Walking the Old Railroad Bed | CAI

Walking the Old Railroad Bed

Mar 10, 2020

It was 57 years ago, in the winter of 1962, that I first walked the old New York – New Haven railroad bed from Provincetown to Orleans. Passenger service to the Outer Cape had ceased in 1938, and the rails had been removed from Provincetown to North Eastham, but the oak railroad ties were still there, and the railroad bridges across Great Hollow, Pamet Harbor, Herring River and Duck Creek, were still intact.

Some 35 years later I took a similar walk, as far as Wellfleet Harbor. (The section of the bed south of Cahoon Hollow Road in South Wellfleet had been turned into a paved bike trail and so had little interest for me.) This time not only had all the wooden ties been removed, but all of the bridges had collapsed or been removed. At its northern end, large sections of the old bed had been wiped out by moving sand and development. But the bulk of it was still identifiable and traversable, though at one point I was approached by the owner of one of the new houses built on the bed with that passive-aggressive greeting, “May I help you?” (Translation: what the [bleep] do you want here?”).

The last time I walked the old railroad bed, this time only from Corn Hill to Beach Point in Truro, was in the winter of 2015 It was difficult to find it, however, since the entire four-mile stretch was virtually obliterated – by roads, mega mansions, condos, enormous recreational complexes, tennis courts, basketball courts, bocce courts, etc.  There were signs everywhere advertising “Cape Cod’s finest beach front lots....Exclusive waterfront home sites…with room for swimming pool or detached garage.”

This was once one of the most scenic train routes anywhere – crossing salt marshes and harbors, dunes and glacial bluffs with stunning views of Provincetown harbor. Now all was sprawling, out of scale, pretentious and disorienting. I had no sense of where I was – environmentally, historically, or personally. This was no organic shift or evolution, but an abstract idea of profit, prestige, and exclusivity imposed upon this delicate landscape, with each element concerned only for itself.

Yet my self-righteous indignation was tempered by the recognition that the creation of the railroad, completed to Provincetown in 1872, was just as environmentally and socially disruptive, just as transformative to the landscape of its day, involving as it did extensive cutting and filling of marshes and dunes, destruction of wildlife habitat the building of bridges and earthen causeways that cut off several local communities from access to the Bay, which eventually condemned them to abandonment. Was there any outcry or indignation from local citizens when the railroad was constructed?

Situated on the salt marsh at the southern end of Pamet Harbor, there is a lovely old Greek Revival house, of the style very popular here in the 1840s and 50s, The first time I saw it I was struck by its unaltered sense of authenticity. Then I noticed that the old railroad bed, now just a level grassy track, ran only a few yards beside it. I could not help but wonder how the inhabitants of this house greeted the arrival of the railroad – with outrage and impotent fury at its destroying forever, through its clattering roar and eye-stinging smoke, twice a day each way, the peacefulness of this spot? Or did they welcome it with the spirit of the age, as not only a sign of the Cape’s progress, but for themselves the personal convenience of being able to flag down the train and board it in a few quick steps to Provincetown or Boston?