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Of Bike Trails and Labor Day

Have you ever wondered how bike trails and Labor Day are connected? Let me connect the dots. This summer we discovered a hidden, American treasure – the abandoned railroad bike trail. Scattered across our country are beautiful bike trails that have been placed on top of old, abandoned railroad beds. These trails have many advantages – they have few steep hills, the views are great, and nature is close at hand.

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Have you ever wondered how bike trails and Labor Day are connected? Let us connect the dots.

This summer we discovered a hidden, American treasure – the abandoned railroad bike trail. Scattered across our country are beautiful bike trails that have been placed on top of old, abandoned railroad beds. These trails have many advantages – they have a few steep hills, the views are great, and nature is close at hand.

Last weekend we did the first 25% of the Rockingham Trail, which runs from Great Bay in Newfields, New Hampshire to Massabesic Lake in Manchester. There were many places along this stretch when we were far from civilization, where we could see that the railroad bed was 10 to 15 feet high with steep, man-made slopes on each side. As I rode along I thought, “I wonder who built these in 1852? There were no dump trucks, bulldozers, or chainsaws. Men built this by hand. Whoever you were, thank you!”

Transcontinental Railroad

I have always been interested in trains – especially the business and industrial history of trains. The railroad industry for most of the 1800s was responsible for our country’s industrial development.

One of my favorite books, which I have made my poor family listen to on more than one long car trip, is the Stephen Ambrose book Nothing Like it in the World.

Although the late Ambrose has been criticized by historians for several historical inaccuracies, I found it interesting and informative. The book tells the story of how two different railroad companies, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific, built about 2,000 miles of railroad track over six years from two different directions and met in Promontory, Utah on May 10, 1869.

Leadership

Ambrose teaches us about the leadership of each company, which included generals and officers from the Civil War. But he also teaches us about labor. Ambrose wrote,

Nearly everything was done by muscle power. The transcontinental railroad was the last great building project to be done mostly by hand. They used handcarts, picks, axes, and a little black powder.

How are Railroads Connected to Labor Day?

Labor Day was first nationally celebrated in 1894 as a way to calm down the labor union leaders after the Pullman Strike, which ended six days before the law was passed in August 1894.

At that time Pullman factory workers in Chicago not only worked long hours, but most lived in Pullman-owned apartments and bought food and other things from Pullman-owned stores, often referred to as “company stores.”

After the economic recession of 1893, Pullman cut workers’ pay and hours, but not their rent. This made the workers angry and on May 11th 4,000 workers went-out on a wildcat strike. The strike spread nationally and eventually 250,000 workers related to the railroad were affected.

Regardless of your point of view regarding unions, I think all of us owe a tremendous debt to those who have labored to build our country.

My grandfather and great-grandfather were railroad men. Later this fall I hope to ride my bike on the Northern Rail Trail, which was the line my great-grandfather rode many times as a train engineer. And as I do, I will think of him and the hundreds of men who “labored” to build that line. And now you know how bike trails and Labor Day are connected.

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