MITCH BARLOGA: Yesterday’s railroads are today’s trails

2013-09-05T00:00:00Z MITCH BARLOGA: Yesterday’s railroads are today’s trailsBy Mitch Barloga
September 05, 2013 12:00 am  • 

If you regularly read this column, or are just a hiking or bicycle enthusiast, you know about the robust development of off-road trails in Northwest Indiana.

The numbers don't lie. In 1990 we had a little over 10 miles of paved trail in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties. Most of this included the Calumet Trail along the Indiana Dunes -- which was already in disrepair.

The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission began envisioning a regional trail network back in the mid-1970s, and today residents regularly enjoy the benefits of more than 130 miles of trails, an exponential growth during the last generation.

The vast majority of new trail development over this time has occurred on formerly used railroad corridors. We have an abundance of these corridors because of our proximity to Chicago, and today we are taking full advantage of their public enjoyment potential.

Our region's trail roots can be traced back when these railroads first came to life in the mid-to late-1800s. Chicago rapidly developed into the premier railroad hub in the United States because of its location between the established East Coast and the emerging West. All major rail companies invested in lines into Chicago.

To access Chicago from the northeast, however, one significant barrier stood in the way -- Lake Michigan. Today we feel this pressure as roadway congestion with major highways being squeezed into our region. More than 100 years ago, the same held true for railroads, and because of their location many of our communities took root.

In fact, at the height of the railroad age, about 1,000 miles of railroads crisscrossed Northwest Indiana. In the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of miles of track were abandoned because of the growing emphasis on truck freight. Northwest Indiana was left with roughly 700 miles of active railroads -- leaving about 300 miles abandoned.

About this time a hearty group of folks began advocating for the conversion of these abandoned corridors into trails. The logic was simple -- these corridors cut, mainly unobstructed, through the heart of many communities, and were not burdened by the existing road network. This in turn provided safe passage for users as well as an escape into nature since these corridors doubled as greenways, replete with trees and wildlife.

Thus the rails-to-trails movement kicked-off in earnest with dedicated federal funding in 1991, which today has been responsible for more than 15,000 miles of corridor converted nationally. In Northwest Indiana, more than one-third of abandoned railroads have been converted into trail, with nearly 200 miles still remaining.

Our region is in the middle of a golden age of trail development, and refocusing on enhancing these corridors that once provided the lifeblood to our communities. 

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