Rails to Trails: Recreation and Industry in Rural Ontario
Curated by Philip Rich
September 9, 2021
Cycling has dramatically increased since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Shops are sold out of bicycles and parts as the supply chain has suffered, and cycling trails are packed. An escape from urban riding, some of the most popular cycling is on ‘rail trails’ – converted railway beds that are now gravel recreational trails – that are found throughout rural Ontario. The establishment of recreational rail trails has brought visitors to rural regions of Ontario. Trails like the Elora Cataract Trailway (Caledon to Elora), Millennium Trail (Prince Edward County), Cataraqui Trail (Eastern Ontario), and the Guelph to Goderich Rail Trail see thousands of visitors annually.
Rail trails are popular due to their safety, thanks to being largely separated from roads and highways, and offer more scenery than other cycling routes. Conveniently, they are also flat for those who don’t like to climb steep hills or prefer to use them in the winter for cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. Generally, railways in Canada have a gradient of less than 1%, meaning that the converted trails are flat and easy to use.
A Long History of Rail Trails
Beginning in the late 1800s, smaller rail lines were built to connect various regions of Ontario and link the province to larger North American cities. Toronto’s rail yards were the centre of shipping and manufacturing in Ontario as the city slowly became connected by rail around the Great Lakes and cities like Montreal, Buffalo, and Chicago. Rail lines were historically significant for the economy, commuters, and travelers, hoping to make their way to different parts of the province. As such, they are intricately linked to Ontario’s past. Today, many of these lines are used for leisure rather than work, although some communities use the resurfaced to pass through rural Ontario – an important consideration given the transportation challenges that some rural residents face traveling between rural communities.
Going from Guelph to Goderich
Doug Cerson, the Executive Director of Guelph to Goderich (G2G) Rail Trail, explains that the railway which the G2G Rail Trail is built on was used as a transportation corridor through Southwestern Ontario, and the organization wanted to maintain this function. “The trail was a transportation route for 100 years,” Cerson explained on a July video call from the G2G office. “We wanted to keep it that way.” The full trail connecting Guelph and Goderich – 132 km in length – formally opened in 2014 but it has been a project that has stretched over many years, culminating in a complete resurfacing in 2020 to make it more accessible. Much work is still needed – some trail heads require enhancements, bridges need to be built, and the surfaces of the path running between communities require continuous grooming. The vision, which is not far away now, is a scenic, lengthy trailway that winds through Western Ontario to the shores of Lake Huron.
In discussing the trail project, Cerson stresses the collaborative nature of the work over the years. The G2G path now encompasses 17 municipalities and what Cerson describes as “13 unique communities.” It has been a way to build bridges and connect communities; both physically, and metaphorically. “If we were going to get to the grassroots,” Cerson observed, “we said let’s go back to what it was.” This meant a community-centered, cooperative effort to restore existing sections of the trail and improve the overall infrastructure, while working with the “smallest budget ever.” Volunteers, municipal support, and the work of the G2G Rail Trail organization was crucial. This approach has brought municipalities together and helped communities flourish.
This has been particularly important for rural communities along the trail. Chloe Klopp, Executive Coordinator for G2G Rail Trail, suggests that for a lot of users, the trail is a chance to “stop and see beyond the city life. You can slow down and appreciate rural life.” According to Klopp and Cerson, the construction of the trail has supported smaller communities along the trail who lacked the resources to do it on their own. It has also provided a platform for the communities and municipalities along the trail to come together and work towards a shared goal. Maintaining the trail is key. The more established the trail is, the more traffic it will get.
Now that users can ride from Guelph to Goderich (or anywhere in between), it might be time to consider what is next for rail trails like the G2G. Documenting stories of how rail trails have come to exist can help us understand how rural communities built along railway lines have changed as the use of the rail lines has changed over time, including real estate development, establishing conservation areas, and the conversion of rail lines to bike and snowmobile trails. This change is evident in Goderich, which has a long history of both industry and leisure – simultaneously known for its salt mining and being dubbed the “prettiest town in Canada.”
Cerson and Klopp envision room for the G2G Rail Trail Experience, and its importance to rural Ontario, to grow in different capacities. One way could be to incorporate more educational engagement along the path. Plaques and pavilions could add education to leisure, teaching users about a region’s history, and the importance of the trails running through it.
For now, the G2G Rail Trail Experience is a fun, historical, and scenic experience for all. If you can find a bicycle.