What should a Kenyon student with a desire to go to Cleveland but neither a car nor money do? In Kenyon College, Its First Century, George Smythe recorded past students’ solution to this query. “The railway fare between Gambier and Cleveland is high … there have always been students that were unable to pay it,” Smythe says, and for them, “the midnight through-freight has often provided a perilous passage.” Despite the danger in train hopping, Smythe says, “many an impecunious or adventurous student has beat his way to Cleveland on it, sometimes bestowing upon the trainman a small gift of cigars, or other commodities, to compensate for his defective eyesight.”
No such train runs out of Gambier today. However, there is still a way to frugally travel to Cleveland: the Ohio to Erie Bike Trail, which connects Cleveland to Cincinnati and passes right through Gambier. The Kokosing Gap Trail, built over the tracks which once ran through Gambier, is one of the many bike routes stitched together that constitute the path and make it possible for an “impecunious or adventurous student” to travel to Cleveland. The story of the Gap Trail and Gambier’s railway offers both a fascinating look into the development of American infrastructure as well as a slice of unique local history.
In the fall of 1866, before there was even a proper road to Mount Vernon, the first train rumbled into Gambier on new tracks. Around the same time, the First Transcontinental Railroad was being constructed. It is now as much a symbol of new technology conveniently connecting the continent as it is a reminder of the heights of American railroads.
This success would not last forever, however. The decline of trains in America started with passenger trains. Since they were a fraction as profitable as freight lines even at their most popular, there’s little wonder why even the first train that ran through Gambier “was a freight train … carrying a single passenger car.” Given that railroad companies hiked passenger ticket prices to ensure profits, it makes sense why a rail fare from Gambier to Cleveland would be so high as to prompt train hopping. Although it may seem unlikely, Smythe is not exaggerating Kenyon’s freight hopping history. In 1912, the Collegian published an article about the practice, calling it “one of Kenyon’s unique traditions, and one which it is difficult to fulfill.” Automobiles soon drove most passenger trains into obscurity and they even started to compete with freight lines.
Issues for railroads emerged when the freight industry started to shift toward trucking in the ’50s. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Federal Aid Highway Act — which introduced a high-speed, multi-lane, government-maintained highway system — allowed trucking to prosper and cut into more of the freight business. As the rail industry waned, many competing railroads merged and trimmed the fat off of their lines. Gradually trains passed by less and less frequently and tracks became overgrown. Sometime in the late ’70s or early ’80s, the last locomotive thundered through Gambier.
Phil Samuell, a Gambier resident, saw an opportunity in the abandoned railway: It could be adapted into a park trail. Gathering volunteers to help develop and maintain the trail, Samuell helped form the Kokosing Gap Trail Organization. The project was completed in 1994 after the rails were uprooted and the path was paved. Walking or biking along it today, there’s no doubt that the adaptation of the neglected railway is an asset to the community.
This evolution of the Gambier railway into the Kokosing Gap Trail was also a part of a broader shift across the country. In recent years, the Rails to Trails organization, a national group which transforms rails to trails, as advertised, has been working on the “Great American Rail-Trail,” which aims to allow the overly passionate biker to pedal across the entire country, coast to coast, safely. The Kokosing Gap Trail is one small part of this extensive bike route. Despite the efforts of this project, train hopping might still be a more enjoyable way to cross the country.