A Scenic Walk Along Chautauqua’s Trolley and Train Trails

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Rails to Trails President Dr. Bob Berke (left), Bob Wright, and Josh Gardner, members of the Board of Directors.

Jim Fincher has been telling people to “Take a Hike” for years now, and he shows no sign of changing his tune. “It’s good for you,” he says, “and fun.”

Fincher is the Trailmaster and Executive Director for Chautauqua Rails-to-Trails, a group of more than 100 enthusiastic local volunteers reclaiming the abandoned train and trolley corridors of yesteryear to create safe and scenic recreational trails for off-road walking, running, hiking, bicycling, cross country skiing, snowmobiling, bird watching and horseback riding. The Chautauqua rail-trails are used and enjoyed by thousands of people every year.

Chautauqua County was once home to more than a hundred miles of railroad and trolley tracks crisscrossing the landscape and circling scenic Chautauqua Lake. The trains and trolleys are long gone today, but the trails remain.

Downtown Jamestown’s horse drawn trolleys of 1884 linked up with Westfield’s lines to form the Jamestown, Westfield & Northwestern Railroad which quickly traded in its horses for electricity, steel inter-urban trolleys and, by the 1920s, a network of tracks interconnecting the county’s towns, villages and attractions. Busses and cheap gas after WWII, however, ended the trolley’s golden age; Jamestown last one left the rails in 1950. The county’s abandoned Pennsylvania Rail Road lines gave even more right-of-ways back to Mother Nature.

The volunteers of Chautauqua Rails-to-Trails have now reclaimed more than 30 miles of rail bed and opened them for public recreation at no charge. They work with the property owners and the National Grid, who came to own sections of the abandoned rail beds, “to acquire, develop and maintain multi-purpose recreational trails on or near abandoned railroad corridors for public use.” Jim Fincher calls it “a place where people can commune with the rich, 150 year old railroad history of this county.”

Consider Duff Brown’s Ride. Rails-to-Trails is planning an interpretive sign for hikers, bikers, skiers and others along the trail between Prospect Station and Brocton to mark the place where Engineer Brown saved the entire community and two trains from ending in an inferno.

Hikers enjoying the Rails to Trails in Chautauqua County.

On the evening of August 17, 1869, a train brakeman for a parked rain dropped a lantern and ignited six flat cars waiting for transport, each carrying more than 8,000 gallons of oil in leaky wooden tanks. Uncoupled from the train, the 50,000 gallons of flaming oil rolled downhill toward the rear of Duff Brown’s engine. Duff Brown accelerated and the race was on at 80 miles an hour along a normally 20 mile an hour stretch of track.

The blazing oil cars left a path of flames and smoke 300 feet long and 100 feet high, easily seen from the station in Brocton where railroad workers stopped one train and hurried another along, out of the path of those fiery flatcars. Engineer Brown led the burning cars to a track far from town where the oil cars finally stopped and burned themselves out.

Many other stretches of hiking trail have a story to tell too. Portage Trail/Trolley Line, for instance, which had once been opened as a Boy Scout hiking trail in the mid 1970’s, was re-cleared by the association in 2006 and re-opened by Dr. Robert Berke, President of Chautauqua Rails to Trails, in memory of the late Bill Sharp, PhD, a local naturalist and educator whose love for the outdoors and wisdom about nature’s ways has inspired many over the years.

Other points of interest along the trails include various wetlands where more than 175 bird species have been identified out of the more than 350 species recorded for the county. Along Nettle Hill Road, hikers approach the Summerdale Ghost Town near Chautauqua Gorge Park and the stopping point of the Pusher Engines from Brocton. A portion of the trail between Plank and Bliss Roads traverses Niagara Mohawk land and leads past the Mayville Depot to the site of the 1872 Christmas Eve Train Wreck at Prospect Station.

This fall will again bring brilliant colors to the leaves on trees as they enter their winter dormancy. Along sections of the many trails, especially where forest and wetland meet, hikers are sure to find leaves that can only be described as fluorescent red and sunshine gold. “Really gorgeous,” said Trailmaster Fincher. “Many people can’t decide whether fall or spring is their favorite time of year, but it seems that in the fall there are some really spectacularly clear days, when it seems you can see forever, days that you don’t see any other time of year.”

Winter hikers inspecting a trail. From left: Wendy Lewellyn, Zak Agett, Breeanne Neal Agett, Devon Agett and Josh Gardner. Wendy, Bree and Josh are Board Members.

Fincher particularly recommends The Portage Trail, opened only a few years ago from Route 430 East in Mayville, north to Quillian Rd. It offers three miles of unspoiled, autumn beauty with a beaver pond, elevated wooded views, a serene quiet majesty, with four benches at strategic locations for quiet rest. It is open to the public from Monday through Friday. The wetlands ½ mile north of the Titus Hill trailhead also offer rare autumn foliage vistas.

Rails-to-Trails shares both use and maintenance on selected trails in partnership with the Chautauqua Snowmobile Club. The old steel rails, railroad ties and gravel ballast have long been gone from the unused rail beds, leaving only mowing as the most important maintenance job. New vegetation, however, has a way of trying to move in from the margins, especially new trees and shrubs. The combined efforts of both summer and winter trail users keep them well manicured and enjoyable all year long.

Chautauqua Rails-to-Trails is part of a system that spans the U.S.A. The National Trails System Act was signed into federal law on October 2, 1968. Today, there are nearly 20,000 miles of rail-trails that are used by tens of millions of Americans every year. The nationwide Rails-to-Trails Conservancy serves as the national voice for more than 150,000 members and supporters and more than 9,000 miles of potential rail-trails still waiting to be built.

Until recently, the Train Station on State Route 394 in Mayville, New York, served as the home office and regular meeting place for Chautauqua Rails-to-Trails. However, the tornado that recently tore through the region so damaged the station that its renovation is still ongoing. Association members temporarily meet at alternate locations. More information is available at Chautauqua Rails-to-Trails, crtt@fairpoint.net or by calling 716.269.3666.