I spend a portion of my mornings walking for exercise on the Cardinal Greenway, a recreational trail built on the right-of-way of a former C&O branch that ran from Cincinnati, Ohio to Chicago, Illinois.
The line runs north and south through Richmond and once interchanged with the PRR near the Purina plant you’ve seen in my other posts. Just north of the abandoned C&O yard, the line ducked under the east/west PRR main which is today’s active Norfolk Southern line through town. South of town it’s still a rail line under different ownership and the last Richmond customer served is a scrap metal yard. The local power plant once accepted coal deliveries from southern Indiana and Illinois via this line but that service has ended.
As a biking/hiking trail, the Greenway is a fine community asset that sees a lot of use. From the southern trail head near the old depot, you can travel all the way to Muncie, Indiana (approx. 45 miles) and beyond, all on a well maintained asphalt surface. There are numerous car parks along the route where you can enter the trail and lots of remnants of the old C&O remain. Where the trail crosses city streets or county roads there are locked gates to prevent illegal vehicular traffic from entering for the safety of hikers.
The section I walk skirts a city park where the line is on an embankment that runs next to a lake. The line runs through wooded cuts as it climbs out of the river valley that Richmond occupies and going north, you have a clear sense of climbing the grade. As a railfan I can picture the spectacle that H class 2-6-6-2 compound Mallets or K3 Mikados would have made on this grade (below).
Beyond the benefits of physical activity, walking the trail offers an up close look at how the railroad fits into the surrounding landscape, rather than having the landscape tacked on around it as is typical of many layout designs. I can see the changes in terrain and how the line maintains a smooth gradient through them. Details of curvature, cuts, fills and how drainage is handled become easier to understand when you can see how they all interrelate with each other.
My walks also provide opportunities to study the growth patterns of trees and other vegetation. In many places the plant growth has been allowed to encroach closer than an active rail line would permit, but one can still learn much from the access the trail provides.
So often, we can’t get as close to our subject as we’d like to. If you have a rail trail nearby, I encourage you to make full use of it as a classroom for learning. Even without the immediate railroad infrastructure, an old rail line has plenty to teach. Bring a camera, maybe a note pad and a discerning eye. Oh, a good pair of walking shoes wouldn’t hurt either.