We’re a member of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and Bryan is one of their email lists that notifies interested people when a rail company files abandonment paperwork for a section of rail line. Thousands of miles of rail have been abandoned in the last few decades, and most have seen their rails and crossties sold for scrap and their corridors sold piecemeal to adjacent landowners. It’s handy for farmers and businessmen to have a little extra chunk of land, I suppose, but it means that the rail line can never be used again for anything of economic benefit to the whole community.
Rails to Trails aims to prevent this from happening. They send out a notice, along with information on how to file paperwork to preserve the rail corridor for use as a trail. It’s called “railbanking” and it’s a low-cost way for communities or organizations to preserve the corridor for a few months, so that they can make plans to use the space for a multi-use trail of some sort. They can use the space for a trail, with the understanding that if it’s ever needed again for rail transport, it can be easily converted back to that use.
Railbanking can be a win-win kind of thing. It’s good for everybody. So when Bryan got an email that fifty-or-so miles of rail line between Gurden and Caddo Gap, in southwestern Arkansas, was being abandoned, we decided to nose around a bit.
We camped in Glenwood, at Caddo River Camping & Canoe Rental. The people there were super excited about the idea of a bike trail going through their campground; in fact, they own a chunk of land on the river just at the north end of the abandoned rail line, there’s a camping area already there, and they made some inquiries about bike racks for their existing canoe shuttles. Glenwood’s chamber of commerce just installed an old caboose next to their building. That sounds like community support for a rail/trail!
As we learned more about the line, we got more excited about the idea of a bike trail here. I did a little research into the legend of the Gurdon Lights, a well-known Arkansas “ghost story”. I’m pretty sure that this is the rail corridor people walk to see the ghost lights. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could camp at a Gurdon city park and RIDE to look for the swinging lantern in the dark?
We spent the afternoon in and out of the Subaru. Hayduke and I sat in the back, with a gazetteer across my knees, navigating and taking notes as we visited twenty spots where the rail line intersected roads accessible by car. When we reached each one, Mandy and Bryan would jump out of the front seats and have a look, taking photos and poking around.
The trestles all seem to be in fine shape. We had worried about the big bridge in Glenwood, crossing the Caddo River, since there was a lot of flooding in that area in 2010. But it seems to be fine – in fact, I walked across the whole bridge. (When I saw that some little boys had watched me do it, I told them not to try it – I said that I worked for the railroad company and that if they walked across they’d be arrested, if they didn’t die.) There were some little minor issues, like rail misalignments, but those aren’t things we’re worried about. The rail bed and the bridges are in fine shape, as far as we can tell.
So we hope this isn’t the end of the Caddo Valley Railroad, but just a stop along the line, along the way to its becoming the Caddo Valley Rail Trail.
Note, added 12/26: I’ve had some conversations with people from the Intermodal Authority in this area. They’re in negotiations with the Governor’s office to, essentially, negate the abandonment filing. They want to purchase the bankrupt rail line, pay off its debts, repair the rails, and reopen the Caddo Valley corridor to train service. Apparently there are a couple of businesses along the route that would be impacted really positively by having rail service again, and it could mean a few hundred jobs for the people who live in these counties. If this falls through, they say, they’ll want to talk to us about railbanking and building a trail. Stay tuned.