Monday, July 04, 2005

In praise of Pennsylvania's biking trails

Pennsylvania is an outdoor recreationist's delight. The Keystone state is criss-crossed with gazillions of hiking, biking and snow- mobiling trails. The reason behind Pennsylvania's abundance of trails can be summarized in a single word : coal. Pennsylvania sits atop one of the biggest coal deposits in the US, and so, when industrialization began in earnest in the north-east in the early 19th century, Pennsylvanian coal became the life-blood of the region. The problem then was how to get the coal from the interior of the state and transport it to the rest of the country. For that purpose, hundreds of miles of railroad track were laid down throughout Pennsylvania, which became arteries for transportation of coal from the hinterland to the rivers and port towns, from where they were further distributed.

The other mode of transportation was along canals. Hundreds of canals were built often alongside rivers, from which water was fed, and long tug-boats, towed by mules, carried loads of coal and other raw materials along these canals.

With the importance of coal as a primary source of energy diminishing, both the railroads as well as the canals went out of service, leaving behind the unused railroad rights-of-way and canal towpaths. These were gradually converted to hiking and biking trails by the Pennsylvanian department of natural resources. The best feature of these trails is, since they were formerly railroad beds and canal towpaths, they are relatively flat, thus making for excellent biking trails. More on these trails later.

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