Tony Casey/Johnson City Press
All it takes is a good idea and cooperation.
The Tweetsie Trail, which connects Johnson City with Elizabethton by way of what will ultimately be a 10-mile recreational path, will bring smiles to the faces of many, dollars into pockets of local businesses and a venue to families who are looking to have a new green place to keep active. The trail officially opens Saturday.
The past year has seen the trail go from its former self — a railroad with a storied history around the region — to what it is today, a flat, chat-surfaced path that brings cyclists, walkers and runners through some of the finest scenery East Tennessee has to offer. Those who’ve guided it to its current condition are happy to see their plans come together in what will officially be the longest Rails-to-Trails project in the state.
Recently, Johnson City Commissioner Jenny Brock spoke about the trail’s beautiful scenery, showing off everything this part of the country has to offer. She also spoke of how the trail will be a big part of what officials hope to be an ever-blossoming downtown area. As someone who’s currently a decision-maker for the city, Brock said she wanted to give credit to city officials of the past who made their dream become a reality for the city.
Former Johnson City Mayor Steve Darden was there in the beginning, which he figures was in the summer of 2006. He’s not willing to say it was originally his idea to develop the trail, but is proud to say he was part of a team that really made things come together.
“I’m proud of the group effort between the citizens and local government,” Darden said. “I’m grateful for my colleagues on the City Commission on their willingness to provide something out of the ordinary for the area.”
Freight on the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad stopped moving in 2003, and the railroad thought they would have to scrap the land its tracks and carts once occupied without returning anything to its shareholders, Darden said.
But Johnson City showed interest in purchasing the rights from Alabama Street through the area near Snap-on Tools in Elizabethton. East Tennessee Railway, whose parent company is Genessee & Wyoming, realized it could get some return on its investment, Darden said.
He said in January 2007, he and Charlie Stahl, now Johnson City’s assistant city manager, met with executives from the railroad to express the city’s desire to purchase the rights, only to learn that the railroad sought to bid the area out to the highest bidder.
Stahl said the city of Elizabethton also put a bid into the process against Johnson City’s pledge of $600,000 for 74 acres with an average distance of 30 feet on each side from the midpoint of the trail.
Familiarizing themselves with the General Railroad Right-of-Way Act of 1875, Darden, Stahl and Phil Pindzola’s city public works crews and those involved with the project had the foresight to make sure the property would hold true to the act and be capable of returning to its previous state as a railroad, if needed, in what would almost have to be an emergency event.
Stahl called the city’s way of preparing the trail “smart planning,” and when a March Supreme Court ruling reversed property rights of Rails-to-Trails projects back to their original owners, Johnson City could have lost the trail it had worked so hard to get had it not railbanked the correct way.
Dan Reese, a local trail consultant, said when Johnson City was working out the issues with the railroad company, the timing was poor because there were so many people who were highly enthused about the project, only to see progress remain inactive for just about two years. Stahl said during this period of time, the railroad just wasn’t doing anything with the bids they had taken, and that’s not without the constant contact from Darden.
April 2011 was a momentous time for the trail, when the two parties came to an agreement on the sale of the property and the real trail development could begin, but not before the railroad removed its rail property.
“This thing took five years from its inception,” Stahl said of the process of Johnson City acquiring the land.
From that point, Genessee & Wyoming had 24 months to remove the tracks and planks, which allowed work to start. Pindzola’s crews were then able to clear back about 15 feet of brush on each side of the trail as well as preliminary flattening of the crushed stone that would serve as the base for the surface of the pathway.
The last year has seen the most progress, with the trail task force getting sponsors at different price levels to put their names on each of the seven bridges along the trail. Through monetary donations and donations in the form of materials, it became apparent to task force’s chairman Dan Schumaier, also an advocate for the trail from its inception, that no state or federal grants would be needed.
Initially, Schumaier said a study had a price tag on revitalizing the trail at around $6 million, but after walking the trail, he said he felt he could do it for a fraction of the cost. After working extremely hard with donors and through fundraising efforts in the last year, Schumaier and his task force have been able to keep the total money spent on bringing the trail to its current state at just under $1 million, in Schumaier’s estimation.
“This is nuts,” Schumaier remembers thinking about the trail’s initial cost.
Now, less than a week before the trail officially opens, with benches and plaques and bridges sold to bear the names of the people who donated to the cause up and down the path, all the people who have worked hard to make the dream become reality can take part in the opening ceremonies — an official ribbon-cutting Thursday, and the Tweetsie Trail Trek run Saturday — to appreciate the scenery that follows the former railroad section.
Though trail organizers plan on expanding the trail as time goes on, possibly connecting East Tennessee State University, the upper section of State of Franklin Road, Tipton-Haynes Historic Site and the Mountain Home VA medical center to the trailhead, they can finally sit back and appreciate the work they’ve done with citizens and private businesses to make the trail come together.
Darden said he’s happy to have been a part of the puzzle and proud to have helped out.
“We did it right, and that’s allowed us this amazing asset,” he said.
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