Rolling along rivers and wondering why

Rolling along rivers and wondering why
John C. Lorson

Even though the raindrops that land on my rooftop in Orrville end up flowing past Cincinnati in the Ohio River, that doesn’t mean a bike ride from here to there is all downhill. There’s plenty of topography in between including about 6,000 feet of climbing, and this monument north of Centerburg marks the highest point on the Heart of Ohio Trail, an elevation of 1,285 feet.


Just before I set out to ride my bicycle from Orrville to Cincinnati on the Ohio to Erie Trail, a friend commented I should have an easy time of it. “Since you’ll end up at the Ohio River, you’ll obviously be going downhill the whole way,” he said.

“I somehow doubt that I’ll be coasting,” I said. “There are plenty of ups and downs between here and there.”

We had a good chuckle, and I acknowledged I would indeed end up at a lower elevation. But while the rain that falls on my driveway in Orrville (elevation 1,083 feet) eventually makes its way to Cincinnati on the Ohio River (482 feet) — a net drop of 601 feet — I wouldn’t be following the path of a raindrop all the way to Cincy.

I’ll readily admit riding a rail trail is inherently less vertically challenging than heading out cross-country on township and county roads. The difference comes down to the previous life of the recreational trails in America’s growing network. Most began their lives under rail on corridors built solely to move passengers and cargo throughout an eagerly expanding nation.

According to “The History of Rail Transportation in the United States” (Wikipedia), in 1850 there were a mere 9,000 miles of railroad track in the nation. That number would grow to an astounding high of 254,251 miles in 1916, then begin a slow decline as the automobile gained popularity, trucking became a viable enterprise and airline transport arrived in earnest. By 2011 the number of track miles in the U.S. would be reduced by nearly half to 139,679.

While competition played a dominant role in the decline of the track miles across the nation, the rail line that ran through the heart of both Wayne and Holmes counties was as much a casualty of a weather catastrophe: the July 4 flood of 1969.

Although I was very young at the time, I have vivid memories of that event. In later years, as kids exploring the outskirts of town, my friends and I could still witness the devastation the raging, out-of-bank Sugar Creek had wreaked upon the Cleveland Akron and Columbus rail line running south out of Orrville toward Fredericksburg, Millersburg and beyond. We named a particular mile-long stretch the “roller coaster tracks,” as the rails still hung, mangled and twisted with ties still attached above the blown-out berm of the railway.

Similar stretches of track lay all around Central Ohio. The double whammy of disaster and declining market share had made repairing the line an infeasible proposition. Little did anyone realize those many decades ago that the railroad’s loss would ultimately precipitate an entirely new opportunity.

The Ohio to Erie Trail is a gorgeous, well-mapped and generously signed assembly of trails that were brought into existence by the tireless advocacy, hard work and fundraising of persons local to each stretch. Abandoned railroad rights-of-way provide the perfect substrate for trail construction in that they are constructed to remain elevated above any intermittent flooding, they frequently run through surprisingly “wild” territory and they do a great job of connecting one “place” with another.

I spent a lot of time during my ride thinking about why railroads were built in certain areas. As for-profit enterprises, rail lines needed to connect raw materials with manufactures, manufacturers with markets and people with the places they wanted to go. Prior to the advent of the railroads, river and eventually canal travel had been the primary means for accomplishing these things.

Most great cities of the prerailroad times had sprung up on the shore of a lake or ocean, along the banks of a river or as a waypoint along a canal. If you want a great clue as to why railroads often follow along the banks or cross the vast alluvial plains of rivers, just look at a map of America in the early 1800s. The railroads simply connected the dots of an already rapidly expanding civilization. Furthermore, building a railroad on flatlands with gentle grades was a much more attractive proposition than blasting through mountains. (Of course, that would come later.)

As I pedaled along the mild grades and passed through one beautiful riverine corridor after another, I thanked our ancestors’ industriousness in building the railroads — and the tenacity and vision of people of my very own generation who have worked to convert the abandoned remains of those rail lines into a priceless public treasure.

If you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email

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