American towns that once bustled with activity as trains rolled through slowed to a halt when passenger rail travel was largely replaced by cars and planes. Now those towns are being infused with new life, thanks to an effort to turn tracks into trails.
After many railways went out of service, abandoned train tracks often became no-man's-lands of crime and overgrown weeds. But over the last decade or so, the rail rights-of-way have started to be converted to walking and biking trails that are transforming towns, spawning local businesses and attracting tourists.
"[The trails] greatly increase quality of life in theses communities and give people a reason to want to live there and invest there," said Keith Laughlin, president of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that spearheaded the movement to create a nationwide network of public trails from former rail lines.
Currently there are 12,648 miles of rail-trails used by 100 million people per year, according to the group.
The 47-mile Pinellas Trail in Florida, for instance, has become the yellow brick road for some towns it passes through. Dunedin was "like a ghost town" before the trail was built, said Brian Smith of the Pinellas County Planning Department. Now it's "the place to be."
"[The trail] created and primed the pump for residential activity that spread into developments," Smith added. "Now 100,000 people a month use the Pinellas Trail."
The Katy Trail, which winds across Missouri, also jump-started dying towns.
"Once the train service dried up, the business in the towns also dried up," said Karen Stewart, a RTC spokeswoman. “[But] chambers of commerce were established in four of the towns after the trail was opened because it was bringing in such an influx of tourists."
One such business is Scenic Cycles (search) in Marthasville, Mo. Owner Terry Turman recognized a demand for bike rentals when the trail opened in 1991, so he opened his own shop.
"We started out with 10 bikes and a dozen water bottles," he said. "Now we have a 4,000-square foot showroom with about 200 bikes on the floor and everything you could want for accessories for the trail."
Scenic Cycles is just one example of prosperity along Katy. After the trail was laid down, "there were a lot of new business that popped up right away," said Turman. "Within the first two years, every little town had two to three new businesses related to the trail, which has had a large effect on these small communities."
It's not just rural areas that seek a rail-trail's financial windfall. Laughlin said one that cuts through the heart of Detroit is in the works. In New York City, an old railway that hovers above the city streets is awaiting its own extreme makeover.
The High Line, built in the 1930s as an elevated passage for freight trains, runs for 1.45 miles along the edge of the Hudson River and has been marked for development.
"This is a great tool for economic development, in addition to creating open space," said Robert Hammond, co-founder of Friends of the High Line (search), an organization working to transform the grass-covered tracks into a glorious promenade.
Due to zoning and legal issues, the High Line promenade will likely take five to 10 years to be completed, Hammond said, but local businesses have already been buzzing.
"We have a coalition of over 200 businesses that have supported our cause," he said. "We think it will create a High Line district that will increase the value of the area, and people will want to visit, work and live there."
As the bikes roll into towns, so do the dollars, but it's still the little things that make Laughlin pleased with the program.
In August he was riding with a group of 20 bikers on a trail in Idaho who decided to stop for ice cream at one small town.
"As we walked over — just the look in this person's eyes — all of the sudden they had a line," he said. "They were out of half of their supply when we left. The demand was suddenly greatly exceeding what they were anticipating. To me that was exciting, to see how it can change people's lives."