I’ve logged countless hours on Google Earth searching for and following abandoned railroads all across the country. For those who don’t mind losing many hours of spare time, it can be a fun and rewarding endeavour for history and rail buffs interested in such a facet of industrial archaeology. I’m sure it doesn’t give quite the thrill of urban exploration or jungle bushwhacking, but nevertheless it’s a very interesting hobby one can pursue from the comfort of one’s computer chair without any real risk or cost.
First things first, one would probably ask, “doesn’t Google Earth already have a railroad layer overlay?” Of course it does, and a very comprehensive one; it’s located under ‘More > Transportation > Rail.’ However, this overlay only covers active and extant railroad lines, or ones abandoned within the last several years that GE has yet to remove from its database. Abandoned railroads are completely unmarked on Google Earth (though OpenStreetmap lists many abandoned lines, apparently) and if one wishes to add them, one must manually do so by tracing them with the path tool or importing someone else’s KML files with abandoned lines marked.
While there are some resources available for those who wish to mark abandoned lines, for the most part it’s up to the user to find and follow abandoned lines. For most railfans, it should be rather easy to pick out the telltale signs of where a line once ran, but for others, particularly those as inexperienced as myself, it is helpful to have a few tips on how to locate abandoned lines in the overhead view that Google Earth offers.
For this short little article, I will mostly be using screenshots from abandoned lines in Alabama, my home state, as I’ve spent more time looking up things here than anywhere else. Most of these tips should be relevant no matter where the line you’re searching for is located.
First off, one should get used to using the Historical Imagery timeline slider, located on the toolbar. Reason being, while very recent images are usually of extremely high resolution – making the search for basically anything that much easier – the older images are not only closer to the date of abandonment (and therefore the landscape hasn’t been altered by time or development as much) but, generally being without color and in much lower resolution, also tend to be at a level of contrast that makes linear features such as rail ROWs stand out more.
Another good layer to have on is the ‘Photos’ layer, from the sidebar. Many abandoned ROWs have photos along their length, generally posted to Panoramio then selected for Google Earth. If you’re following a linear feature and there are photos indicated along the length, check them out, and you stand a decent shot of the photos being of the abandoned rail ROW or an associated railroad feature that help confirm the presence of an abandoned line. Similarly, check to see if Street View is available for any roads that a possible ROW crosses.
Before starting the quest for specific abandoned lines, one should obviously have some general idea of where the line that they wish to track was located. If one knows the name of one or more towns that the line ran through, for example, the search can be started in that town, or if the abandoned segment in question branched off a mainline in a certain county, one can look for evidence of said branch along the GE rail overlay in said county. That said, it’s certainly possible to search for abandoned lines quite randomly, with no particular intent, and hope to find evidence of abandoned trackage along existing lines. This does sometimes yield interesting results.
Another important tip to consider, whether searching for an existing line or looking randomly for abandoned lines across the landscape: Follow water! Though railroads try to cross water as little as possible to avoid having to build expensive bridges, sometimes water crossings are necessary, and often bridge piers (or, if you’re lucky, extant abandoned bridges!) are the only remaining evidence of a rail line through a particular area. Bridge piers stand out in aerial imagery, even if the ROW is not visible on adjacent shores, and, if you’re browsing with the ‘Photos’ layer on, there will often be photographs of the piers, as such features are popular photograph subjects even to the non-railfan. One may also find abandoned road bridges by searching waterways, but at least in my opinion, such finds are worth the effort even if they don’t relate to railroad activity.
Another way – which would seem fairly obvious – to locate abandoned lines is to note where existing rails on the Google Earth overlay end, and visually check to see if there is abandoned ROW beyond that point. This is frequently the case.
When checking towns and cities to locate abandoned lines, it’s often easy to pick out where the ROW runs by noting the alignment and arrangement of roads. To minimize the number of grade crossings that would have to be maintained and safety-fitted, there will be a gap in roads with only a few crossings where a railroad crosses through a populated area. This is often still evident many decades later, and to make things even easier, many roads which run parallel to a rail line – or are built over a ROW – are named ‘Railroad Street’ (or road, avenue, etc.) or, sometimes, a name befitting associated railroad infrastructure (Station Street, for instance)
Also, by use of the photo layer, one can often find old depots, which are popular photograph subjects.
In more rural areas, the visibility of an old ROW in aerial imagery is frequently determined by the character of the landscape it crosses and the length of time that has passed since abandonment. Relatively recent abandonments in rural areas are often very easy to follow.
Older abandonments, and ones which run through farmland (which is typically reclaimed immediately after abandonment and most traces of the ROW are quickly lost) are harder to pick out, but can still be traced in many cases through use of the historical imagery slider.
Some ROW is turned over for usage in rail-to-trail conversion, and the roads and trails that this creates are frequently marked on Google Earth. One only needs to follow the marked path to trace much of the abandoned ROW, though the trail may deviate from the ROW or follow only a small segment of the rail route.
When roads are built over railroad ROW’s, it is often exceptionally difficult to actually confirm the whole length of such re-use, as grading and paving has removed evidence of the rails that once laid there. However, it is sometimes possible to make a fairly valid guess, based on the curvature of the road and its location relative to other roads in the area. The road will have wide curves and lay fairly level, often parallel to other roads or otherwise located in a manner which is more typical for rails than a road. This type of situation calls for more research than can be ascertained by aerial images only.
It IS sometimes possible to see where the ROW and the paved roads separate, often depending on topography or population.
If a road has not been re-profiled or changed significantly since abandonment, there will often be bridges over deep cuts that can’t be explained by natural topography (bridges not over water where there seems to be no reason for a bridge, or a bridge where one might suspect a grading fill would be more appropriate) Occasionally, this can indicate a railway once laid under the road, crossed by the bridge.
Where a railroad runs (or ran) through very steep topography, the ROW tends to follow waterways, which may be the only relatively level and therefore reasonably gradable land for many miles. Look for signs of possible ROW along such features in areas known to contain abandoned rails. There may also be remnants of bridges crossing the water, then rails continuing on the other side of the water.
While bridges or bridge remnants are not always evident, where rails crossed stagnant water or large bodies of water, remnants of a causeway are often visible for a very long time.
When following linear features not marked as roads or railroads, it’s occasionally difficult to determine what is a power line cut and what is an abandoned ROW. This is rarely an issue though, as power line cuts tend to be much wider and much straighter, and when they deviate from straight, they usually change direction sharply at an angle. ROWs curve much more gradually and are much narrower.
More will be added to this article as I think of more things to add!
A few helpful references for abandoned lines: