Thursday, March 29, 2018

Abandoned Railroad Rights-of-Way Map: Year Two

On March 29th, 2016, I would begin the journey to map the abandoned railroad network. This blog is going to give you a little history of the project, and where it is now, and where I would like it to go. Before I say anything else, thank you for your support. This project would be nowhere near where it is right now without your help, information, and enthusiasm. I've had the great pleasure of being able to talk to many of you about abandoned railroad lines, many of which I wouldn't have been able to find myself. So thank you!

BACKGROUND:

Before this project began, I would hardly be described as a railfan. I mean, don't get me wrong, I did enjoy trains, however my background is in the traffic industry. Aside from that, I loved learning the history of our road network, and how roads got their numbers and why they traveled in the direction they did. Both the US Route Network and the Interstate Highway System are highly fascinating, to me at least.

I honestly found the railroad network too complicated to ever give much attention to, especially with all the mergers and acquisitions that had taken place. What I did like doing was using Google Maps to look at interesting and unique railroad crossing signals, many of which are older and more dilapidated than our current standards.
For whatever reason, Maine has a ton of these. This one is in Bowdoinham. (Source: Google Maps)

Google Maps was and is an amazing tool for learning about our geography and history, even if it doesn't appear to be at surface level. But it was quite easy to trace the older alignments of US Routes, especially Route 66, using an overhead perspective. Perhaps growing up so close to the Mother Road, and one of it's first major junctions from Chicago, led me to this love.

Wherever I would look in Google Maps, however, it became clear that there were lines that could be traced, which would lead oftentimes to centers of towns. These weren't former alignments of roads. I soon realized I was looking at the rights-of-way of abandoned railroad corridors. Before I started mapping them, I had traced out a few. The first one I traced was actually nowhere near me, a former line that ran from Hedges, GA to Gadsden, AL. A website, called abandonedrails.com proved I was (mostly) correct in my findings.
Pictured: Nowhere near Chicago

I realized I had become an enthusiast for finding old rail corridors after I'd went for a long walk along the Fox River. What seemed like a rail bridge lay ahead on the trail, and it dawned on me I must be walking on an abandoned railroad line without realizing it. A few more steps and I found myself on the literal doorstep of the Fox River Trolley Museum, a trolley museum which uses the former right-of-way of the Aurora Elgin & Fox River Railroad.

Welcome Aboard.
MAPPING TIME:
While abandonedrails.com continues to be an excellent resource for mapping abandoned railroad lines, it was most definitely an incomplete source for the whole of the abandoned railroad network. I decided I would map my own traces to remember them for my own use, and eventually I would have a complete map.

Two years of mapping has led me to realize just how much of a fools-errand this was, but in my naivete, I decided to create a map of my own, for my own personal traces of railroads.

In my first trace of the line, I had no idea of the existence of either Denrock or Agnew, and simply called this CB & Q Line near Dixon.
My first traces were only those that I could see, although many abandoned railroads have no trace of their existence left. Initially, I was trying to create a map of abandoned railroad lines of Illinois, and I spent a great deal of time looking for a complete online file of abandoned corridors that the state had on record.

None existed. Although the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning had a railroad abandonment map, it was only for the Chicago region, and wasn't very detailed.

Thus I decided to do it on my own and ignore the possibility that state maps existed for Illinois; besides, it was fun discovering the lines on my own anyway, so I decided to map out a few and go from there. 

And then I quickly ran into a problem. 

Genoa City: Notable for not being in Illinois
I had discovered not one, but two railroad lines that led to Wisconsin, and from there, many lines located entirely in that State! And from there, the map became a country wide map.

Photo: Dale Gerhard: http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com/news/unearthed-sunset-beach-railroad-tracks-reveal-area-s-industrial-past/article_e4947876-3f51-51ca-9708-d41e8e130b7a.html
I had remembered reading an article about abandoned railroad tracks washing up on the Jersey Shore, and added them to my map as well. I couldn't find them on satellite view, but decided to post an approximate location anyway, given how interesting I thought they were. While I didn't know their exact location when I first added them to the map, I eventually discovered the magic of historic topographical maps from The USGS and Historic Aerials. Within the first month, I had traced at least one line in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and now New Jersey.

