Riding the rails a convenient way to enjoy the Cuyahoga Valley

Riding the rails a convenient way to enjoy the Cuyahoga Valley

Article by Jennie Vasarhelyi, Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Published in The News Leader

This winter, have you wanted to come to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, but enjoy it from the warmth of a car? Here you can let Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad do the driving. Train tracks extend the length of the valley between Independence and Akron. Nature abounds along the tracks as they run adjacent to the Cuyahoga River and Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail through wetlands, fields, and forest.

Trains whistles have sounded in the Cuyahoga Valley since 1880 when the Valley Railway opened. The Valley Railway immediately played a role in leisure travel and sightseeing. Other national parks have a similar storyline. New train companies supported tourism in the 1800s and early 1900s; today trains provide an alternative to automobiles for leisure travel.

The National Park Service celebrates its Centennial in 2016. Trains helped the country get ready for a national system of parks 100 years ago. Railroad companies advocated for establishing parks and put money into visitor amenities. The Northern Pacific Railroad promoted Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872 and financed construction of the Old Faithful Inn. The Southern Pacific Railroad Company supported Yosemite National Park.

While train companies aided the first far-away national parks, they also helped people find the Cuyahoga Valley and leisure destinations in northeast Ohio. Promoters built the Valley Railway to ship coal to the growing urban industrial centers of Canton, Akron, and Cleveland. However, the railway also advertised for leisure travelers, encouraging people to use the train to go to “the finest picnic grounds in the state” at Cuyahoga Falls, Gaylord’s Grove, Silver Lake, and Zoar.

Supporting leisure travel, John Reese published the”Guide Book for the Tourist and Traveler over the Valley Railway!” in 1880. The book focused on the natural landscape, historic structures, and recreational potential of the valley. Referring to the Brecksville area, Reese noted, “This is the most beautiful and striking spot along the line of the road and must be seen to be appreciated This might be called the Eden of the Cuyahoga Valley, for how much pleasanter a place would our first parents have wanted than this?”

Trains’ early role in travel to national parks was short lived. By 1918 the number of people arriving to Yellowstone by automobile outnumbered those coming by train by seven to one. Locally, competition from automobiles, trucks, and buses caused the decline of train service through the Cuyahoga Valley. Interest in the line was renewed in 1972 as a scenic excursion route, and Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad was born.

Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad represents a new vision for trains and other mass transit in parks. The 20th Century emphasis on cars as the way to tour parks has taken its toll. Congestion, pollution, and noise from cars can detract from the natural environment. The National Park Service pursues alternative transportation to reduce these impacts. We strive to let others do the driving so that visitors can relax and enjoy their park experiences.

February highlights

Programs that change with the season give you reasons to ride Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad time and time again. February highlights include a discounted rate on the National Park Scenic Day Pass for scenic excursions, which occur on Saturdays this month. With the day pass, you can stay on the train for a round-trip excursion or get off to spend a few hours in Peninsula. The Voices of the Valley audio tour reveals stories of the valley as you enjoy the scenery.

If you want to be more active, join Hike Aboard! at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 20. It combines a train ride with a challenging 6-mile hike with a park ranger. Ales on Rails, Grape Escape, Dinner along the Cuyahoga, and Murder Mystery are events that will occur on the train in February. For details and to purchase tickets, call 800-468-4070 or visit cvsr.com.

Grand Canyon National Park is also served by an excursion railway, but as an alternate means for getting to the park. In 1901, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway built this line to transport both ore and tourists. The railroad helped build many of the structures that still exist at the South Rim. Passenger service ended in 1968, but was revived two decades later. Today, the railway carries people to the park from nearby Williams, Ariz. As with Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a rail experience can be part of how we experience the park, but is also a reminder of the people and efforts of the past that allow us to enjoy national parks today.

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Lynee Bixler