“Rails to Trails” and Cultural Resources

Railroads have played a major role in the history and development of our country and are frequently determined to be significant by State Historic Preservation Offices. On the surface, it may seem that converting an abandoned rail bed into a trail would be a rather straight forward, relatively simple process. However, there are a multitude of factors that come into play; not least among these are cultural resource issues and compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act. Railroad corridors are a unique form of cultural resource and are similar to historic districts in that they cover a broader area, therefore it is best to think of them as linear historic districts. In the case of a railroad corridor functioning as a historic district, the contributing and non-contributing elements are the features that comprise the railroad system within the railway corridor. For example, the bridges, culverts, switches, sidings, depots, signage, and the rail bed itself may be contributing elements to the linear district.
Two of the major factors in determining whether or not a feature of the line is a contributing element is (1) whether or not it is part of the original construction and (2) does it have structural integrity, that is, does it retain a sufficient amount of its physical characteristics to be representative of the period of significance of the rail line. Though often seen as something that could slow down a project and add costs, the Cultural Resource Survey and historic research can add value to the finished trail by providing signage and points of interest relating to the region’s history and development along the trail. Thus, the trail becomes not only a recreational attraction, but serves to preserve and inform an important aspect of our country’s history. SCI has significant experience providing cultural resource services for “Rails to Trails” projects and would be happy to consult on any upcoming projects. Don may be contacted directly at or call 618-206-3034.