Abandoned & Historic Railroad Destinations Everyone Should Have On Their Bucket List

Even in today's age of air transport, trucks and automobiles, the railroad still holds a place in the hearts of many, and while it is true that there are many historical and socioeconomic reasons for this, a very large reason that people still love to travel by train, I believe, is due to one simple truth.

There is no better method of transportation for seeing the amazing natural beauty of the US. Indeed, the railroad companies realized this early on, as well as the potential economic benefits of tourism, and were an integral part of the creation of National Parks as we know them today.

A railroad line doesn't even have to exist anymore to become an amazing place to visit, as railroad lines naturally lend themselves to the curious, the explorers, and the historian.

With that thought in mind, here are 6 abandoned railroad destinations that everyone should visit at least once.

1) Route of the Hiawatha Trail (47.39643, -115.63494) 
Image: VisitIdaho.org

The Milwaukee Road Pacific Extension, abandoned in 1980, traversed some of the most beautiful and challenging areas in the United States. The abandonment begins in Terry, MT, and continues almost entirely uninterrupted to Renton, WA, with only a few spots of the line still active today.

This trail begins in East Portal, MT and continues westward for 15 miles into Idaho, traversing through many trestles and tunnels along the way. The best part is that the ride is a slow bike ride downhill, and shouldn't be too challenging for most riders, allowing people from all walks of life to see the amazing views of the Couer d'Alene National Forest.
Ride the Hiawatha
The scale and beauty of this trail would be impossible to replicate in text; even video doesn't do it justice, this is something I cannot wait to ride for myself! Nonetheless, there are plenty of YouTube videos of people riding the trail, my favorite of which is below.

2) The Golden Spike National Historic Site (Promontory, UT, 41.61742, -112.5509

Image: TheArmchairExplorer

Located about 45 Miles Northwest of Ogden, Utah lies the Golden Spike National Historic Site, where on May 10th, 1869, the "Last Spike" of the Transcontinental Railroad was drove in. The name "Transcontinental Railroad" is a bit of a misnomer, since it was actually two railroads, and since the line actually terminated in Omaha, NE, requiring a ferry to transport one to eastern railroads. Nonetheless, the event symbolizes the westward movement and progress of the 19th century perhaps better than any other.

"East and West shaking hands at the laying of the last rail" of the Union Pacific Railroad - By Andrew J. Russel

Despite the history of the railroad line, it was actually abandoned relatively early. The US Government was offering both the Central Pacific and Union Pacific funds per mile of railroad constructed, meaning that they actually built two parallel railroad grades despite only one being necessary. This meant that Union Pacific's grade was abandoned in 1870. Central Pacific, later Southern Pacific, would run the line until 1942, when a line was built over the Great Salt Lake at the Lucin Cutoff. Despite this fact, both grades are quite visible, given the desert terrain of the route.

Today, the site is run by the National Parks Service, who do reenactments every May 10th, as well as have steam engines from the time period on display. They also a fantastic job of preserving and researching the history of the route, the workers, and its impact to society.

3) Kinzua Bridge (Mt. Jewett, PA, 41.75802, -78.58743)

The Kinzua Bridge is a railroad trestle in northwestern Pennsylvania over the Kinzua Creek. It was over 300 feet tall and 2,000 feet long, and was the fourth tallest railroad bridge in the US. Built by the New York, Lake Erie & Western Railway, which later merged with the Erie Railroad, it was in service until 1959. In 1963, Pennsylvania acquired the bridge and turned the area into a state park.

Image: Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks pre-2003
Certainly, one of the tallest railroad bridges in the US would be interesting enough, right? Well, Mother Nature had plans for the bridge. On July 21st, 2003, a tornado struck the valley. Half of the bridge collapsed in the tornado, an F1 storm. Thankfully, no human deaths or injuries were reported, but the Kinzua was half destroyed. 
Image: http://rollinginarv-wheelchairtraveling.blogspot.com/2014/05/kinzua-bridge-skywalk.html
Facing a $45 million cost of rebuilding a defunct railroad bridge, the state of Pennsylvania left the destruction in place, and created something amazing as a result. Intended to show how destructive nature can be, the Kinzua Bridge Skywalk now offers views of the destroyed structure, and allows users to walk the half of the 300 foot tall bridge, and even has the railroad tracks in place from its days as a railroad bridge.
I am very excited to say that I will be visiting this bridge next week on vacation, so expect an entire blog dedicated to the bridge in the coming weeks.

