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Stretching a Line to History

The new Chesapeake Beach Railway Trail

The Chesapeake Beach Railway has always been a passage to altered states. It was laid a century ago to link the sweltering city of Washington with cooling Bay waters, breezes and panoply of fun. When cars pushed trains off the map, nature took back its right of way.
    This week, the final three miles of the old railway reopened as the Chesapeake Beach Railway Trail to take you back to nature through the gateway of history. From the Chesapeake Beach Water Park, the trail follows the old railway bed and Fishing Creek, intruding gently on a natural area that provides habitat to waterfowl, aquatic creatures and many mammals such as fox, deer, otter, opossum and raccoon.
    The Chesapeake Beach Railway Trail was probably less work to build than the old 28-mile railway, but its founders would beg to differ.
    “This trail will outlast all of us. It’s better than we originally conceived,” said Chesapeake Beach Mayor Bruce Wahl, breathing a deep sigh of satisfied relief at the September 29 dedication of the project he imagined 22 years ago and has shepherded to fulfillment.
    Wahl’s inspiration came from Fairfax County, Virginia’s transformation of an abandoned railroad right-of-way into scenic Washington and Old Dominion Trail.
    In 1989, Wahl, then a town councilman, pushed for the creation of a hiking-and-biking trail along Fishing Creek, which meandered alongside the Chesapeake Beach Railway right-of-way.
    The council and then-mayor Gerald Donovan embraced the project, but the right-of-way lies in the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area, where any construction must satisfy strict guidelines. The applicable federal, state and county agencies were many, and the process moved slowly.
    In 2009, the town acquired land for the proposed Fishing Creek Park, as the area is known, and the $3 million three-mile y-shaped trail moved from planning to reality.
    As Donovan said at the dedication, “We’re all connected. It takes a lot of people to make a thing happen.”
    Among the people on hand were state Sen. Mike Miller, whose 2000 state authorization of $250,000 got the project moving. The State Highway Administration added $1.6 million. Congressman Steny Hoyer helped at the federal level.
    “I got some of your money — taxes — back to you for this wonderful project that will allow our children and our grandchildren to walk through the wild,” Hoyer said.
    The Chesapeake Beach Railway Trail is the latest of the nation’s 1,600-plus rail-trails, which include one at the other end of the old line in Seat Pleasant. Each state has at least one, and together they surpass 20,000 miles of pathways for people.
    “With its three miles, the Chesapeake Beach Railway Trail has helped us top that milestone,” said Karl Wirsing of the Rails to Trail Conservancy, which supports and tracks the ever-growing phenomenon.
    “Each trail is a chapter in American history,” Wirsing explained. “By keeping that line alive, you’re making a direct link to that history.”