Illinois' neighbor to the west presented the largest challenge to the map a short time later. While Illinois did not have a statewide map of rail abandonment, Iowa did. I had decided to begin tracing my first railroad line in Iowa, and after a little research, soon found out I'd have plenty to choose from.
https://www.iowadot.gov/iowarail/railroads/maps/Chronology.pdf
I had begun to realize just how large the abandoned railroad network really was. If Iowa looked like that, surely most other states do as well? At that point, the map became another search for mapping data which might yield a complete map. Other than Iowa, only Washington State has a complete railroad abandonment map as far as I can tell, however. Nonetheless, I pushed forward with my own traces. It was mostly a fun side project, not something that I ever thought would go anywhere.

Several more months later, my love of Google Maps had me looking at random towns in the United Kingdom, when I came upon a "Railway St" with no railway next to it.
"Crikey" - Me
My map had crossed the pond into the United Kingdom, and my map went from US Wide to Worldwide. A railroad line linking the Niagara Falls of New York & Ontario, Canada followed a short time later, and I had begun the search for abandoned railroads in three countries. I had the foresight to create a second layer for railroad lines outside North America, which is beneficial, given Google My Maps only allows 2,000 features per layer on their map. I've had to split the layers once again into short lines <13 miles just to keep pace with how many lines I've traced, and will need to split into another layer once again soon. 

As I grew more familiar with searching railfan websites for information, looking at historic maps, even reading some abandonment filings from the ICC and STB, my map was starting to come to fruition a bit. I'd found a Facebook group for abandoned railroad enthusiasts, and while I didn't do much photography, decided I'd justify my being in the group by showing them my abandoned railroads map. 

I could not possibly have expected how many people loved it. 


CROWDSOURCING:

I was overwhelmed by the response people had from the map. I wasn't expecting anyone to like the map, or perhaps someone would tell me I was crazy. Instead I got 685 likes on it! Even better, people were interested in adding and contributing to it, and posting their own knowledge of abandoned railroads, which was often outside my geographical knowledge base. Thus I was able to get the map to go from looking like this in May of 2017:

"Looks like a bunch of worms to me" - Internet commenter

To this:
50 States, 17 Countries, Over 80,000 Miles, and still nowhere near complete.


What had become a fun little side project had become a fun extremely large side project. Even so, it was somewhat contained to the railfan community until Atlas Obscura found it. Harvard University found the map as well. Once again I was overwhelmed with the response. I put my email address on the map so people could input their own lines to me, and about 100 or so people have done so, as of the time of this writing. I cannot thank you all enough for your interest and help!

I started blogging and created Forgotten Railways to help spread the word about abandoned railroads, ideally to a larger audience, who might be interested in learning about what once ran through their town, trace or no trace, or why a certain group of houses looks different than the rest of the block. It has truly been an amazing experience to be able to learn about abandoned railroads all across the world. 

At the moment, I have mapped about 65% of the abandonments of the United States Railroad network, although even so, there is plenty more to find even in the Midwest. The map has grown to be larger than that of abandonedrails.com, and has a global perspective. As I try to provide links to outside resources as well as the owner(s) of the railroad when it ran, the map provides more contextual information than the abandoned lines of OpenRailwayMap.

SO WHAT'S NEXT?

The end goal of the project is one that will never be achieved. That is to map every railroad abandonment in the entire world. I have several ideas that we, together, can strive toward this goal together.

This blog and the map are two separate entities, even if they both ultimately help to inform others about railroad history and abandoments, but in my mind they are separate projects.

I would like to create an app which would allow users to view the map at their leisure, as well as alert them when they come in contact with an old right-of-way, and most importantly, allow them to add their own knowledge of the abandoned railroad network to help complete the network. Lack of programming knowledge and developing a quality control system are the two biggest setbacks to this end.

Additionally, I am trying to narrow down the scope of a book on abandoned railroads. I believe there is more than enough material to write one, it is just a matter of figuring out what material will entertain and inform a wider audience of the story of abandoned railroads.

As always, your contributions, suggestions, knowledge, and information is always welcome and appreciated!

Thank you,
Andrew

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