“Rocks, rocks, and more rocks, with a bit of history for good measure.”
— Zack Butler
The Old Railroad Bed Trail preserves what is left of the path of the steam locomotive that traved from the Huntsville Depot to the (no longer standing) Hotel Monte Sano from 1888 to 1896. The Hotel Monte Sano, a three-story 223 room wooden structure of Queen Anne architecture, was built in 1886 to serve as a health resort for hundreds of people from the South, particularly Memphis, Atlanta, and Nashville. Patrons traveled the eight miles from the Huntsville Depot to the hotel in four hours by horse and carriage. A person suffering from an illness was in for a very difficult journey.
The words Monte Sano mean Mountain of Health in Italian. The summer months in the late 1800s saw yellow fever, cholera and diphtheria in epidemic proportions. Clean water and sanitary living conditions were found on the mountain and visitors health did improve. However, because the causes of these diseases were not yet fully understood, many again would become ill after returning home.
To better serve guests, the Monte Sano Railway was created. Built between May and August 1888, five hundred workers were paid $1.00 per day for twelve hours of work, six days a week. The train made three trips per day and took twenty minutes to travel the eight miles. Patrons paid 25 cents each way. The engine was disguised as a trolley car so that horses in downtown Huntsville wouldnt be frightened. Shortly after completion, the trains sand brake sand pipes choked, the wheels jumped the rails, and the train came to a quick stop. There was no damage to the passengers or the train, but the incident frightened potential riders. The railway was then used primarily for hauling supplies, but it went bankrupt in 1896. The tracks were salvaged and the trestles and bridges removed for firewood and building supplies.
Today, the trail provides visitors to Monte Sano State Park and Monte Sano Nature Preserve with an opportunity to experience one of the first 500 Rails-to-Trails Conservancy projects and utilizes much of the old rock left behind when the train tracks were removed. Another remaining feature of the trail is Button Hole Loop, where a pair of bridges was removed. Several wooden bridges were constructed by the Land Trust across several waterfalls that dot the trail. Although the trail does not have an extremely steep grade, the presence of the large rocks makes it an excruciating and bumpy climb, and nearly the entire trail is chock full of them.