Silas Chamberlin, Lehigh University

“Many Bulldozers are Drooling:” The Spatial Politics of Rail Trails

Despite the growing importance of greenways and multi-use paths to regional planning, public health, and economic revitalization, historians have given little attention to recreational trails as spaces of potential conflict between groups of walkers, landowners, policymakers, and urban residents. This paper—culled from my dissertation research on the national history of recreational trail development—compares the ideological origins of Chicago’s Prairie Path during the 1960s with the conversion of Pennsylvania’s Atglen-Susquehanna line during the 1990s to describe the intense debates that rail trails often provoked. Rail corridors historically linked urbanites to natural resources, rural communities, and other cities, and the preservation of these spaces as greenways during the late twentieth century restored links between disparate landscapes and their residents. Many urbanites saw the development of urban rail trails as an antidote to economic decline and automobile traffic, as well as a source of new opportunities for outdoor recreation. Residents of suburban and rural communities, however, feared the crime, vandalism, and government intrusion that the trails would bring to their isolated neighborhoods. The development of rail trails, therefore, highlights the increasingly fractious relationship among various urban and suburban constituencies regarding an essential component of twenty-first century outdoor recreation and alternative transportation infrastructure.