SUSANVILLE, Calif. — For 50 years, steam locomotives pulling flatcars stacked with timber snaked through the woods along the banks of the fast-flowing Susan River.
Now, there are no trains, but joggers, hikers, equestrians and cyclists on fat-tired bikes wind their way along the 25-mile, single-track railbed called the Bizz Johnson Trail.
One of the first of its kind in the West, this "rails-to-trails" park between Westwood and Susanville in Northern California's Lassen County was dedicated last month.
Flanked by steep cliffs, the trail traverses wild river and pine forest varying in elevation from 4,214 feet at Susanville to 5,520 feet at Westwood. There are quiet pools in the river for swimming, and choice spots for trout fishing.
The old railbed cuts through the Lower Cascade Mountains in two huge tunnels--one 800 feet long, the other 450 feet--and crosses and recrosses the river on 11 trestles.
The trail system is the brainchild of an alliance of environmental and recreational groups that recently launched a new organization, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Its goal is to convert more than 1 million acres of abandoned railbed in America into linear parks similar to the Bizz Johnson Trail.
Nationwide, there are 85 abandoned railbeds that already have been converted to parks, nearly all in the East and the Midwest. In California, there are eight rail lines in various stages of conversion to trails, but none is in Southern California. The first known rail-to-trail conversion, in 1968, became the 35-mile-long Illinois Prairie Path, converted from the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railroad.
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy was created to halt the piecemeal sale of old railbeds that stretch for tens of thousands of miles through every state, and to develop the land into bicycling, horseback riding and hiking paths.
It took eight years to acquire the abandoned roadbed of the old Fernley & Lassen Railroad and convert it to the Bizz Johnson Trail. Stan Bales, 34, Bureau of Land Management outdoor recreation planner, headed the project from its inception at the federal agency's Susanville office.
Sections of the railbed owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad, timber companies and private parties were bought or easement rights were obtained in years of negotiations. In some instances, federal lands in nearby areas were exchanged for the railbed.
The largest land exchange--involving 1,200 acres and 4.2 miles of railbed--was negotiated in March and completed the acquisition project. About 62% of the abandoned railbed was acquired by Lassen National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management through a process in which the land reverted to federal ownership.
The trail is named after Harold T. (Bizz) Johnson, 78, of Roseville, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1958 to 1980. It was Johnson who obtained federal funds to purchase the land and build the trail. He also helped with the negotiations in acquiring the property.
Fernley & Lassen Railroad was built by the Red River Lumber Co. in 1914 to link the timber concern's large mill at Westwood with Southern Pacific's mainline at Fernley, Nev. The Interstate Commerce Commission granted Southern Pacific's petition for abandoning the then-defunct Susanville-to-Westwood part of the line in 1978. That part of the line was used for the trail.
No motorized vehicles are permitted on the trail. It will be used for cross-country skiing in winter.