Hitting the trails this weekend? You might be walking or biking on an abandoned railroad.
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State Farm

Along the Missouri River, there are 26 rambling trails where you can walk or bike through soft marshlands, towering bluffs, pleasing pastures, and thick forests.

Those trails make up the Katy Trail State Park — the longest public area in the United States that was formerly train tracks.

Built on the corridor of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, there's also quite a bit of history to be found on any outdoor excursion in this state park. Most trails go past restored historic depots and former railroad towns. It's no surprise all 240 miles of this park were added to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Hall of Fame in 2008.


Katy Trail State Park. Photo by Kim Horgan, courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

But trails like this weren't always so pleasant.

In the 1950s and '60s, there was dramatic decline in train use. By 1966, less than 2% of intercity commuters were using trains to get from place to place. That left a significant number of train lines defunct and a whole lot of miles of territory in disuse.

Aside from not looking too pretty, these rail lines, including what's now Katy Trail State Park, were just taking up unnecessary amounts of space without serving any purpose.

By the 1980s, "you see Congress starting to get concerned, because they were looking at the permanent loss of these rail lines," explains Amy Kapp, editor of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s magazine and blog.

Photo via succo/Pixabay.

So they amended the National Trail Systems Act to create the Railbanking Program. This allows people to preserve inactive corridors for future rail use while providing interim trail use — aka turning them into walking trails and bike paths.

But it’s often not easy for communities to launch large-scale trail projects on their own. They don't have the money and manpower, or they simply do not have any idea where to start.

That's why David Burwell and Peter Harnik founded the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy — an organization that's been helping to create outdoor paths for the public since 1986.

David Burwell and his wife (left) and Peter Harnik (right). Images courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

By helping convert old railways into public lands like the awesome Katy Trails, the conservancy is giving back to local communities by providing more places to go outside, which in turn may help people feel better physically and mentally. More walkable, bike-able trails also means there's more of America's natural beauty for people to enjoy.

Trail in Washington, D.C. Photo by Milo Bateman, courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Over the last 30 years, RTC has been a great success.

When they opened their doors, there were 250 miles of known rail-trail. Today, there are over 22,774 miles available to communities all over the country and 2,035 known rails have been converted to trails.

It's really quite remarkable when you realize all those trails were once just miles and miles of unused land.

David Burwell passed away in February, but thanks to his passion and skill — and over 160,000 RTC members — his work will live on long after him.

Anacostia River Trail in Washington, D.C. Photo by Suzanne Matyas, courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Currently, RTC is helping to build eight large-scale regional trail systems across the United States.

One particularly significant project is called the Lower Rio Grande Valley Active Transportation and Tourism Plan, or Active Plan for short.

Historic Battlefield Trail in Brownsville, Texas. Photo by Mark Lehmann, courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

The Active Plan is based in Cameron County, Texas, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. A 428-mile trail network is on the docket to provide locals with safe travel routes and encourage exercise and outdoor recreation.

These outdoor trails could make life so much better for locals.

The Ortiz family on the Historic Battlefield Trail in Palo Alto, Texas. Photo by Mark Lehmann, courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Being closer to trails could save Cameron County millions of dollars in medical bills.

The community's economy should see a huge uptick too. A plan is set to create 453 new jobs for locals and increase tourism revenue by $40 million. For a county with more than a third of its residents below the poverty line, that’s no inconsequential figure.

Ohio and Erie Canalway Towpath Trail. Photo by Bruce Ford, courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Rails-to-trails conversion starts on the community level — which means that there are lots of ways for people to get involved and maybe even help spearhead a project in their own community.

In fact, RTC's website is a great resource if anyone interested in jumpstarting more trails, providing an online toolbox that's filled with information on railbanking, acquiring and financing projects, planning and trail designs, and how to navigate the railroad and community guidelines.

In addition, RTC is also always looking for volunteers to help advocate for them and their work. After all, it is thanks to those volunteers that we have beautiful public trails weaving through different communities, linking them together, and bringing people back to nature  — they are the ones helping make  Burwell's dream a reality.

"My dream is that one day you could go across this entire country — old or young, handicapped or able — on flat, wide, off-road paths," he once told the RTC publication. "I want rail-trails to be America’s main street."

Courtesy of Tiffany Obi
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With the COVID-19 pandemic upending her community, Brooklyn-based singer Tiffany Obi turned to healing those who had lost loved ones the way she knew best — through music.

Obi quickly ran into one glaring issue as she began performing solo at memorials. Many of the venues where she performed didn't have the proper equipment for her to play a recorded song to accompany her singing. Often called on to perform the day before a service, Obi couldn't find any pianists to play with her on such short notice.

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Using the coding skills she gained at Pursuit — a rigorous, four-year intensive program that trains adults from underserved backgrounds and no prior experience in programming — Obi turned this market gap into the very first app she created.

She worked alongside four other Pursuit Fellows to build In Tune, an app that connects musicians in close proximity to foster opportunities for collaboration.

When she learned about and applied to Pursuit, Obi was eager to be a part of Pursuit's vision to empower their Fellows to build successful careers in tech. Pursuit's Fellows are representative of the community they want to build: 50% women, 70% Black or Latinx, 40% immigrant, 60% non-Bachelor's degree holders, and more than 50% are public assistance recipients.

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Photo courtesy of Claudia Romo Edelman
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When the novel coronavirus hit the United States, life as we knew it quickly changed. As many people holed up in their homes, some essential workers had to make the impossible choice of going to work or quitting their jobs— a choice they continue to make each day.

Because over 80 percent of working Hispanic adults provide essential services for the U.S. economy, the Hispanic community is disproportionately affected. Hispanic families are also much more likely to live in multigenerational households, carrying the extra risk of infecting the most vulnerable. In fact, Hispanics are 20 times more likely than other patients to test positive for COVID-19.

Claudia Romo Edelman saw a community in desperate need of guidance and support. And she created Hispanic Star, a non-profit designed to help Hispanic people in the U.S. pull together as a proud, unified group and overcome barriers — the most pressing of which is the effects of the pandemic.

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Photo credit: Hispanic Star

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