railroad bed

In the settlement of the Midwest and the Great Plains, railway companies made an early push to link both coasts of the United States, laying thousands of miles of track. In Across the Plains, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that “the line of the railroad stretched from horizon to horizon like a cue across a billiard board.” To generate trade and income along their routes, railway companies recruited settlers from other parts of the country and from as far away as Europe to the American “Garden of Eden.” The landscape outside the railroad rights of way soon filled with cultivated farms and developing towns and cities, their populations displacing Native Americans. Much of the rail laid back then on mid-country prairie, though it remains in place, is rarely used today for train travel. Unexpectedly, despite the century and more of human disturbance around them and their near abandonment, these rights of way served to preserve some of the last intact native plant communities on the prairies. In recent years, many hundreds of miles of these old railroad beds have been converted into trails where people enjoy hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, and going on nature walks. One of them is the Root River State Trail System, stretching over sixty miles, with the city of Lanesboro, Minnesota, at its hub. One of the most popular recreation trails in the nation, its rail bed was originally laid out in 1860, when the Southern Minnesota Railway Company cut its right-of-way through river bluffs in southeastern Minnesota.

Mary Swander