Walk the Line

Donors convert old rail lines into popular recreation trails

Philanthropist Steve Baird remembers a time when Chicago’s deserted, elevated rail line was not a welcoming environment. But even then, many of the Windy City’s residents saw potential for the space.

“People would jump fences and get out there and run,” he says. “There was a lot of broken glass. There were safety issues, and they still got up there. They were on this thing before we were.”

Baird is among the visionaries who decided to turn a neglected railroad line into the 606, a trail and park system designed to be a major asset to the urban neighborhoods surrounding it. Thanks in part to donors, this former industrial discard will soon join the ranks of many similar corridors across the country, affectionately known as “rail trails.” The philanthropically funded Rails-to-Trails Conservancy estimates that more than 1,600 abandoned railroad lines have been turned into modern recreational trails, with more on the way.

Rail trails are generating public enthusiasm as rural paths, as creators of green space in tight urban quarters, as ways of boosting health and wellness, as canvases for appealing landscape design and outdoor art, as connectors of communities, and as spurs to city redevelopment. What started as relatively simple recycling projects in places like rural Michigan have also become beacons of unification in cities like New York, Chicago, and Atlanta. In nearly all of these projects, private donors have been crucial instigators.

Country trails

By the 1970s, a quarter of railroad lines were bankrupt because of expensive regulations, difficulty competing with trucking companies, and soaring energy costs. The question of what to do with the increasing number of abandoned lines was answered by the budding rails-to-trails movement, and one of the first hot spots was the American Midwest.

The late Fred Meijer was a rail-trail pioneer. Having joined his parents’ new grocery business at age 14, he started building, in 1962, what would become known as superstores. By the time Meijer was finished, he had 200 retail outlets and the 15th-largest private company in the nation. As he became a major donor in his home state of Michigan, one of his interests was to get Americans outdoors more often.

In 1994, Meijer purchased a 42-mile stretch of abandoned CSX railroad corridor for the first rail-to-trail conversion in Michigan. The Fred Meijer Heartland Trail, completed in 2011, will eventually be part of a larger path stretching 125 miles—making it the fifth-largest continuous rail trail in the nation.

These linear parks catch the eye and draw hikers and bikers through a sequence of landscapes, creating a kind of narrative. The narrow route of the Heartland Trail takes voyagers through fields, woods, and small towns. Meijer grew up on a dairy farm in the region, and he saw these trails as a way for city-dwellers to appreciate the agricultural richness of western Michigan and enjoy the beauty of a rural setting.

In addition to buying land, Meijer provided funds for trail building, and endowments for future maintenance. During his lifetime, he donated about $10 million to rails-to-trails work, and his Meijer Foundation remains an important funder of land acquisitions and construction costs today. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which has grown to 150,000 members with a hand in 20,000 miles of pathways nationwide, has honored Fred Meijer as one of the pioneers of the rail trail movement.

City trails

After Meijer’s success at creating rambling trails where people could escape from urban pressures, other donors realized that they could intermingle urban and pastoral settings in refreshing and intriguing ways, using old rail lines.

On the first spring-like day of 2014, New York’s High Line is packed. Locals and tourists alike are excited to get outdoors after a particularly brutal winter. Those who look down see old railroad tracks preserved beneath their feet, as homage to an earlier industrial New York. Visitors who gaze forward encounter colorful modern artwork, and many surprising views of the surrounding city. 

During the 1930s, engineers elevated a freight-rail line several stories up into the air on trestles to eliminate the dangers of trains running through the busy streets of lower Manhattan. The boxcars stopped coming into New York in 1980, leaving the elevated path to grow up in weed trees and native grasses. Fence-hoppers discovered an urban oasis, hidden in plain sight, and when plans were made to tear down the elevated path, neighbors quickly formed a nonprofit to save it. After a decade of fundraising and planning a conversion of the elevated route into a mile-and-a-half skyway for walkers, the first of three sections opened to a rapturous public. The second phase debuted in 2011, and the third portion is due to open later this year.

Friends of the High Line raised more than $100 million of private money to design, create, and run the park. Husband and wife Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg donated more than $35 million, and many other foundations, individuals, and corporations have also made large gifts. The philanthropically funded nonprofit has a contract with the city giving it responsibility for maintenance and operation of the facility—which already attracts 4.4 million visitors per year in its unfinished state, sparking an estimated $2 billion of private development in formerly industrial sections of New York.

Closely resembling the High Line is the 606 in Chicago. Named after the first three digits of Chicago zip codes, the 2.7-mile former railway, now a walking path, is scheduled to open this fall. In addition to its elevated path, called the Bloomingdale Trail, the 606 will also include five ground-level parks, an observatory, and plenty of art. It will create green space for the 80,000 people who live within a ten-minute walk, and planners hope it will unite four disparate neighborhoods.

“It’s a large, ambitious, complicated project, and that’s actually what I like about it,” says funder Baird. He has been involved since the beginning of the project, roughly eight years ago. The fifth-generation leader of family-owned real-estate firm Baird & Warner, he also serves on the board of the Trust for Public Land, the leading private partner of the 606. He oversees the project’s fundraising efforts and has personally donated what he refers to as “a significant amount,” with another big family gift in the works. He credits his interest in the outdoors to childhood vacations spent exploring nature.

