By Sarah Colson and Jeff Keeling
Few of them may know it, but the thousands who use the Tweetsie Trail are enjoying it thanks to a foundation laid by determined advocates that stretches back a decade.
The recreational trail that follows the route of the old East Tennessee & Western North Carolina (Tweetsie) rail line east from Alabama Street in Johnson City has experienced a year of heavy use and all-around success since its first seven miles opened last Labor Day Weekend. This weekend, a series of events in Elizabethton will celebrate completion of the trail’s last three miles, and the fact it now stretches 10 miles to a point south of downtown Elizabethton and nearly to Valley Forge.
Joining the many who are unfamiliar with the backstory will be one who knows it as well as anybody: former Johnson City Mayor Steve Darden. Darden, a member of the Tweetsie Trail Task Force who with his wife Anne is a regular trail user, met with News and Neighbor last week. He reflected on the shared vision and diligence that have resulted in, Darden said, “a very, very good example of what our region can do.
“Local people did this,” he added (no state or federal money has gone into the trail’s construction). Darden said in addition to the local focus and the close coordination between the public and private sectors, a key to the trail’s quick development over the past two years has been peoples’ willingness to focus more on results than on recognition. “It’s amazing what can happen when nobody cares about who gets credit,” he said.
Darden said it all started in 2006 with a group of those unsung heroes who wanted to see something happen to the rail way, which was all but abandoned. At that time, Johnson City had a bikeway and greenway committee which Darden said “voiced its approval for the concept” of an already-familiar rails to trails project in Johnson City.
Some members on the Johnson City Bikeway-Greenway committee included the late Tom Dosser—who Darden said should bear the title of “Mr. Buffalo Mountain Park” because of his commitment to local parks—Frank Knisley, Dan Reese and former Elizabethton City Manager Charlie Stahl, who had joined Johnson City’s staff by that time.
The committee set out to do things right, even if that meant, as Darden said, “of all the adjectives that could apply to the Tweetsie Trail from that point on, ‘fast track’ is not one of them.” The first step in the process was to call Genesee & Wyoming Inc., the company that owned the Tweetsie Railroad. Though the company had no plans to resume commercial transport, it still owned the legal rights of the track.
“It was really only a matter of time before something happened,” Darden said,” and that something was most likely just an abandonment of the line.”
Darden and his colleagues did not want to see that happen. So in January of 2006, they met with an executive from Genesee at City Hall and expressed their initial interest in attaining the line.
“They put together a process through which we and any other interested party could bid,” Darden said, “and ours became the successful bid.”
As part of the deal, Genesee promised to complete a process known as “railbanking” before Johnson City officially signed the deal. Railbanking basically means, as Darden explained, that if in the future, say in the event of a national emergency or if economic conditions drastically change, and there needs to be a railroad, then that linear strip of real estate can be repurposed for that use. Even though it took longer to establish ownership (five years to be exact) as a result of railbanking, the city essentially owns the railroad and is free to do with it what they please, without any federal or state grant strings attached.
“We didn’t utilize any monies other than city dollars,” Darden said. “We didn’t accept federal grants or state grants. Consequently, once the ownership was a done deal, we were able to develop the trail in rapid fashion.”
In the planning period that followed, initial public meetings were held at City Hall to hear out what the public wanted to see happen to the railroad. Since most of the attendees were, as Darden described, “nostalgic about the railroading past and the heritage and history of our location,” some proposed the idea of running an excursion train.
“If the economic realities had been that the highest and best use, from an economic standpoint, of the railroad line had been trains, there would be trains running on there today,” Darden said. “But ultimately it became pretty clear that a recreational use was the most popular and the only viable way to preserve that corridor.”
While the city of Johnson City could control how it attained the property, one unpredictable aspect of the trail’s future was how the city of Elizabethton would react to a trail operated by a neighboring city but which mostly lies in Carter County and Elizabethton.
“But here we are one year after Johnson City’s ribbon cutting and Elizabethton is having a ribbon cutting,” Darden said. “One of the greatest things about this is the connection it has forged between Elizabethton and Johnson City. Two communities that are really linked by history and now in modern times, we hear people from Johnson City speaking glowingly about what they’re discovering in Elizabethton.”
One couple who certainly speaks glowingly of both ends of the trail is Rich Aubrey, head women’s basketball coach at Milligan College, and his wife Sheri. Both serve as resident directors for married student apartments on campus and live a mere three miles from several access points on the trail. The couple walks and runs several times a week on the trail and also meets with a group from their church every Saturday morning to bike, walk and run. Rich has also used the trail as a bonding experience for his basketball team and described it as “safe and scenic.”
“I like that not only is it a physical opportunity for training, but I also like the community of it,” Sheri added. “Everybody’s out here from real tiny in a stroller to older adults who are just out here for their health. Everybody’s so friendly. It’s also a spiritual experience. It’s so pretty and just to enjoy what nature and God have given us is a blessing for it to be this close.”
That kind of reaction is what Darden and his team have dreamed of since day one.
“To me, the outcome matches the initial vision,” he said. “I always advocated for this project because of its enhancement of recreational and individual wellness opportunities, because of its economic development potential, because of the positive attention that it has brought to Johnson City, Washington County, Carter County and Elizabethton. It just reinforces my belief that we live in a wonderful part of the world. It’s an enhancement of what Johnson City has always been about. It’s about making Johnson City what it’s always been: a great place to live, raise a family and be a grown-up.”