Point of Beginning

Working on the Railroad

August 22, 2000


I am currently an active volunteer with The North Alabama Railroad Museum (NARM) Inc., a chapter of the National Railway Historical Society (NRHS). The museum owns 5 miles of railroad right of way that were purchased from CSX Transportation, a successor to the railroad's original owner, the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad (NC&StL). NC&StL purchased the right of way in an effort to build a branch operation off its mainline railroad in 1887. The portion of right of way owned by NARM is located at Chase, a growing community outside of Huntsville, Ala. The museum purchased its first 21/2 miles of right of way back in 1985. In 1988, the museum purchased another 2 1/2 miles of right of way making up the total length of approximately 5 miles.

In the 1980s, CSX was granted approval from the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to terminate the active rail service from many of its former NC&StL branch lines, including the Huntsville Branch. In an effort to reduce the tax burden with these lines, CSX worked quickly in taking up the tracks where rail service was no longer going to be active. After the tracks were removed, the property was then taxed only as unimproved acreage. Once the ICC gave CSX the approval to terminate the service, CSX would allow smaller railroad companies or museums such as NARM to purchase various segments of track and/or right of way. While some portions of the right of way were sold off, the remaining sections continue to be owned by CSX. This is true provided that the right of way was originally purchased and deeded with a fee-simple land title. All of the right of way associated with the Huntsville Branch of the NC&StL Railroad running through Madison County, Ala., was purchased with fee-simple deeds.

Collecting points safely along the Mercury and Chase Railroad Centerline.

Property Issues

In 1988, following the museum's second purchase of the right of way, a landowner whose property was directly adjacent to the said railroad right of way filed a lawsuit claiming that the railroad right of way should be reverted back to him since the tracks were taken up. When a railroad removes a track, it is commonly thought that the property has been abandoned. This is a misconception. The case went to court, and the judge ruled in favor of the railroad museum stating that the deed to the right of way was legal and valid. See Figure 1 for an example of a similar deed description that was handwritten and recorded in 1887.

Obviously, the landowners in the 1887 deed weren't looking to make a lot of money with the sale of the right of way to the railroad. The construction of this and other railroads was highly encouraged by many landowners at that time. Farming was the primary focus for most families, and they needed a more reliable method of transporting their agricultural commodities. Many families were also anxiously awaiting the passenger service the railroads would have to offer.

Rights of Way

Recently, a new homeowner purchased some property that was adjacent to the railroad museum's right of way. The home is located on a tract that was part of a subdivision first surveyed and built in 1963. When the new homeowner recently closed on the sale, a land surveyor was hired to do a mortgage survey. The surveyor who came to re-survey the lot staked out the property showing the railroad as only a 50' right of way (25' either side of track centerline). I researched the original deed record to this particular stretch of right of way and found that it was deeded to the railroad instead as a 100' right of way (50' either side of track centerline)-similar to the deed description printed in Figure 1.

I spoke with the land surveyor who did the work, and he stated that he was only required to re-survey the lot according to the original subdivision plat that was surveyed in 1963. After we carefully reviewed the railroad deeds, subdivision plats and property descriptions, it turned out that the subdivision was built right along a section line where the railroad right of way made a transition from 50' to 100'. Fortunately, this error with the original subdivision plat involved only the one lot. If this same error had occurred where several more lots were to be located in connection with the railroad right of way, things would have been very difficult-not only for the railroad, but also for the homeowners.

The typical 50' width is the most common railroad right of way width (25' either side of centerline of said track). While this width may be all that the railroad needed in some areas, the width often had to be increased so that the railroad could accommodate the necessary cuts and fills that were needed to keep the tracks more level. Railroad yards and depots might often require some additional property or right of way. I have even found some instances where the railroad purchased as much as a 200' right of way in order to traverse over a potential flood plain. One section of railroad right of way was deeded with as little as a 30' width (only 15' per side).

Some surveyors, while surveying out in the field, will assume a default right of way width of 50'. This not only hurts the potential property owner in the pocketbook when it is wrong, but also often leads to heated legal disputes costing property owners, railroads and taxpayers. Despite these occasional mishaps, much of the land surveying done along NARM's railroad right of way has been performed accurately.

Phillip Wilbanks, a PLS with Wilbanks Land Surveying in Huntsville, Ala., says he carefully researches the deeds and property descriptions in order to determine exactly what any given section of the railroad right of way width should be. To his surprise, I was able to find a list of all of the deeds to the original NC&StL Railroad right of way running through Madison County. The list was printed in the General Property Index at the Madison County, Ala., courthouse records. If such an index does not exist in some other county or probate records office, finding the proper deeds could be a much harder task. Land surveyors who do not survey accurately along railroads are simply not taking the time to do in-depth deed research.

So, as professional land surveyors, why should we look to the issue of surveying along the railroads and their rights of way seriously? First, railroad rights of way are considered private and should be addressed no differently than any other property. Second, the rights of ways of formerly active rail lines are often targeted for purchase by city and county governments for the expansion of utility services. The Madison County, Ala., Water Authority purchased approximately 8 miles of right of way from the same former NC&StL Huntsville Branch line as did NARM. Madison County's ownership of the right of way starts at the same section line where NARM's ownership stops. The Madison County Water Authority recently installed a new 18-inch water main along the right of way to better serve the growing water demands within the north and eastern sections of the county.

