At Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's (RTC) 25th Anniversary
celebration in October, we honored a group of men and women--the inaugural
Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champions--who have made a remarkable contribution to
the rail-trail movement during the past quarter century. We will be
posting a blog story on each of the honorees during the coming weeks. Today we
pay tribute to David Burwell, RTC's co-founder, and his mother, Barbara, who
inspired her son's passion for trails.
The history of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) begins
with David Burwell. When he and Peter Harnik founded RTC in 1986, there were
just a few dozen rail-trails in the country. But during the 15 years he led the
nonprofit he helped create, rail-trails became a much-loved part of the American
landscape, and an integral part of our recreation and transportation
As a young man, Burwell was fortunate to have an excellent
role model in trails advocacy. His mother, Barbara Burwell, championed the
creation of the Shining Sea Bikeway in Massachusetts and worked for many years
to see it to completion. Today, the 10.8-mile rail-trail runs from the ferry
docks in Woods Hole to North Falmouth, Mass.
In many ways, Barbara Burwell's remarkable commitment in
transforming a disused rail line on the Cape Cod peninsula into a much-loved
community asset was a precise blueprint for what RTC would one day become.
With friend Joan Kanwisher, Barbara Burwell rallied
community support, worked with local officials, planners and landowners, and
found funding sources. Their success is all the more remarkable for the fact
that they were doing all this in 1965; decades before any kind of rail-trail
movement in America, Barbara and Joan did not have the resources and support
many of us can rely on today.
Barbara's legacy is not limited to the Shining Sea Bikeway.
For just as she was working to build that rail-trail, she was inspiring a young
man who would grow up to be instrumental in building thousands of miles of
rail-trail across America. The extraordinary success of the Shining Sea Bikeway, and the transformative
effect it had on his community, convinced David to form RTC with Peter Harnik
in 1986. When his mother asked what his vision was for RTC, he replied that he
wanted to "start at the Shining Sea Bikeway and go all the way to San
Twenty-five years later, David Burwell's organization has
helped build enough rail-trail miles to do that distance many times over.
In addition to his mother's example, David had discovered
other practical recommendations for trails built along former rail lines. In "The
Shining Sea Bikeway - A Triumph of Citizen Action," a history of the trail
written by W. Redmond Wright, David said, "It was the Woods Hole Red Sox that
sold me on rail-trails. During the three years I played on the team (1957-1960)
the bike ride to the ball field was even more daunting than facing Johnnie
Hough of the Hornets... Despite my parents' stern warning to "stay off the
railroad tracks!" I often bounced my fat-tired Schwinn along the track
that ran in a straight line from the end of our driveway to the ferry docks -
A lawyer by training, David's thorough knowledge of railbanking legislation
and understanding of the role of the courts in advancing the development of
rail-trails was a key to the continued success of RTC. In 1990, he was the
founding co-chair of the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP), a
national transportation policy reform coalition. After his time at RTC, David
became STPP's president. He also served as the director of the National
Wildlife Federation's Transportation and Infrastructure Program, and the first
chair of the National Research Council's Transportation and Sustainability
Committee, among many other roles.
David is currently the director of the Energy and Climate
Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his work
focuses on the intersection between energy, transportation and climate issues.
In dedicating his
Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champion grant to the Falmouth Bikeways
Committee, which directs maintenance of the Shining Sea Bikeway, David said he
was paying tribute to his mother, and to all rail-trail champions who face
great obstacles in creating new trails in communities across America.
Photo of David Burwell with U.S. Department of
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood by Rails-to-Trails ConservancyPhoto of Barbara and David Burwell on the Shining Sea Bikeway in 1998 by Robbie McClaran/courtesy of Woods Hole Historical Collection
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