Rails to Trails Around the World

I have been amazed by how well people advocating for safe walking and biking streets share good ideas. It is not just Queen Anne Greenways and Ballard folks or even my many friends in Seattle Neighborhood Greenways.  The connections are in fact worldwide among pedestrians, bicyclists, urban planners and traffic engineers.  Astounding as it may seem, good ideas such as the conversion of obsolete railways to modern safe walking and riding paths is a world-wide phenomenon that I’ve experienced here on Queen Anne and far away in the south of France.

In the U.S., everyone learns about the great transcontinental railroads that connected the cities of the American east with the west.  We tend to forget, though, the profusion of little lines that connected isolated places like Monte Christo, Snohomish or Snoqualmie to the main lines and helped them move the raw materials like copper, wood and coal on which their economic lives depended.  We also often overlook the role of these little lines in supplying isolated places with goods manufactured east of the Rockies.  For example, the totally out-of-place mansion in Yakima known as Congdon’s Castle features furniture, a heating system and even a kitchen stove all made in Duluth, Minnesota, the Congdon family’s home town.

For sure, the construction of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909 would not have happened had the state not owned a vast amount of land on which it had begun building out the UW.  Oddly though, the literature about the Fair describes in detail the state’s decision to ‘lend’ the land for the exposition, but no one discusses the spur of the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railroad that brought coal to the new university’s heating plant and which would make it easy to move the building supplies and exhibition materials quickly and inexpensively to the exposition site.  As late as the 1960s, those little lines snuggled up to factories and did all the work now done by the massive eighteen-wheel tractor trailers that choke little roads and freeways today.

When the railways disappeared and trucks changed the way we deliver goods, everyone despaired. While the turn to diesel threatened the quality of life in the United States, it wasn’t the deleterious effects of the fumes spewed by those trucks or their contribution to a warmer climate that frightened folks.  Certainly no one gave a thought to how a warmer world would jeopardize the quality of air in Seattle from forest fires.  It was the threat to the livelihood of the little towns that seems to have scared people the most in the 1960s.  Of course, these are broad strokes and not all the changes happened at once.  Certainly, the very happy and unexpected outcome of shutting down the little railways didn’t happen instantaneously.

In Seattle, the abandoned tracks of little Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railroad along the north shore of Lake Union and up into Kenmore became the Burke Gilman Trail.  It is an early example of the transformation of obsolete 19th century rails into safe trails for walking and bicycling.  North of Snohomish, the conversion of the railroad right of way produced the Centennial Trail, a glorious 30-mile ride to the Skagit County line.  On the east side of Lake Washington, bicyclists and hikers alike now revel in the recently completed hill-free rail line from Factoria to Renton.

Even here in Queen Anne neighborhood, the same thing happened.  Just head down to the southern edge of the Lake Washington Ship Canal where you’ll discover the Ship Canal Trail.  It isn’t long, but it took over 20 years to convince the Burlington Northern Railroad to connect the two bits of trail east and west of the Ballard Bridge.  Now with the bits joined, the city has linked the Magnolia end to a protected bike lane that runs west to Discovery Park and south through the railyard to downtown and beyond.  The Queen Anne end of the trail links up to the Westlake Trail at the Fremont Bridge, creating well over 50 uninterrupted safe miles all the way to Pacific (find it, if you can).

A few years ago, in the small Southern French town of Beaucaire, I stumbled on the Voie Verte, which translates directly as the ‘Way Green.’  Indirectly, it matches the name of our Greenway group, but it is much more like a PBL (Protected Bike Lane) than a Greenway.

The Voie Verte is also a rail to trail conversion following the Chemin de Fer des Cerises’ or the Cherry Line.  It stretches 28 kilometers from Beaucaire to the Pont du Gard, the 1st century Roman Aqueduct where I frequently ride for a swim in the cool river below its majestic arches.  Before the Voie Verte, bicycling along the heavily trafficked road to the Pont du Gard was life threatening.  Now it is a gentle piece of cake and, because trains don’t like steep hills, entirely flat.

I have some favorite places along the Voie Verte.  The first is a mouthful.  It’s called the magnanerie.  It’s a giant stone 19th c. warehouse that once served as a home to silkworms when silk spinning flourished in the south of France.

Silk Worms
Beaucaire’s 19th C. magnanerie or silk worm factory

The second is the simply cool tunnel that digs under the hill spilling down to the confluence of the Gardon and Rhone rivers.  The tunnel has a slight curve, so you can’t see the other end as you enter.  Riding through the tunnel and magic red and green lights alternate every 50 feet or so, arching around tunnel walls and your route, guiding you to the other end.

Tunnel near the Rhone
Tunnel on the Cherry Line, now the Voie Verte with bike lane.


The third appeared almost miraculously.  Just last year, I was sad to see a badly deteriorated train stop.  Now the tiny building has been restored to its minimalist glory, turning the depressing edge of the trail into a delightful picnic stop, while reminding us of the abandoned train line’s significance as an easy and cheap way for poor rural people to get to market.

Train Stop
Preservation at its best old train stop on the Voie Verte

The more formal Gare Meynes-Montfrin is another favorite place on the ride.  Converted from railroad station to private home, I think it quite neat that the clock continues to tell accurate time.

Old Station on the Voie Verte at Meyne-Monfrin


The final favorite place on the ride is its ending point.  The Pont du Gard is an exquisite first-century Roman engineering feat carrying water some 20 kilometers to the city of Nimes.  Dropping some 20 centimeters over the course of its run, the aqueduct made it possible over 400 years for Nimes to become a bustling Roman colony with healthy drinking and washing water for all its citizens.

Pont du Gard
Swimming hole under the 1st c. Pont du Gard

Just like the founders of the Cedar River watershed that has brought fresh mountain water to every Seattle faucet for over 100 years, the Romans understood that clean water is the key to a healthy life. It pleases me immensely that there are engineering feats linking first century Romans to 19th c. Seattleites.  I surely hope our system lasts at least 400 years.