What to Know About Abandoned Railroads in the United States

There are an unknown number of abandoned railroad tracks in the United States and they can be found everywhere.

Railroads played a very important role in the expansion and development of the United States. They paved the way for the West and for a more meaningful integration of the West into the nation. They played a central role in the industrial revolution of the Northeast (between 1810 and 1850) and the colonization of the West (between 1850 and 1890).

Before railroads were built to connect east and west, the fastest way to send a letter was the Pony Express. At the same time, the longest stagecoach service in the world was the Butterfield Overland Mail which operated from 1858 to 1861.

Early American Railroad History

The first passenger and freight line in the United States was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad which opened in 1827. Railroads grew rapidly in Appalachia and flourished throughout the country for the next 45 years.

  • First passenger and freight line: The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1827
  • Railways older than trains: The first railroads were built for horses to pull carriages

Railways predate locomotives. The first railroads in the United States were horse-drawn or hand-cranked. One of the first railroads to be abandoned was the New Castle and Frenchtown. It was built for horses to pull carriages, but with the advent of locomotives the line was left derelict in 1859.

The American railroad system was largely built in 1910 and quickly began to decline. The advent of trucks, highways, and cars really ate away at their passenger traffic, and the development of airplanes baffled it even more. Few people today would consider traveling across the country by train – despite it being the most common way to travel in other countries like India and China.

  • Peak: 1910
  • Competition: From trucks, highways, cars and planes

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American railroads in modern times

Unlike other places in the world (such as Europe and Asia), the American passenger rail network has largely failed to grow and change. Today, the passenger side of trains is a shell of what it once was, and there are hardly any high-speed trains in the country.

Countless miles of trails were abandoned across the country when the mines they once served closed or the roads became unprofitable.

  • Maximum route mileage: 254,251 miles (409,177 km) in 1916
  • Current route mileage: 139,979 to 160,141 miles
  • Longest tunnel: Cascades Tunnel, 12.6 km

The railways’ total route mileage peaked in 1916 at 254,251 miles (409,177 km). A century later, in 2011, it had roughly halved to 224,792 km of tracks in 2011.

Today, most railways are primarily used for freight transportation and continue to be important to the national economy. As such, they are among the best in the world, but that hasn’t stopped around half of the tracks from being dropped.

  • Haulage: Freight transport is highly developed in the United States
  • Panic of 1873: Interruption of railway construction

Many abandoned railroads were never completed in the first place. The Panic of 1873 halted the construction of a number of railroads, some of which were never resumed. Often there is a lack of published evidence for these aborted railways.

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Tools to find abandoned railroads in your area

It is not possible to list all of the many abandoned railroads, railroad bridges and train stations, but there are some excellent websites one can look up and see where they are.

A full list and map of them can be found at abandonrails.com. They claim there is 1,755″Let’s drop out.” One can sort by status and see various information about them.

  • Online maps: There are interactive maps online listing abandoned railroads

Frrandp.com offers an open-source map of abandoned train tracks all over the world, not just the United States. One can be surprised by their number and their proximity. As this is a crowdsource project, if one sees an omission, one can add a new entry. Often, forgotten railroads hide in plain sight.

According to Atlas Oscura, their maps have listed around 2,500 lines that cover over 60,000 miles and most of them are in the US with others in the UK, Canada, Mexico and elsewhere. .

The maps of these two sites are interactive so that one can zoom in and see the abandoned track fragments in a particular area.

Many abandoned railroads can be found wherever there were mines. If there was a mine, there was probably also a railroad serving it. If the mine became unprofitable and so on, then most likely the railroad did the same. It is possible to hike through the forests of West Virginia and other Appalachian states and see many old abandoned railroads.

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