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Category — Ithaca

tracking the abandoned

There is, presently, one railroad line through Ithaca, New York. Freight trains still use this line, taking coal to the Milliken power plant along Cayuga lake and hauling salt from the Cargill salt mine. There were, decades ago, several additional railroad lines which have long since been abandoned. In my last year or so of graduate school, my friends and I took several hikes along these lines, which we were able to find with the help of Hardy and Rossiter’s A History of Railroads in Tompkins County. The tracks on these abandoned lines have been removed, presumably to be sold for scrap, but occasional relics from the railroading era–wooden ties, for example–remained.

An article in this week’s Washington Post magazine, chronicling the quest of Bill Thomas and his friend A. L. Freed to follow old railroad tracks all across the country, brought back memories of our hikes. To cover the long distances over which railroads naturally extended, they take one-way rental cars. This article focuses on a particular expedition in Texas, during which they encounter–as I’m sure they encounter all throughout the country on these trips–the ruins of the railroading past, and also meet a handful of others who share an enthusiasm for trains. 

My friends and I were fortunate, I believe, that the old lines along which we hiked had not (yet?) been converted into multi-purpose recreational trails. Instead, they had decayed in place, offering what is an increasingly rare opportunity to explore something that’s been forgotten, something that isn’t managed by a humorless committee and burdened by rules born from a hypersensitive fear of the word “liability.” The hikes gave us a small chance to discover, to find something that wasn’t calling out to be found. Perhaps someday the state will more formally take over the land, clear out the brush, send to the dump any crossties and other remnants of actual railroading, throw down some crushed gravel, put up wayfinding signs, and then list the trails in any number of Finger Lakes recreation guides. But at least when I was there, none of that had been done. One didn’t need to rely on a commemorative plaque to understand that real trains used to run there; plenty of evidence was still in place.

One particularly striking realization was the degree to which the railroads graded the land to make the path of the trains as level as possible–not an easy feat in the hilly Southern Tier of New York, especially in the era before bulldozers and backhoes and other earthmoving equipment. (And this grading is in part what makes the abandoned lines such attractive candidates for conversion to recreational trails.) If you know what you’re looking for, even the abandoned tracks are clear on topographic maps: compare this turn of the century map, showing the railroad lines (in particular, the two parallel lines heading to the southeast):

1895 map of Ithaca showing railroad lines

with this section of (substantially zoomed in) contemporary topo map:

Section of topo map near Ithaca, NY

the Southern of the two parallel lines is marked on the map, but the Northern one, although not explicitely marked, is clear. Just north of the “Besemer” label the relatively flat graded railroad bed stands out. 

Trails, I suppose, are in general good things–although as someone who hopes for a renaissance of rail travel in this country, I wonder if some of those abandoned lines would be best returned to rail service, and whether trail conversion would make this harder, because nobody would want to lose a trail, or easier, because the route is kept contiguous. But while we still can find the remnants of railroads around, we should find and explore them.

April 27, 2008   5 Comments