New Life for Old Railroads

In the wake of devastating floods, a repurposed railroad line is helping boost the economy of Clay County, West Virginia. Following substantial damage in June 2016, Clay’s Buffalo Creek & Gauley Railroad (BC&G) has undergone a ‘rail-with-trail’ makeover, joining hundreds of historic railroad sites around the United States that are taking on new lives as public recreation and tourist destinations.

Historic Railroads Reimagined

Running along the Buffalo Creek, the BC&G is an 18.6-mile-long former coal-hauling shortline that operated primarily from 1904 through 1965. Through a repurposing strategy called ‘rail-with-trail,’ the Clay County Business Development Authority (BDA) is now maintaining the BC&G as an excursion train and recreation trail. Rail-with-trail sees recreational trails built directly adjacent to active or inactive railroads—some trails run parallel to high-speed and high-frequency trains, and others, like the BC&G, alongside tourist railroads and excursion trains.

Another repurposing strategy called ‘rail-to-trail’ removes existing tracks and establishes multipurpose recreational trails along a historic railroad line’s wide, flat corridor. In West Virginia alone, rail-to-trail has converted more than 375 miles of train tracks into multi-purpose public paths for walking, hiking, biking, inline skating, cross-country skiing, wheelchair use, and horseback and ATV riding.

As of 2015, there were more than 240 rails-with-trails in the United States.

Flooding Stalls the BC&G

Tragically, the flash floods of 2016 caused the Buffalo Creek riverbank and much of the BC&G railroad and trail to become damaged from erosion, sediment deposition, washouts, and bridge displacements. As Clay and affected neighboring WV counties underwent numerous flood-mitigation initiatives to repair homes and infrastructure damaged by the flood, damage to the BC&G recreation area was assessed and inventoried using scans of the original 1904 railroad right-of-way centerline maps. This post-damage flood assessment helped indicate the damaged locations of trail and lay the foundation for designing needed repairs.

Rail Bikes Help Re-Power the Rail-With-Trail

Rehabilitated following the massive flood and ramping up its comeback, the Clay County BDA sought to spur the region’s economy by offering new recreation experiences to prospective BC&G visitors. ‘Rail bikes’—recreational vehicles that travel on existing railway tracks—were identified as a potential draw, and the Clay County BDA took to social media to garner feedback about the idea of providing a rail-bike attraction on the BC&G.

Made to seat either two or four people, most recreational rail bikes have four steel or polymer wheels, hydraulic disc brakes, and pedals for each seat.

Interested in Rail-Biking?

A quick Google search reveals established locations for rail biking in Rhode Island, Las Vegas, the Adirondacks, and the Catskills.

In spring 2018, a post on the Clay County BDA’s Facebook page featuring a photo of a rail bike went viral—and soon the BDA was responding to out-of-state tourists who were eager to take part in rail biking. The BDA’s Facebook feed is now peppered with rail bike photos and information due to this overwhelmingly positive response, and the BC&G’s combination of the excursion train and rail bike attractions appears poised to boost local and tourist interest as the summer season gets underway.

Next Stop … MORE Rail-With-Trail Recreation!

Since the BC&G rail-with-trail is a spur of a much longer network of inactive rail lines across four West Virginia counties and adjacent to the Elk River, local planners and community members hope to continue to establish and grow the rails-to-trails program in Clay, Kanawha, Braxton, and Gilmer counties with a potential rails-to-trails system stretching more than 115 miles. If the online interest in the BC&G’s rail bike attraction is any indication, West Virginia may be ‘on track’ to seeing a most welcome boom in recreation and tourist traffic along its repurposed historic railroads.

Clay County BDA
Pictured l-r: Clay County BDA board member Maria Moles, Clay County BDA VP Mike Moles, GAI’s Kenneth Kinder, Clay County BDA President Mitch DeBoard

GAI Helps Fund BC&G Rail Bikes

GAI took part in a range of flood-mitigation initiatives in West Virginia communities affected by the June 2016 floods, including damage assessment and preliminary design for repairs for the BC&G rail-with-trail. GAI responded once again when the Clay County BDA sought sponsors for the BC&G’s rail bike initiative.

In May 2018, GAI presented a donation for the purchase of a four-seat rail bike to the Clay County BDA through a joint effort of GAI’s Community Solutions, Northeast Structures, and Power Generation groups, expressing the company’s ongoing commitment to support the BC&G and the local economy.

Contact Shaun Long, 681.245.8876, to find out how GAI can assist with civil engineering and planning projects in your municipality. Message GAI online  and start the conversation about how our multidiscipline professionals can meet your unique project needs.


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