Since its incorporation 20 years ago, Catonsville Rails to Trails has paved the way, sometimes literally, in preserving a part of Catonsville’s history by reclaiming old streetcar lines throughout the community and repurposing them into walkable trails.
In the process, the nonprofit has become a widely supported fixture in the community.
On Saturday, it held its third annual Trolley Festivus, the group’s largest fundraising event, which typically rakes in about $10,000, said Maureen Sweeney Smith, vice president of Catonsville Rails to Trails.
This year, the family event was more of a 20th birthday party, signifying the group’s nonprofit incorporation in 1999, its co-founder said.
In the past two decades, Sweeney Smith estimates the group has raised about $2 million from grants, fundraisers and donors, all poured into not only preserving a part of Catonsville’s history, but in preserving green space as well, providing connecting paths to local businesses and promoting wellness among the town’s patrons.
But refashioning the old rail lines into biking and walking paths really began in 1996, Sweeney Smith said, when one of her neighbors wanted to extend the yard of his Sugar Court home into the defunct #8 streetcar path between Frederick Road and Edmondson, built in 1899 and discontinued in 1963, according to the group.
“I just thought if we don’t do something, this trail’s gonna be lost forever,” Sweeney Smith said. “I said to my husband, ‘it’s now or never.’”
In her capacity as a Catonsville Neighborhood Association member, Sweeney Smith won a $5,400 county grant to clear and refashion the #8 into a walkable trail. The rails to trails initiative began under the umbrella of the old community association before becoming independent in 1998, she said.
From its inception, the outpouring of support was immediate and unexpected, Sweeney Smith said.
“We ended up with 60 volunteers that day” in 1996 to clear the rail line, she said. “What we thought was gonna take six months took us three weeks. It just had community support from the very beginning.”
Since then, Catonsville Rails to Trails has held numerous seasonal community cleanup events to clear up debris and trash around the trails, organizes biking ventures throughout the year and advocates for additional bike lanes throughout the area, including a connecting route between its #8 line and the county’s #9 Trolley Trail. The next cleanup is scheduled for Nov. 9 for the short line trail on Mellor Avenue.
The nonprofit has also commissioned artists to paint murals near the historic rights of way; a likeness of Sweeney Smith and her dog Skeeter, along with other local figures, can be viewed near the old Catonsville Junction and #8 line at the 1600 block of Edmondson Avenue.
The group has also been clearing a walkable pathway along the old Catonsville Short Line Railroad from Charlestown Retirement Community on Maiden Choice Lane to Bill’s Music on Frederick Road, a 13-year endeavor just 800 feet away from its completion.
Repurposing the 3.5 mile-route really got its legs when the railroad’s owner Robert Chertkof gifted the land to the group in 2012.
To date, Rails to Trails has cleared about 2.2 miles of the railroad, which once carried coal to Spring Grove State Mental Hospital before its abandonment in the 1970s.
Sweeney Smith expects work on the last piece of short line connection from Mellor Avenue to Bill’s Music to start in November. That stretch of land will connect “so many things in the community,” she said, noting the nearby Catonsville High School and Lurman Woodland Theatre along Bloomsbury Avenue.
“We try to empty [trails] into business districts. When we complete this, this will enable all these neighborhoods to be able to walk or ride to work, to Catonsville,” she said.
And last month, Sweeney Smith said she was notified the Maryland Bikeways Program will award a $55,000 grant to the county to continue designs for a ramp up the steep incline from Mellor to Bloomsbury Avenue. That design is 30% complete, Sweeney Smith said, and its construction is estimated to cost $400,000 to $500,000.
Sweeney Smith said the group is also working on finding grant funding to create an arts-focused “pocket park” in the vacant space next to Bill’s Music, and will ask for community input on the park’s features at the nonprofit’s future monthly meetings.
Currently, Rails to Trails is looking for places to install bike racks around Catonsville; those were purchased with $5,000 in grant funding from the Baltimore Bicycling Club, Sweeney Smith said.
Her dream, she said, is to see a bike share program in Catonsville, so “people will be able to come to Catonsville and say, ‘let’s shop and eat,’ and then ‘oh, they’ve got a bike share here, let’s go down the trail.'"
For now, Rails to Trails board member Scott Schools said just seeing more families biking along the trails is “really exciting.”