You probably know what someone means when they say they are headed over to the local rail trail. These paved or stone dust developed paths, rail trails, have become a generally recognized part of modern life. The transformation of abandoned rail beds into walkable or bikeable paths has created a growing network of trails intended for recreational walking, bicycling, and other non-motorized uses.
East Bay Bike Path
We recently visited the East Bay Bike Path that stretches from Providence, RI in the north to Bristol, RI in the south. This paved rail trail follows the eastern shoreline of Narragansett Bay for much of its fourteen mile length.
We walked along the northern end of the path, beginning at one of several paved parking areas along Veterans Memorial Parkway in East Providence. Right along the shoreline of Narragansett Bay are metal tracks that once carried train traffic alongside the bay. Lying where they were placed along a raised, 12-15 foot wide level surface, the rails run next to the paved bike path.
Portions of the rails have been undermined by tides and storm waters that have crashed on the shore. The view of the bay is lovely, however, if I were on a train riding on those rails, my comfort level for depending on the tracks would be pretty low.
Rivers and oceans flood
Railroads were often built alongside rivers or shoreline since these waterways often leave “benches,” level shelves of rock above the high water mark. Long ago shorelines created these places of high level ground. Standing on a shoreline today you can often see these features cut into a rock face above the river. Standing at the water’s edge, what we see is the result of many floods that poured water through a stream course on its way to the sea.
Despite the relative ease of building railroads alongside waterways, that proximity has left transportation corridors at risk of washouts. Count on it—rivers and oceans flood. While ambling along the shoreline of Narragansett Bay we saw evidence of catastrophic storm events, particularly the impact of these storms on the rail bed underneath the rails next to where we traveled.
Views from the bike path
Visible across the water from where we were, wind turbines on the western shoreline of the bay spun in the ocean breezes. Besides being a reminder of what a windy place the ocean can be, the day-to-day activity of the Port of Providence offers plenty to observe. A large ship slowly moved into port; two tug boats, their engines churning the bay, slowly shoved the vessel 180 degrees around so its bow faced toward the open water. Once headed in the correct position, it slid into its berth with a little help from the tugs.
Farther along we spotted a refurbished dock jutting out into the bay. A gravel walkway leads out to the wooden platform. A bench along the access path offered me a place to rest. This relatively new feature along the bike path is named “Spooky Bottom scenic dock.” More research is needed to discover the origin of this suggestive name. The dock offers public access and views of the bay. In years past we passed this section of shoreline that was walled off by chain link fencing, restricting access to views of the bay. Areas of the shore that had been reserved solely for industrial use are now becoming tourist destinations and places of recreation.
As we walked along the rail trail on the linear, raised rock and earthen rail bed, this man-made structure cut across an area of the bay that curved inland, creating a small area of brackish water. The railbed blocked the normal flow of water from nearby streams headed into the ocean. The two bodies of water have a small opening between them underneath the rails (and now the bike path).A small bridge spans the outlet.
We were lucky enough to time our visit at mid-tide. Ocean tides forced into narrow inlets create daily opportunities to witness the power of the moon to affect the earth’s liquid surface in a dramatic fashion. The constriction point creates a maelstrom of sorts as the tide pushes water back and forth in daily cycles.
Birds hovered near the bridge, alert for fish tossed about in the tidal turbulence. Migrating waterfowl, mergansers, buffleheads, and wading herons gathered on the other side of the rail trail near the mudflats that increase in size as the tide flows back out to sea. We forgot our binoculars on this visit but a pair of grebes obliged by paddling nearby in this lowering impoundment, making identification easier as they cruised past us.
Partially hidden history
Part of process of making these rail trails useable for foot and bike traffic is removing the metal tracks and wooden ties that were installed to allow trains to safely travel from point A to point B. As rail trails are developed, the origin, the foundation on which these modern paths are being built is becoming obscured and/or forgotten. Places that preserve, intentionally or inadvertently, infrastructure from the path’s original purpose are becoming outdoor museums of our railroad history.
Once you know what to look for, you will likely spot unmarked remnants of a time when railroads transformed our country. As times changed, intentional and unintentional events and choices have all reduced the value placed on railroads as an essential mode of transportation. Storms, shifting modes of transportation, and government investment favoring one form of transportation over another have all affected our perceptions of what is worth saving. Developing abandoned rail beds into rail trails has created recreational infrastructure that is becoming an integral part of our daily lives. A growing number of people use these paths as alternate transportation, shifting what began as a recreational resource into a desirable method of getting from point A to point B. Kind of like the old days, only different.
Keep your eyes open for what might be hiding in plain sight and happy (rail) trails!
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a writer who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, More Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, Easy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed, and Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are. Her memoir, the backstory of Easy Walks, is My Liturgy of Easy Walks: Reclaiming hope in a world turned upside down.