“This Trail Destroys the Peace”: Considering the Spatial Politics of Rails-to-Trails Conversions

Saturday, January 4, 2014
Exhibit Hall B South (Marriott Wardman Park)
Silas A. Chamberlin, Lehigh University
Despite the growing importance of greenways and multi-use paths to regional planning, public health, and economic revitalization, historians have given little attention to trails as spaces of potential conflict between groups of recreationists, landowners, urban and suburban residents, and policymakers.  This poster—culled from my dissertation research on the national history of recreational trail development—considers the evolution of the rails-to-trails movement from its origins in the local, cycle path projects of nineteenth-century wheelmen leagues to the ideological origins of Chicago’s Prairie Path, constructed during the 1960s as the nation’s first modern rail trail, and the proliferation of similar projects during the late twentieth century.

In addition to revealing a rich history of environmental thought  and activity related to land use, landscape design, recreation, and alternative transportation, my research suggests that the conversion of former railroad lines to recreational paths created unique, inter-demographic corridors of space that transcended traditional conceptualizations of public-private and urban-rural boundaries.  Rail corridors historically linked urbanites to natural resources, rural communities, and other towns and cities.  This poster shows, through a series of aerial photographs, GIS-based maps, and census tract records, that the preservation of these spaces as greenways during the late twentieth century restored links between disparate landscapes and their residents.  Many urbanites and environmentalists saw the development of rail trails as an antidote to economic decline and automobile traffic, as well as a source of new opportunities for outdoor recreation.  In contrast, critics considered the creation of these trails to be a breach of private property rights by overreaching state and federal governments.  The abandoned corridors, they argued, should be returned to adjacent landowners, as provided for in most original deeds. 

Embedded within this discourse of property rights was a concern with the types of people the trails attracted to formerly isolated properties because, as historian David Freund has noted, “Whites in the modern United States came to view the difference between white and black in large measure through the prism of property and neighborhoods.” (2010, p.12) The first wave of rail trail conversions corresponded with the urban turmoil of the 1960s, a period when increasing numbers of middle-class whites fled cities and settled in homogenous suburbs.  Imagine, then, residents’ apprehension on learning that the stand of trees and weeds along the back of their yard was actually a railroad corridor slated for development as a trail that could potentially link their suburban home back to the city from which they had just moved.  Rail trails seemed to threaten the very basis for moving to the suburbs.

This poster, which includes explanatory text, several maps of rail trails, historic photographs, scanned primary sources, such as nineteenth-century wheelmen league newsletters, and charts of rail mileage, serves as an entry point to several facets of my research. The poster is designed to show the social, legal, and cultural importance of rail trails, which are typically seen as desirable recreational amenities but irrelevant to broader historiographical problems of metropolitan racial and class tensions, property rights, and land use planning.

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