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The North Bend Rail Trail

By Doug Kish, MA
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Be careful when you pass through tunnel #19 as you might see a beautiful woman with raven hair, dressed in a long white gown, standing in the middle of the tracks. Although many claim to have seen her through the years, her identity has never been discovered nor the reason why she stands on the tracks attempting to stop the train. That’s the legend of the ghost of the Silver Run Tunnel (#19) on the North Bend Rail Trail.

Stretching 72 miles from Wolf Summit in Harrison County eastward across West Virginia to Parkersburg in Wood County, the North Bend Rail Trail is a recreational trail operated by the West Virginia State Park system. Construction of the original railroad line was started in 1851 by the Northwestern Virginia Railroad and after completion in 1857 it was sold to the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad and became known as the B&O Parkersburg Branch. The line was built to high engineering standards originally having 23 tunnels and 52 bridges to minimize curvature and implement a maximum grade of 1.5%. In the original specifications, each tunnel was lined with timber but in the 1860s the timber was removed and brick lining and brick arches were added to improve stability and increase clearance. Over the years, some tunnels were replaced, bypassed or daylighted, which means the roof was removed. Passing through additional owners over the years, the sporadic and minimal passenger and freight traffic was diverted to other routes ultimately eliminating local service entirely by 1985. The final owner was CSX Transportation who abandoned the line and dismantled the tracks in September 1988.
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Although all the tunnels were numbered, most were also named. They ranged in length, the longest being Carr’s Tunnel (#1) which was originally 2,708 feet long but was eventually replaced by a concrete double track of 3,236 feet. This tunnel was also widened to a width of 34 feet to accommodate the double tracks. The North Bend Rail Trail currently passes through 10 tunnels and crosses 36 bridges while passing through or near an assortment of state, county, and local parks. Non-motorized and open to bicyclists, hikers and equestrians only, I biked through two portions of the trail.
With numerous trail entrances and parking areas, I started in Cairo and headed west towards the Silver Run Tunnel (#19). On this section of the trail, which is a challenging constant incline surrounded by trees and hills, I saw only a few homes. The smell of the sweet honeysuckle blooming in the area was amazing and an array of colored wildflowers lined the path. This portion of the trail is very narrow with a steep drop on both sides in some areas requiring strict attention to the road. Passing the former Silver Run Station, it is still identified by a railroad emblem on the small building. A little further on I arrived at the Silver Run Tunnel (#19) and stopped, debating whether or not to go in, aware of its reputation. Although my rental bike was not equipped with a light, I decided to venture in at least a portion of the way. Trail users are advised to carry a light source to maneuver through the tunnels. There is abundant wildlife in the area and cell phone reception in case of an emergency is non-existent due to its location between the mountains.
The temperature change was significant, understandably so as these tunnels are carved out of the earth above them. The sides were wet and the trail slick since water continuously seeps through the walls and ceiling. A resident of the town later told me that during the winter it is not unusual to find large ice mounds formed by the dripping water and the trails inside the tunnels then become quite dangerous. After a few minutes of peddling I stopped inside the pitch black cavern. The quiet stillness of the tunnel was broken only by the constant sound of water dripping from the walls and the echo of my voice as I recorded a video. Although I was able to see the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel,” I did not continue through and turned back wanting to explore other areas of the trail.
After leaving the tunnel, I took some selfies and videos to preserve the moment, even though I couldn’t send them to anyone at the time. I studied the workmanship that had gone into the construction of the tunnel and reflected upon its extensive history. Who were the men that worked to bore these giant openings through mountains to provide rail transportation for passengers and freight across the country? Who were the passengers that traveled on the trains? Where were they going? Was their destination work-related or pleasure? Local history books are filled with the answers these questions, I’m sure. Returning to my starting point, there were more stories from the locals and photographs of historic events of the area. This ride was about an hour.
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Directed to another portion of the trail with more tunnels, I drove the four miles to the North Bend State Park. Open year round, the park features a lodge, cabins and campgrounds for overnight stays. The lodge has 29 guest rooms, a full-service restaurant, gift shop and meeting rooms. The 9 furnished cabins have central heat and air conditioning for year-round use and there are campsites with electricity and electricity/water hookups some of which are seasonal. There is a large outdoor pool for all park guests. Located adjacent to the Rail Trail, the park serves as a great home base for your trail trek. Driving through the park there were deer roaming on the hillsides. Apparently quite used to visitors, they paid little attention to me and just continued eating.
After talking with a Park Ranger about the area, I biked about a mile and once again got on the North Bend Rail Trail, this time going east. It wasn’t long before I passed through the Bonds Creek (#13), Section 71 (#12) and Patterson’s/Dick Bias (#10) Tunnels. This portion of the trail was challenging with a constant upgrade. I passed abandoned buildings, what I believe was a daylighted tunnel area, an overgrown playground with abandoned monkey bars still standing and the occasional lonely picnic table available for a rest and a snack. I passed through Cunningham’s (#8) and Calhoun’s (#7) Tunnels and was headed for Doe Run/Central Tunnel (#6), but near Greenwood I decided to turn around. The return trip seemed to go faster and I suspect it was because it was a downgrade and easier to travel. On this section, I covered 40 miles and was on the trail for five hours.
The best part of the North Bend Rail Trail is the spectacular scenery. Its bridges, tunnels and undisturbed natural wooded areas give you a sense of the historic people whose footsteps you are following as opposed to a modern paved bike path. There are numerous access points for the North Bend Rail Trail and you should plan your trip based on your desired level of adventure as well as the ages of your group members. Some sections are mostly flat but some are much more challenging with steep inclines. Many of the tunnels are quite long and require a headlamp or a flashlight to navigate safely.
Along the trail there are many points of interest and history including the former Stage Coach Inn at Pennsboro, a marble factory, hand-blown glass factories, outlet stores, arts-and-crafts markets, fairs and festivals in different months, train robbery sites, veterans’ memorials, and a bike shop/general store. There are numerous parking areas, picnic benches, camping areas, restaurants and restrooms along the way. Want a little more excitement? Visit the Brandy Gap/Flinderation Tunnel (#2) near the Wolf Summit section of the trail which I just learned also has a reputation for being occupied by apparitions of men struck by a train many years ago. For information about the North Bend Rail Trail and a map of the area, visit their website at northbendrailtrailstatepark.com.
For those of you wanting to think (or go) bigger, you should know that the North Bend Rail Trail is merely a small part of the 6,800-mile, 15-state American Discovery Trail. Extending from Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes, Delaware on the east coast through 15 states to Point Reyes National Seashore in Limantour Beach, California on the west coast, it is America’s first coast-to-coast non-motorized recreation trail. After the initial trail was planned, which took 14 months, it connected 13 states. Subsequently 2 additional states asked to become a part of the trail. That is why the trail splits into a north and a south route in Cincinnati, Ohio. The north route goes through Iowa and Nebraska before rejoining the original/south route in Colorado. The American Discovery Trail Society coordinated Grand Opening events and ceremonies in all 15 states along the route in 2000. Always a work in progress, the original route has changed in several places as better links, such as new rail-trails, have been established and incorporated. On its path across the country it now passes through 14 national parks, 16 national forests and sections of 5 National Scenic Trails, 10 National Historic Trails and 23 National Recreation Trails.
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Over the years some portions of the trail disappeared but these sections are now active again thanks to the hard work of thousands of volunteers and government agencies. Coordinators in each state maintain and mark the trail and assist trail travelers. For more information about the American Discovery Trail, check their website at discoverytrail.org.
The North Bend Rail Trail

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