroad stories from their childhoods. They knew of train tracks near their homes, their vacation homes, their grandparents’ homes.

We took the plunge, wrote a funding proposal and started circulating it. Lo and behold, we got a serious nibble—a pledge of $75,000 if we could match it. The National Wildlife Federation, where David Burwell worked, matched it. We were then challenged to demonstrate that an organization would be able to attract paying members. We did a small test of a direct-mail campaign and got a sky-high eight percent return. We knew we had something.

The first order of business was figuring out what to call “it.” Should it be an alliance, a federation, a foundation, a club, a society? Since we’d be conserving old rail lines, we decided to go with “Conservancy.” What about the name for our publication–“Pathfinder?” No, we went with “Trailblazer”—that sounded more activist.


Just then, in 1985, something serendipitous and astonishing happened: a local railroad abandonment came up right where we were, in Washington, D.C. We learned through the grapevine that CSX, the conglomerate that had gobbled up the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, was going to shut down its Georgetown Branch line that ran from Silver Spring, Md., through Bethesda, along the shoreline of the Potomac River and down into the nation’s capital, ending just a mile-and-a-half from the Lincoln Memorial.

The Georgetown Branch was a track so obscure that almost no one knew it existed. Of the few who did know, most were unaware that it carried any train traffic. The trains, about one per week operating mostly after midnight, brought small coal deliveries to a minor power plant. By shifting the delivery to trucks, the railroad was seeking permission to abandon the track.

Suddenly our rails-to-trails concept intersected with reality. Would our high-flying rhetoric really work? For starters, we had to find out if the railroad actually owned the corridor. If it didn’t, we wondered, would they be honest about it? Who could we ask besides the railroad? Then, if they were to make a donation, to whom would they give it? If we couldn’t get it donated, who exactly would be paying for it? Possibilities included the Interstate Commerce Commission, Federal Railroad Administration, National Park Service, D.C. Department of Transportation, Maryland Department of Transportation, Montgomery County Department of Transportation, Montgomery County Parks. But, in truth, almost none of those agencies had the least interest in converting a rail to a trail.

It was a heady, exciting and sobering moment. We were launching an effort to promote a visionary national movement yet struggling to stay on top of an identical local opportunity that could easily slide right through our fingers. Then, we learned that the railroad had set the price for its property at $84 million.

Back at the almost-ready Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, things were moving forward. We had located office space and some used furniture, and opened a bank account. We were signing contracts with the phone company, huddling with graphic designers, and devising job descriptions. We hadn’t said a word publicly, hadn’t put out a press release, hadn’t made an announcement. Kick-off day was scheduled for February 1, 1986.

On December 29, 1985 my home telephone rang.

          “I’m in upstate New York. I heard that you’re saving railroads for trails,” a voice said.
         “You did? How did you hear that?”


David Burwell (right), Bob McKinley (left) & George Burns (middle) on the GAP in Connellsville.


            “Listen, if you don’t buy the track from Wassaic to Chatham, you’re going to lose the most beautiful, 20-mile trail opportunity in the country. The old Harlem Division of the New York Central.  It was picked up by a real estate shyster who says that if we don’t come up with $3.4 million, he’ll break the whole thing into pieces and sell it off parcel by parcel to the adjacent landowners. He says we have until the end of the year. You’ve got to buy it.”

            “The end of the year? You mean day after tomorrow?”  Maybe this wasn’t going to be as easy as we’d hoped. 

The story of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the growth of the nationwide network to thousands of trails in every state of the country, the filing of dozens of lawsuits and counter-suits, the occasional burning of bridges and erection of barricades, the passage of state and federal legislation, the sprouting of myriad local economic entities alongside trails, the connection of short local linkages into lengthy, multi-state greenways and even a fully cross-country route—all this was to follow. It is too long a story to tell here, but I am working on a book about it, and naturally the Great Allegheny Passage will play a starring role in the fascinating and stirring history.

You can find more details about the history of the Rails to Trails Conservancy on their website:



Author: Peter Harnik