Surveying along railroads and determining the correct boundaries can be quite a challenge. Was the railroad right of way deeded as "fee-simple" or is it simply a given "easement"? As the railroad right of way crosses a section line, does the right of way width change? The records are sometimes difficult to locate and trying to get the information from a railroad isn't always the easiest thing. The best solution is to become better educated and informed. One approach is to touch base with a railroad museum such as NARM, or a Railroad Historic Society. The key is to become familiar with the proper dates for whenever a given railroad was first built and have a better idea on where to look for the proper deed records.

Surveying along railroads successfully involves the proper knowledge of railroad property boundaries, records, communication with the railroad personnel, and, most of all, safety. If you, as a professional land surveyor, make an effort to carry out these responsibilities, working on the railroad will help you establish your very own right of way to success.

Figure 1. Deed description recorded in 1887.

(Madison County, Ala., Deed Book MMM pages 303-304)

JL and JO PennyTo

N C & St L Railway

Know all men by these presents that we JL Penny and JO Penny of Madison County Alabama in consideration of the sum of one dollar to us in hand paid the receipt of which we hereby acknowledge and for the further consideration of the benefits to accrue to us on account of the construction of the Nashville Chattanooga & St Louis Railway or a branch of its line beginning at Elora (Tennessee) on what was known as the Winchester and Alabama railroad and extending thence to Huntsville AL do hereby for ourselves heirs personal representation or assigns bargain sell and convey to the Nashville Chattanooga & St Louis Railway its successors or assigns forever the right of way or exclusive use and occupancy for said road of a strip of land 100 feet wide 50 feet on each side of the centerline of location of said railway over and through any part of our tract of land of 360 acres in Madison County Alabama described as follows - part of the SE _ of SE _ Section 8 T 3 S R 1 E (Township 3 South Range 1 East) Provided that it does not interfere with any of our dwellings on our place and we do hereby further for ourselves our heirs and representatives or assigns for the consideration above stated grant sell or convey to the said railway it successors or assigns such additional width of way for the deep cutting embankment or for the change of common roads or water courses as may be required by the Chief Engineer of said company for the full and convenient construction use and maintenance of said road. In testimony we have hereunto set our hands and seal this 8th day of January 1887 JL Penny seal

JO Penny seal

State of Alabama J R P Whitman certify that JL Penny and JO Penny whose names are signed to the foregoing

Madison County conveyance and who are known to me acknowledge to me on this day that being informed of theContents of the conveyance they executed the same voluntarily on the day the same bears date.

Given under my hand this 8th day of January 1887. R P Whitman

The foregoing deed was filed for record in this office on the 3rd day of February 1887 and was duly recorded on the 17th day of February 1887.

Thomas J Taylor Judge Probate

Safety first!

I know from my experience as a rail enthusiast that even though trains are big and noisy, they can definitely be approaching near you with little or no audible warning. This is especially true whenever the tracks are running around banked curves, through tunnels or in heavily wooded areas. So, let's say you are out the field and are about to collect points off of the railroad centerline. You witness the passing of a train along the tracks in a given direction. Once the train passes, is it safe to go on? Absolutely not! If you are surveying near a siding that the railroad uses for two or more trains to pass, another train could then be heading near you in the totally opposite direction. After one train passes you in the field, another may only be minutes away.

With safety as the number one concern for us whenever we survey along railroads, it is best to contact the railroad and seek permission before trespassing. Railroads can sometimes be difficult to reach depending on how far away you are from their nearest office. If you don't have a station agent to call in your area, try looking to the phone listings from the nearest major city. If still no luck, try searching the Internet for any information that might put you through to the railroad company. Most of the larger railroad companies do have websites that might give you a phone number to call for information. If your work involves a smaller railroad operation, such as a museum or a regional short line, you should try and find out where they are headquartered in order to reach the proper personnel.

Once you get in touch with the railroad, they may be able to offer valuable information regarding the property deeds and correct right of way widths. Some railroads may also be willing to have a track supervisor, maintenance-of-way foreman, signal maintainer, trainmaster, division chief/superintendent, special agent, or some other key personnel meet with you out at the site where you plan to work. They will then be able to offer you the best assurances as to when a train will be approaching.

Finally, if you have access to a hand-held radio scanner, you can purchase books through Kalmbach Publishing that give the radio frequencies for most of the nations railroads. Kalmbach publishes several rail enthusiast magazines available in most bookstores. If you try to educate yourself by becoming more familiar with a particular railroad, its layout, and mileposts, you can get a good idea from listening to the scanner as to when trains will be approaching. The crews operating the trains often have to give their positions over the radio to a central train dispatcher. The use of a scanner may not be a 100 percent safety guarantee, but it could save a life. Remember, if you work along the railroads, think SAFETY FIRST!