The Wilkes-Barre and Eastern (WB&E) Railroad was originally constructed in 1893 to carry coal, ice and passengers from the city of Wilkes-Barre in Luzerne County to Stroudsburg in Monroe County. It was one of the last railroads to be developed in the region, claiming to be the shortest route for hauling coal to the eastern seaboard through a landscape that made the task difficult due to drastic elevation changes and wetland areas. However, despite its early success, by the mid-1930s the single-line track was made nearly obsolete by multi-lines to the west, and the tracks were abandoned in 1939. Remnants of the line are still intact, and today, the former WB&E corridor presents a unique trail opportunity in the Poconos landscape.
Interest in developing the corridor as an off-road multi-use trail spurred the undertaking of two different studies in 2020 to determine its feasibility. The WB&E corridor is broken up into two sections — the Northern Section travels from Wilkes-Barre to Rt. 940 and the Southern Section picks up at Rt. 940 and heads southeast to Stroudsburg. The rail bed is intact and on public lands for much of the Northern Section, which was studied by McLane and Associates. However, in the Southern Section, the construction of Interstate 80 fragmented the corridor in a multitude of places, as did residential and commercial development in the region. The Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) undertook assessing this portion, with the focus on finding a suitable on-road connection that could be designated as the continuation of the “WB&E route.”
In 2020, PEC hired McLane & Associates to conduct a feasibility study of the Northern Section of the WB&E from Wilkes-Barre to Rt. 940. This feasibility study, completed in the summer of 2021, identified a potential first phase of the project that would create a trail long enough to entice users to the area and serve as a demonstration of the value in finding a way forward to complete the remaining trail connections.
The focus of this first 11-mile phase begins where Tobyhanna Township in Monroe County has recently added bike lanes to Rt. 940 and the entrance to Brady’s Lake Rd. The trail route would then traverse State Game Lands 127 until it intersected with Plank Rd. and crossed the Lehigh River on the existing bridge. At times the route would utilize the historic WB&E corridor, but due to the original rail bridge crossing the Lehigh River having been removed, there are now two options to consider for the final few miles. The first option would be to remain on the original rail grade (which is managed by Pinchot State Forest) as far as the missing bridge and then construct approximately a half mile of new trail. The other option would be to work with the Game Commission to improve Silver Creek Rd. to make it more of a trail experience and improve hunter access at the same time. Either of these alternatives would be a great addition to the region and would help build momentum to complete the whole of the WB&E.
PEC’s Southern Section assessment was a bit less straightforward, as using the former rail corridor all the way to Stroudsburg would be nothing short of impossible, so we would have to come up with alternate routes from scratch. We began with collecting as much data as possible, such as existing, planned and potential trails and active transportation networks in Monroe County, PennDOT roadway data, conserved lands and open space, and parcel boundaries. We also looked at crowd-sourced data from Strava and RideWithGPS, two popular ride-tracking apps that show “heatmaps” of where people are riding, with the hopes that they would help us identify the best roads for cycling and help illuminate off-road connections that we may have missed with other mapping. Using a combination of these sources, we initially identified three potential mostly on-road routes from Rt. 940 in Pocono Pines to Stroudsburg. Criteria for selection of these routes included current bicycle usage based on the crowdsourced data, traffic volume, speed limit and shoulder width of roads, elevation gain and loss, length, proximity to public lands and maximizing off-road connections. Then it was time to head into the field to ground-truth our computer work.
Using a combination of driving and cycling, we visually inspected each of the potential routes, taking notes on actual shoulder width and condition, perceived traffic volume, sight lines and visibility, terrain, roadway condition or trail surface and posted speed limit as well as observed adherence to that limit. Once we’d had a chance to explore the region, we ended up identifying an additional route based on our findings. However, a couple of the potential routes were also eliminated off the bat due to roadway and traffic conditions or insurmountable obstacles to bicycle infrastructure development. Many of the same obstacles that plagued railroad development — namely the steep terrain and drastic elevation changes — also make finding a suitable bike route challenging. Many of the roads also have frequent twists and turns, which is a safety issue when it obstructs the visibility of cyclists.
Despite the challenges, some promising opportunities did rise to the surface, including some potential sections of new off-road trail through public lands. We found back roads in the region with little traffic and gorgeous views that could be developed into a bike route with some safety and wayfinding improvements. The route also could tie in with the existing Bike to Nature bike route near Stroudsburg as well as the Stroud Greenway. The study is currently awaiting input from stakeholders in the region before being finalized.
The completion of the WB&E Trail/Route would provide a cyclist-friendly path from the Stroudsburg and Delaware Water Gap area to a vast network of trails in the Wilkes-Barre region, including the Lackawanna Heritage Trail and the D&L Trail, greatly improving connectivity in the northeast corner of the state.
This post was co-written by Zhenya Nalywayko and Helena Kotala.