4) The High Line (New York City, 40.75608, -74.00316)

I've already experienced, and blogged about, The High Line, which is designed to tell a story of a city's adaptation over time, from an industrial and working class past, to a decline, and a rebirth in the early 2000's as a tourist destination.

The line was built in the 1930's, although trains were running the route since the 1880's, although at street level, causing numerous accidents and deaths, and requiring flagmen to run in front of oncoming trains to warn people to get out of the way. In 1980, the last train ran along the route, delivering Thanksgiving turkeys. It remained out of service for roughly thirty years, passing on from its builder, New York Central, onto Penn Central, Conrail and finally CSX Railroad. The line had been an unofficial walk for some for a time before its transition to a walking trail, although users would have been trespassing on private property.

The High Line offers what many other railroad lines offered; a unique view of the landscape that you can get nowhere else. New York is an incredible place (although not as incredible as Chicago, as this Chicagoan must always make known), and the view the High Line offers once again cannot be adequately shown in pictures. I do not say it lightly that the High Line is my happy place.

5) High Trestle Trail (Madrid, IA 41.86691, -93.86867)

Image: https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/2018/03/13/high-trestle-trail-alcohol-ordinance-boone-county-conservation-board/419327002/

The High Trestle Trail is a 25 Mile long rail-trail running through rural Iowa from Perry to Slater, along one of that State's large amount of abandoned railroad corridors. So how are railroad trails supposed to stand out from their peers, given how numerous they are, especially in Iowa?

Oh, That's How. Image: Carol Vanhook
The Iowa Arts Council was responsible for the steel beams along the bridge over the Des Moines River. This is one of the more creative ways at preserving history on a rail trail. In this case, the beams are intended to be a reminder of Iowa's mining history, as riding through them is supposed to resemble descending into a mine shaft. To me, at night, the almost psychedelic lighting of this trail invokes memories of driving and seeing neon signs all over the road. 

6) Eagle Lake Locomotives (Northwest Piscataquis, ME, 46.32241, -69.37502)
Image: RoadTrippers
Of all the destinations on this list, none are harder to get to than this, and may represent the magnum opus of abandoned railroad lore. The Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands says it best, "there are not a lot of places in the world where you can be hiking through a remote wilderness and suddenly stumble upon rusting locomotives." Located in rural Northern Maine at the south end of Eagle Lake, what exactly are two rusted out, turn of the century locomotives doing here, of all places?

They are a relic of logging operations that occurred not just in Maine, but in many forests across the United States. The Eagle Lake and West Branch Railroad began operations in 1926, logging the area and transporting the logs along their tracks down to Umbazooksus Lake, 13 miles south. 

The remoteness of this operation made maintenance and energy delivery for these locomotives difficult to say the least, which is documented well in the link above. 

The Great Depression would put an end to the railroad. Instead of selling, or scrapping the locomotives, it was deemed too expensive to do anything but leave them in place. 
Even the tracks remained, although well reclaimed by nature. Image: QT Luong, terragalleria.com
They were initially stored in a shed, although it was destroyed in the time between the end of operations and when the State of Maine would take over the site. 

Image: Will Leavitt
In 1995, some components of the engines were removed by the state, and the locomotives were painted to prevent further rusting. They remain alone in the wilderness, waiting to be discovered by anyone who can brave the terrain to find them. Many YouTubers have vlogged their own experiences finding the locomotives, one is shown below.

As always, thanks for reading, and let me know if there's any other abandoned railroad destinations you think people should have on their bucket list!


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