There’s a monument etched into a boulder on the side of the Raccoon River Valley Trail not far from my home in Jefferson. I must have passed it a hundred times or so before I finally slowed my bike and stopped for a look the other day. Turns out that it’s a memorial to a fatal train crash that occurred on that site back in November of 1913…a little over 100 years ago. I knew that trains once rolled where I now ride my bike, but I always figured they were freight trains. As it turns out, a good number of them carried people. In fact, at that time Jefferson had two train stations with dozens of trains arriving and departing each day to places like Des Moines and Chicago. What is now the Raccoon River Valley Trail was once the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. My rail trail was once a transportation corridor.
Rail transportation was popular in the US through the end of World War II, but when peace and prosperity broke out, people bought cars. As they did, local and interurban rail passenger traffic died off until the railroads abandoned the service. What was an important sector of the American economy just vanished. Thousands of miles of line in Iowa alone were abandoned. Infrastructure like stations and maintenance yards were left to rot or be torn down. Now it’s pretty much all gone.
Things can change pretty quickly. When I talk to non-cyclists about using a bike for transportation they often scoff. Cars are as American as apple pie, they remind me and while that’s true now, it hasn’t always been so. Yes, they say, but we have too much invested in automobiles and automobile infrastructure now to abandon them. Really? I don’t think so. It’s not like this hasn’t happened before.
I think about this now when I’m out on the trail. When I pass a depot that has been converted into a rest area for cyclists or a little cafe, I imagine what it must have been like 70 or 80 years ago when seven or eight coal fired passenger trains stopped at that very spot each and every day. I wonder what those passengers would have said if you told them that someday the trains would be gone and that people would use bicycles to head on down the line. I think I know what they’d say. I’d like to introduce them to my all-car, all-the-time friends if only it was possible.
The automobile era is rapidly winding down. Pundits will eventually realize it was a victim of its own success. Tomorrow’s transportation vehicles are those that will make the most sense to people in an increasingly crowded and expensive world. I think bikes will have an over-sized role. Maybe not. One thing I am absolutely sure of is that transportation in a few years will look nothing like it has for the past fifty, and the impossible will happen again. It always does.