Baird sees many positive results for the community. “You’re taking something that was an eyesore and physical barrier and making it into something beautiful and a transportation corridor. It’s kind of a double win, and it’s going to have huge impacts on the real estate values and be a wonderful amenity.”

Linear parks create a different experience from other parks, Baird notes. “You can see parts of the downtown skyline, and you then can turn around and talk to somebody on the street corner. So it’s just a really interesting juxtaposition—a way to move through the city that didn’t exist before.”

Paths to community renewal

An even more complex rail trail in the works is the Atlanta BeltLine, perhaps better described as a rail with trail. This ambitious project aims to rejuvenate a 22-mile historic railroad corridor that helped make Atlanta a regional hub after the Civil War. The idea was born in a 1999 Georgia Tech master’s thesis, and includes both a recreational trail and light rail system circling all of Atlanta. Planners say it will ultimately connect 45 neighborhoods and cost billions, funded through a combination of public and private dollars.

Many see the project as an urban renewal initiative, but Jim Kennedy, Atlanta resident and chairman of media conglomerate Cox Enterprises, prefers the term “community renewal.” As a former world cycling champion, he is “interested in anything that gets people outdoors and moving in a safe environment.” He believes the BeltLine offers a prime opportunity to do just that, and he is using his personal donations and contacts with other rail-trail enthusiasts to get the project underway. 

While the project won’t be finished until 2030, pieces are already in place, including the 2.25-mile-long Eastside Trail—which is open largely due to Kennedy. He and his wife, Sarah, donated $2.5 million to create this part of the BeltLine, giving through the PATH Foundation, a nonprofit that has been building trails in the Atlanta area for more than 22 years, and of which Kennedy is an original board member. He describes the donation as “good seed money to get that trail built.”

To maintain the project’s momentum, Kennedy donated $5 million more in April 2014. These funds will develop the Westside Trail, and they make him the largest private donor to the BeltLine project at $12 million. Total contributions to the capital campaign, which Kennedy co-chairs, are now at $45 million. Early private donations like Kennedy’s have been used to implement pieces of the overall plan. Supporters say these local successes serve as testaments to the project’s potential and build public understanding and support that will be needed to complete the ambitious plan.

“We can’t expect the government to do everything for everybody, and so the private sector, the philanthropic side, has to step up. By doing so, private citizens declare what is important,” says Kennedy, who has given a total of about $30 million to various trail projects. “Often the private money is the venture capital that gets things going.”

Trails as tribute

Enthusiasts are now planning perhaps the most remarkable use of rail trails so far—the September 11th National Memorial Trail, which proposes to span 1,140 miles and connect all three of the 9/11 crash sites. The growth of converted railroad corridors has helped this project gain traction, allowing creators to piece together existing trails in many places, instead of having to carve out new ones. About 600 of the miles planned for the memorial are on former railroad corridors or converted canal towpaths.

“When we can use certain parts of trails that are already existing, we use them. For other areas, such as in Pennsylvania primarily, we are developing the actual route itself,” explains David Brickley, president and CEO of the September 11th National Memorial Trail Alliance. The visionary behind this endeavor, Brickley is no stranger to linear parks—he has hiked all 2,180 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and served on the boards of many rail-trail and conservation groups. He also co-founded Virginia’s commuter rail system, and advocated for trails as the director of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Brickley also gives generously to the rail-trail cause. In 2008, he made a spur-of-the-moment decision to spend half a million of his own dollars to purchase a 16-mile abandoned railroad corridor in Virginia to save it from being broken up. “Talk to my wife and she’ll tell you how unplanned it was,” he quips. For his efforts, Brickley has been honored as one of the 25 Rail-Trail Champions celebrated by the Rails-to-Trail Conservancy. He is in good company—Fred Meijer and the High Line’s founders, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, are also on the list.

Brickley’s interest in a 9/11 memorial trail dates back to a multistate trail conference held a few days after the terrorist attacks. Then the director of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Brickley says they decided to hold the conference, despite the bad timing, “as a sign of our own resilience.” At the end of the conference, Brickley suggested the attendees find a way to honor the victims and heroes of the terrorist attack. The September 11th National Memorial Trail Alliance, “dedicated to perseverance in the name of freedom” and “liberty that can never be broken,” was born.

The group operates on a modest budget of $150,000 per year. But since it is staffed by volunteers, all funds go directly to crucial tasks. Other groups, like the various Appalachian Trail clubs, have relied on a similar mix of volunteer talent, passion, and modest private financing to accomplish great things.

The group hopes to map out the entire route within the next three years, but linking the lands and opening usable recreation paths “will be a work in progress for many years thereafter,” according to Brickley. He emphasizes the need to take advantage of new opportunities as they come along. One such opportunity appeared in the form of an abandoned railroad corridor connecting the town of Berlin, Pennsylvania (near the Flight 93 crash site), with the Great Allegheny Passage—an existing 150-mile rail trail now open for biking and hiking between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Maryland.

The organization hopes to use the memorial trail as a “teaching opportunity,” incorporating historical sites along the path wherever possible. “It will be a trail steeped in history. Not just for 9/11, but also of sites that are important to the fabric of America’s heritage going back to the days of our independence,” Brickley says.

The trail is a fitting tribute, he says, because “a trail will be here forever, and it will show the resilience of our country forever. It’s going to be an unbroken trail connecting these three sites. A sign of our ability to stay together, to hold together, to be together. To be unbroken.”

Kara Runsten is a former intern at Philanthropy.