I am amazed how well people advocating for safe walking and biking streets share good ideas. It is not just Queen Anne Greenways and Ballard folks, or even my many friends in Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, but people around the world. Astounding as it may seem, good ideas, such as the conversion of obsolete railways to modern safe walking and riding paths, is a phenomenon that I’ve experienced here on Queen Anne and far away in the south of France.

In the United States, everyone learns about the great transcontinental railroads, but we tend to forget the profusion of little lines that connected isolated places like Monte Christo, Snohomish or Snoqualmie to the main lines and helped them move the raw materials like copper, wood and coal, on which their economic lives depended. We also often overlook the role of these little lines in supplying isolated places with goods manufactured east of the Rockies. For example, the totally out of place mansion in Yakima known as Congleton’s Castle features furniture, a heating system and even a kitchen stove, all made in Duluth, Minnesota, the Congleton family’s hometown.

For sure, the construction of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909 would not have happened had the state not owned a vast amount of unused land on the University of Washington campus. Oddly though, the literature about the fair describes in detail the state’s decision to “lend” the land for the exposition, but no one discusses the spur of the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railroad that brought coal to the university’s heating plant and made it easy to move the building supplies quickly and inexpensively to the exposition site. As late as the 1960s, those little lines snuggled up to factories and did all the work now done by the massive 18-wheel tractor-trailers that choke little roads and freeways today.

When the railways disappeared, and trucks changed the way we deliver goods, everyone despaired. While the turn to diesel threatened the quality of life in the United States, it wasn’t the deleterious effects of the fumes spewed by those trucks or their contribution to a warmer climate that frightened folks. It was the threat to the livelihood of the little towns that seems to have scared people in the 1960s. Of course, these are broad strokes, and not all the changes happened at once. Certainly, the very happy and unexpected outcome of shutting down the little railways didn’t happen instantaneously.

In Seattle, the abandoned tracks of little Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railroad along the north shore of Lake Union and up into Kenmore became the Burke Gilman Trail. It is an early example of the transformation of obsolete 19th century rails into safe trails for walking and bicycling. The same thing happened in Queen Anne. Head down to the southern edge of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and you’ll discover the Ship Canal Trail. It isn’t long, but it took more than 20 years to convince the BNSF Railroad to connect the two bits of trail under the Ballard Bridge. Now with the bits joined, the city has linked the Magnolia end to a protected bike lane that runs west to Discovery Park and south through the railyard to downtown and beyond. At the Fremont Bridge, the trail links up to the Westlake Trail, creating more than 50 uninterrupted and safe miles all the way to Pacific.

A few years ago, in the small Southern French town of Beaucaire, I stumbled on the Voie Verte, which translates directly as the “Way Green.” Indirectly, it matches the name of our Queen Anne Greenway group, but it is much more like a protected bike lane. The Voie Verte, also a rail to trail conversion, follows the Chemin de Fer des Cerises or the Cherry Line. It stretches 28 kilometers from Beaucaire to the Pont du Gard, the 1st century Roman aqueduct, where I frequently go for a swim in the cool river below its majestic arches. Before the Voie Verte, bicycling along the heavily trafficked road to the Pont du Gard was life threatening. Now the ride is a piece of cake and, because trains don’t like steep hills, entirely flat.

The Pont du Gard aqueduct is an exquisite first century Roman engineering feat carrying water some 20 kilometers to the city of Nimes. Dropping some 20 centimeters over the course of its run, the aqueduct made it possible over 400 years for Nimes to become a bustling Roman colony with healthy drinking and washing water for all its citizens.

Just like the founders of the Cedar River watershed that has brought fresh mountain water to every Seattle faucet for more than 100 years, the Romans understood that clean water is the key to a healthy life. It pleases me immensely that there are engineering feats linking first century Romans to 19th century Seattleites. I sure hope our system lasts at least 400 years.

Michael Herschensohn is president of the Queen Anne Historical Society. Learn more at qahistory.org.