Bob Downing

WALKER, W. VA.: There is not much on the map between Parkersburg and Clarksburg in northern West Virginia.

Get away from U.S. 50, and itís what some call backroad country.

Welcome to the 72-mile North Bend Rail Trail that runs through four northern West Virginia counties: Wood, Ritchie, Doddridge and Harrison. Itís a long, skinny state park with tunnels, bridges, railroad history and maybe a ghost or two.

There is very little civilization along the multi-use rail trail that was once part of the CSX main line.

It runs through out-of-the-way and sleepy Mayberry-like hamlets such as Kanawha, Walker, Eaton, Petroleum, Silver Run Station, Cairo, Cornwallis, Ellenboro, Pennsboro, Central Station, West Union, Smithburg, Sherwood, Long Run, Industrial, Salem, Bristol and Maken. It has lots of backroad charm and history, passing farms and wooded tracts.

The scenery is spectacular, says Paul Elliott, the trail superintendent.

It is one of two long rail trails in West Virginia. The other is the 78-mile, state-managed Greenbrier River Trail. It stretches from Cass in Pocahontas County south to Caldwell in Greenbrier County.

The North Bend Rail Trail roughly parallels east-west U.S. 50. Its western terminus is at Happy Valley not far from Interstate 77 at the edge of Parkersburg, about 2 hours and 15 minutes from Akron. The eastern terminus is Wolf Summit near Clarksburg and I-79.

The old railroad tunnels ó there are 10 of them to go through ó remain a big attraction.

That includes a 2,207-foot tunnel between West Union and Central Station in Doddridge County. It called Tunnel No. 6 and is the longest tunnel along the trail and is often wet inside,

The 1,376-foot Silver Run Tunnel between Cairo and Petroleum in Ritchie County is reputed to be haunted. On foggy, moonlit nights, a woman in a long, flowing dress has been spotted near the tunnel (No. 19) between Parkersburg and Grafton.

In 1910, an engineer brought his train to a sudden and screeching halt. A beautiful woman with raven hair, a long white gown with jeweled brocade, was standing in the middle of the tracks at the far end of the tunnel, he told disbelieving crew and superiors. But when he stopped the train, nothing was there.

The railroad changed engineers. The second engineer saw the same beautiful woman at the Silver Run Tunnel. He, too, repeatedly stopped the train ó to find no one.

One night, that engineer saw the apparition and threw up the trainís throttle. It roared through the ghostly woman.

As the train approached Parkersburg, the railroad got numerous calls about something white that looked like a woman on the front of the train. When the train arrived at the station, there was no sign of a woman or any clothing.

Ghosts or no ghosts, lights are recommended in the tunnels. That could be a headlight on a bicycle, a strapped-on head light or even a flashlight. You can get through the tunnels carefully without a light.

The trail has been routed around three more tunnels that are no longer in use, Elliott says.

The rail corridor was built by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad between 1853 and 1857 and served the lumber, coal and petroleum industries. It was abandoned by the late 1980s and the first rail-trail section from Cairo to Cornwallis opened in 1991.

The late Dick Bias played a key role in getting a trail established, forming the North Bend Rails to Trails Foundation and leading the negotiations with CSX. He personally directed the initial fundraising to acquire the old rail line for $350,000. Tunnel No. 10 is named after Bias, who died in 1995.

I began a recent North Bend trail pedal from Walker in eastern Woods County where I found the trail even though there are no signs. And getting to Walker isnít exactly easy. You can exit at state Route 47 off Interstate 77 and then veer left on Walker Road.

Walker is a hamlet where you can find the trail if you just keep looking. There was a kiosk (with no identifying markings) by a small parking lot where the trail crossed the main road in Walker. Itís not far from the post office, perhaps the main Walker landmark.

The trail is wooded here and feels very isolated; I ran into only four bicyclists on the trail. It repeatedly crosses Walker Creek as it extends to the west where you will pedal next to the Little Kanawha River.

If you head north from Walker, you will encounter the second-longest tunnel on the trail, the 1,840-foot Eaton Tunnel.

For easy access from Akron, take I-77 south and then U.S. 50 east. Turn south on Goose Creek Road and proceed seven miles to Petroleum. Thatís about 2Ĺ hours from Akron. You can reach Cairo by exiting U.S. 50 onto state Route 31. The town is four miles to the south.

West Virginia is unable to say how many people the North Bend Rail Trail gets annually to bike, hike, cross-country ski and ride horses, Elliott said. It is working to count use at two spots, he said, and it appears that use is higher than most people think.

Trail organizers list 12 trailheads for access. There are 35 bridges that have been decked and railed for safety over the years.

Wood County is the most remote and scenic. Ritchie County is the center of activity and the most-used section.

One of the most popular stretches is the 13 miles between Cairo (it is pronounced CARE-oh) and Pennsboro in Ritchie County. That includes four or five tunnels, depending on how far you go. There is also an ice cream stand in Pennsboro.

The trail is primarily designed for mountain bikers. The grade is mild and the trail is wide and well-maintained, a little easier to pedal from east to west. Much of the trail is really double-track, as wide as a dirt road.

Mountain or hybrid bikes are best suited; skinny-tired bikes are not recommended, and motorized vehicles are prohibited.

Elliott said the trail ďfeels remote and thatís itís biggest draw.Ē Users may get a little muddy along the route but thatís part of the appeal, he said.

The surface is partly grass, partly crushed limestone, partly asphalt with single-track and double-track sections.

There is plenty of history sprinkled along the trail: historic buildings, a former stagecoach inn, a marble factory, old glass and garment factories, arts and crafts markets, outlet stores and sites of train robberies. Rail depots still stand in Salem, Pennsboro and Smithton.

Visitors can also learn about a deadly 1956 train crash at the Bonds Creek Tunnel (Tunnel No. 13) near Cornwallis in Ritchie County.

On May 31, the Baltimore & Ohio westbound National Limited Passenger Train emerged from the tunnel and wrecked. The engine tumbled into nearby Bonds Creek on the north side of the bridge. Engineer Joseph C. Riley and fireman Paul R. Hooten were killed, and 45 passengers and other crew were injured.

One nearby attraction is North Bend State Park at Cairo with a lodge, cabins and two campgrounds. The park has 15.5 miles of hiking trails. It is not on the rail trail but is very close, along a connecting trail, about 25 miles east of Parkersburg. For North Bend State Park information, call 304-643-2931 or go to www.northbendsp.com.

Bicyclists on the rail trail are asked to yield to equestrians. Rustic camping is permitted anywhere along the trail, but the state asks that fires be limited to existing fire pits.

There are three restrooms with two additional ones planned.

You can rent bikes and arrange shuttles at Country Trails Bikes in Cairo, 304-628-3100. North Bend State Park also offers shuttles to trail users.

The North Bend Rail Trail is also part of the 6,800-mile coast-to-coast American Discovery Trail. It runs from Delaware to California through 15 states. There are two routes from Ohio to Colorado. For information, call 800-663-2387 ort go to www.discoverytrail.org.

There is also a developing plan to make the North Bend trail and the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail in Northeast Ohio into a bigger, multi-state trail system called the Industrial Heartland Trail.

The system could stretch as much as 1,400 miles in 48 counties in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia. It would connect Cleveland-Akron with Pittsburgh. It could be completed by 2033 and is being promoted by a number of trail groups. Read more at www.railstotrails.org/our-work/trail-projects/industrial-heartland-trails-coalition/

For information on the North Bend Rail Trail, call 304-643-2931 or go to www.northbendrailtrailstatepark.com. For foundation information, call 304-628-3777 or go to www.northbendrailtrail.net.