A Brief History of Rail 66 Country Trail
As the age of rail was ending in Northwest Pennsylvania, entrepreneurs and communities tried to keep the B&O Northern Division alive as a railroad, but it was not to be. Instead, the old B&O is finding new life as the region’s newest rail trail.
The Rail 66 Country Trail is Clarion County’s part of that trail project. When finished, it will start at a place once called Clarion Junction, west of Clarion in the village of Marianne. From there it will roughly parallel Route 66 north through the villages of Lucinda, Snydersburg, Leeper, Crown and Vowinckel to become part of a 74-mile trail to the famous Kinzua Bridge.
The Rail 66 Country Trail follows the path of the narrow-gauge Pittsburgh and Western Railroad, built in the late 1800s. That line became the standard-gauge Northern Division of the Baltimore and Ohio, and ran from Pittsburgh to Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y. For most of the 20th Century the B&O shipped coal, lumber, and freight from mines, forests and local glass factories. When these industries declined, the Knox and Kane Railroad acquired the B&O right of way.
Beginning in 1982, the Knox and Kane took tourist excursions from Marienville through Kane and Mt. Jewett to the Kinzua Bridge, one of the highest railroad bridges east of the Mississippi. After a tornado toppled a section of the Kinzua Bridge in 2003, the Knox and Kane ceased operations. The line was purchased by the Kovalchick Corporation and the rails and ties were salvaged.
Al Lander of Lucinda leased four miles of the rail bed property from Kovalchick and paved it through the Lucinda-Snydersburg area for easy hiking, jogging and bicycling. The people of the neighborhood liked the trail and soon a community group formed to support and further develop it. That group is now Rail 66 Country Trail Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
Last year, the Headwaters Charitable Trust purchased all 74 miles of the rail line in Clarion County, Forest, Elk and McKean Counties to Kinzua Bridge State Park. Headwaters then put Rail 66 in charge of the 24 miles of the Clarion County trail.
The property includes the original Lucinda Railway Station, which had been preserved by Gene Lander of Lucinda with help from history teacher Terry Moore and students from North Clarion High School. Many rail trails follow river valleys, and they have their charms. The Rail 66 Country Trail is a different experience. It stays on the ridges; the railroad builders avoided the slopes and hollows, winding through the countryside to keep the grades as gentle as possible.
The trail is used by the people who live along it, and by those from elsewhere seeking serenity in rural landscapes. Cross country runners train, others take brisk walks for easy exercise. Families bicycle to visit neighbors. Neighbors might stroll from Lucinda to Snydersburg to visit, or bike from Leeper to Crown. Visitors come to experience the quiet, the nature, the ease of a country bike ride or a calm stroll through the countryside. Some were born here and come to remember, reconnect and recharge. Others come for new experiences – graceful white tail deer crossing the trail or grazing in fields, a rush of wings from turkey or grouse, pastures and clover in the morning, new mown hay in the afternoon, cool shady quiet in the evening.
Rail 66 is poised to become part of the growing network of hiking and bicycling trails in Pennsylvania. It twice intersects the North Country Trail – a national scenic hiking trail stretching from Northern New York State to North Dakota. Plans are being laid to connect Rail 66 to Cook Forest State Park’s system of bicycling and hiking trails. In Marianne, it crosses Route 322, which serves as the Route V bicycle trail spanning Pennsylvania. And it will be a short jaunt from the Clarion Junction trail head to the Clarion Highlands Trail and the excellent Sandy Creek Trail, and then to the Allegheny River Trail, the Redbank Trail and many others – all the way to Erie, Pittsburgh and beyond.
Farther north, where local governments and citizen groups in Forest, Elk and McKean counties support the trail, it integrates with the trail and road system of the Allegheny National Forest. Jenks Township supervisors are planning a trail hub at the restored Marienville railroad station. Rail 66 Country Trail volunteers invested many hours and dollars to develop, maintain and support the trail, and they and their neighbors enjoy its use. Thousands of others who visit Cook Forest State Park and the Allegheny National Forest, injecting millions into the local economy, will also enjoy the trail.
The old B&O lives on, providing recreation and economic development in Northwest Pennsylvania by tying together numerous communities, several trail systems, two state parks and the Allegheny National Forest.