The Beginning of the Cape Cod Rail Trail

The nearly completed new Rail Trail beginning at Station Ave in Yarmouth, photo courtesy of Christopher Setterlund

Summer on Cape Cod means it’s time for warm weather, lazy days on the beach, seasonal restaurants, quaint afternoons shopping, fireworks, and cookouts. Being outdoors, enjoying the beautiful scenery is a must. One way to do that is by traveling the miles of bike trails across the peninsula.

Perhaps the best known of these trails is the Cape Cod Rail Trail. For some newer visitors and residents this bike path might seem as though it has been around forever as it has become so ingrained in Cape Cod culture. Surprisingly it has not even reached its fourth decade in existence. The route that the asphalt path follows however does have its own long history.

The Cape Cod Rail Trail follows an old railroad right-of-way initially owned by the original Cape Cod Railroad in the mid-19th century. At first the tracks brought train service as far as Hyannis and Yarmouth Port with service reaching Woods Hole and Provincetown by 1872. At this point things get complicated.

The Rail Trail heading north into Eastham, photo courtesy of Christopher Setterlund

Soon after expanding service to nearly the entirety of the peninsula the Cape Cod Railroad would merge with Old Colony and Newport to become Old Colony Railroad. In 1893 Old Colony would be leased to New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. Commonly referred to as New Haven this company would connect Boston to New York via railway. It rechristened the tracks the New Haven and Old Colony Railway according to newspapers from April 1893. The New Haven Railroad company came under fire during the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in the 1910’s. This act was put into place to break up monopolies such as Standard Oil owned by John D. Rockefeller. Financier J.P. Morgan had a stake in New Haven and at that time the company owned 90% of the railways in New England.

World War I put all railways under federal control for a time. The Great Depression hurt many of those lines including New Haven which survived for a few more decades by beginning to cut what it considered less necessary railroad lines. In June 1959 Cape Cod became such a casualty as passenger train service over the canal became a thing of the past until it resumed seasonally in 1982.

As the 1960’s got underway talks were already bubbling under about possible uses for the tracks nearly bisecting the Cape from Dennis up through Eastham. Harwich was leading the way in this effort. In 1964 voters had an agreement to take the tracks going through the town by eminent domain for use as a bikeway upon failure of the tracks owners. The bikeway plan got a further boost when in 1967 the Province Lands Bike Trail opened in Provincetown. Things were again complicated when the Penn Central Railroad absorbed the New Haven Railroad company and its tracks in 1969.

The rotary where riders can begin the Old Colony Rail Trail in Harwich, photo courtesy of Christopher Setterlund

Penn Central filed for bankruptcy within a few years. Plans pushed forward about creating the bikeway through Dennis, Harwich, Brewster, Orleans, and Eastham. However due to the fact that Penn Central had filed for bankruptcy and had not abandoned the tracks the towns could not take the property by eminent domain. The bankrupt company stalled on selling the tracks, looking for top dollar. The battle over the railroad tracks continued into the 1970’s.

The Cape got another taste of the benefit of a bike trail when the Shining Sea Bikeway opened in Woods Hole in 1975. In July 1978 the state agreed to support Harwich in taking the Penn Central railway by eminent domain thus completing the nearly ten-year task of procuring the tracks. The approval was littered with conditions including making improvements to Rt. 124. Still the hardest part was over.

Construction began on an eight-foot wide asphalt trail which would lead from Rt. 134 in Dennis to Locust Road in Eastham. In 1979 a contest was held for schoolchildren in the towns where the trail would pass through to name the new recreation trail and create its logo. Eric Dubin, a 3rd Grader from Dennis submitted the winning name: Cape Cod Rail Trail. Scott Pearson, an 8th Grader from Dennis submitted the winning logo.

The signage where the Rail Trail meets Nickerson State Park in Brewster, photo courtesy of Christopher Setterlund

The project moved quickly once everything had been lined up and a seven-mile section of trail from Brewster to Eastham was unofficially opened to the public in October 1980. Even with only seven-miles opened there were an estimated 600-800 daily users of the new Rail Trail upon its soft opening.

On September 25, 1981 the Cape Cod Rail Trail was officially opened. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held at the head of the trail along Rt. 134 with first-day riders getting certificates given by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management and the Massachusetts Department of Public Works. The trail would cost $1 million to create and run 19-miles into Eastham where riders could connect to the Cape Cod National Seashore.

As early as 1984 plans were being designed for expansions of the trail including an offshoot connecting Harwich to Chatham. The main spur of the Cape Cod Rail Trail would be expanded an additional three-miles to Lecount Hollow Road Wellfleet in 1995 bringing the trail to twenty-two miles in length. In 2007 a new seven-mile stretch of paved bikeway would connect Harwich and Chatham thirteen years after initial interest. The new trail would be called the Old Colony Rail Trail, resurrecting the former company name which had run the railway a century earlier. It would connect to the main trail via rotary.

In 2015 construction on westward expansion of the Rail Trail began. As of June 2017 bridges have been constructed over Rt. 134 in Dennis and Station Avenue in Yarmouth with the plan to eventually connect the bikeway into Hyannis. Once a bridge is completed over Bass River by early 2018 the new section of the Cape Cod Rail Trail will have been extended 3.7 miles. The ultimate goal is to have a bike path to connect Cape Cod from Falmouth all the way to Provincetown.

By Christopher Setterlund


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