Train Derailment Interrupts Appalachian Trail

By: Chris Craig

Editor’s note: This guest blog by Chris Craig originally appeared in the Mountain State Sierran, Volume 46, Number 2, the newsletter for the WV Chapter of the Sierra Club. It has been edited slightly for updates and content.

While this scene lasted but a day, the damage from this December train derailment in Harpers Ferry had an impact on tourism and trails that is lasting throughout 2020. Photo courtesy Nadine Snowden.

During the wee hours of this past winter solstice (December 21, 2019), some Harpers Ferry residents were jolted awake by a crash. A CSX train making its way across the 1890s Byron Bridge over the Potomac River had derailed. The engine car and its two-person crew remained safe on the bridge, but empty freight cars following buckled, causing several cars to dangle or fall completely into the Potomac below. Dramatic photos of the scene went viral in the region and were published internationally.

The Byron Bridge, on the historic Winchester & Potomac Line, is the older of the two railroad bridges at Harpers Ferry. It connects the busy main CSX line (the historic B&O line) with points south. Lightly used by trains, the bridge is nevertheless important to pedestrians and bicyclists, because it has a walkway that allows them to pass between Harpers Ferry and the C&O Canal Towpath or the popular Maryland Heights Trail. The National Park Service estimates it to be one of the Towpath’s busiest access points. It also is the route of the Appalachian Trail (AT) between West Virginia and Maryland.

Fortunately, the pre-Christmas derailment was at a time of the day when no pedestrians were on the bridge and no one was injured. Also, railroad crews quickly removed cars from the river and had trains running on the bridge the following day. However, the derailment destroyed over 100 feet of the walkway. Without it, people have no safe way to cross the river on foot or bicycle, and the trip between the two popular tourist areas requires a convoluted three-state shuttle on narrow, busy roads.

CSX quickly took responsibility for the damage (likely brought about by human error) and agreed to repair the walkway and to fund a park-managed shuttle until the breach in the trail is reopened.

However, repairs and changes can go slowly, especially when they involve federal facilities concerned with safety and impact on natural and historical resources. Small businesses in Harpers Ferry, some of which recovered only recently from a devastating 2015 fire, buckled down with the realization that the bridge outage would greatly reduce the important trail-oriented tourism in the town. But as we now know, these businesses, like counterparts worldwide, have faced an even greater blow from shut-downs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

HFPA Photo/Baldau

In late April, with Harpers Ferry sadly quiet even during a beautiful spring, residents were heartened to hear good news about the bridge from AT Superintendent Wendy Janssen and from CSX. The railroad had secured and the park [service] had approved a contractor for walkway reconstruction. The work began the week of May 20, and is estimated to be completed by mid-July. While negotiations are not yet complete, shuttle services should be ready if needed between trail and town reopening and completion of construction. If this all holds, Harpers Ferry could be ready for a busy trail season during late summer and fall 2020. Stay tuned.

Work to repair the pedestrian bridge began the week of May 20, 2020 and is estimated to be completed in July. Vehicles and crew can be seen during the weekdays. HFPA photo/Baldau  



Christopher Craig first fell in love with Harpers Ferry in 1984 while on a long-distance bicycle tour. In 2005, he made the move to full-time residency in his favorite town, and he operated a bed and breakfast in his historic home for nearly 10 years. Chris became immersed in the history of Harpers Ferry through reading, attending programs, and researching the history of his house. Prior to his innkeeping, Chris was a high school teacher for 20 years. Now a Harpers Ferry Certified Park Guide, he also serves as a volunteer editor and officer in various professional, non-profit and community organizations. He continues to enjoy the outdoors in and around his home, and last year he began a series of section hikes on the Appalachian Trail, which he hopes to complete by 2026.