Trails have long revitalized our spirits—now this trail-blazing professional has found a way for them to revitalize communities as well.
By Karen Hendricks
Outdoor recreation is “in.” Amid the pandemic, its popularity has soared as high as the treetops. At the same time, Silas Chamberlin, vice president of the York Economic Alliance, is doing some re-creating of his own: he’s redefining the field of economic development and merging it with his lifelong appreciation of the outdoors—specifically trails—as conduits for community revitalization.
Tapping into his roots
Chamberlin, 38, describes his career path—appropriately—as “a bit of a winding path.” But it sounds like he was destined to be a trailblazer.
“My parents picked the name Silas because it means ‘lover of the woods.’ From an early age, they raised me to have an appreciation for the outdoors, so we did lots of camping,” Chamberlin said. His father, a builder, situated the family’s home in rural York County. “I grew up walking right into the woods from our yard,” Chamberlin added.
With dreams of becoming a professor, Chamberlin pursued his master’s degree in history at Lehigh. His choice of thesis proved fateful: he combined his love of the outdoors with his appreciation for history, and focused on the history of hiking in Pennsylvania. It was a subject no one had documented before, and Chamberlin combed hiking clubs’ archives throughout the Keystone State, documenting tales of trails. That process led to a bigger project: five years of research on a national scale, documenting trail origins for his PhD dissertation.
An internship with the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor opened Chamberlin’s eyes to “how history could be leveraged in a real world setting,” he said. “I was trying to make connections with communities that may have had a canal 100 years ago—but if that history was preserved and a trail was made, it could bring economic opportunity to their communities.”
After a position with Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the next stop on his path took him to the banks of the Schuylkill River.
“I had the opportunity to lead a national heritage area … where my role was getting people to look at this river—whose name literally means ‘hidden river’—that most communities had turned their back on. It had been polluted by industry, but we were trying to leverage the Schuylkill River as an asset to the river towns along it,” Chamberlin said.
Up to this point, Chamberlin thought of himself as a “conservationist and trail builder,” but his next career move was a “real pivot” that took him back home to York County. A position with the city of York, leading the business improvement district and Main Street organization, built his economic development skills.
“It focused on questions like, ‘How many businesses have you created?’ and, ‘What kind of opportunities have you created for businesses to grow?’ And at the same time,” Chamberlin said, “there’s a creek running through the city of York that had been neglected for 100 years … and a rail trail nearby with a quarter of a million annual users, but it wasn’t tied into the downtown.”
All those pieces helped Chamberlin see a puzzle in which natural outdoor recreation—the one missing piece—could revitalize the city of York. When his position was folded into the county-wide York Economic Alliance, the puzzle grew larger, to include the entire county.
“It led to a pivot in how we do economic development, and we’re really excited about it,” said Chamberlin. “We’ve gone from the idea that economic development has to be economic incentives and development of business parks, to a more people and place-based economic development in which we can leverage trails, parks and nature-based tourism as economic drivers.”
The 21-mile Heritage Rail Trail—one of the state’s first trails converting railroad lines into recreational trails—provided the infrastructure for Chamberlin’s next project.
York County’s Trail Towns program launched on National Trails Day—June 6, 2020.
“Small towns were once thriving along the railroad because they had industry—but they lost that industry,” said Chamberlin. “And it’s hard to have the tools—as an economic development agency—for small towns. But when you embrace a trail and get a community to orient toward a trail, all other benefits follow—real estate values, health benefits, etc.”
The program focused on five towns initially and continues to expand. Heritage Rail Trail bikers and hikers can enjoy stopping for trailside ice cream cones, kayak rentals—even a B&B catering to trail-goers. A certification program puts decals in storefront windows, identifying trail-friendly businesses.
Chamberlin’s personal and professional journey—even his own name—revolves around the joy of the outdoors.
“Knowing we have these places protected in perpetuity for future generations—personally, I think about that a lot. I get out as often as I can with my kids on the trail. The great thing about modern trails is they go through communities and make nature accessible … it’s quality of life, trying to make it a standard. I just want to find more ways to get this idea out there—that there’s significant overlap between the economic and natural world.”
For more information on York County’s Trail Towns program, see yorkcountytrailtowns.com.
On the Trail
Along the way, Silas Chamberlin published a book based upon his dissertation: On the Trail: A History of American Hiking.
Karen Hendricks is an award-winning freelance writer based in the Harrisburg area. When she’s not writing, you can probably find her running on a rail trail.