New River Trail State Park: Converting Overgrown Rail into a Trail!

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PHOTO: New River Trail State Park
PHOTO: New River Trail State Park

Compared to the rest of the Commonwealth, the area known by locals as Southwest Virginia is a unique region compared to other parts of the Old Dominion. Far from the hustle and bustle of the nation’s capital city and even farther from the tidewaters of the Chesapeake Bay, the forgotten land of Virginia’s panhandle is hardly recognizable as even being in the same state as places such as Fairfax, Norfolk and Richmond.

Here, roughly 60 miles southwest of Roanoke, cows outnumber people and the most common reason for a traffic jam on local roads is a sputtering tractor transporting rolls of hay from one field to another.  Life is slower, more relaxed and yes, the people are even a tad bit friendlier here than in other parts of Virginia… Okay, a lot more friendly.

Today, the region’s economy has become well balanced between agriculture and industrial manufacturing, but a century ago, the mining of various minerals, particularly iron ore, served as one of the staples of the local economy in the counties of Pulaski, Wythe, Grayson and Carroll.

With small communities all along the Upper New River being rich in minerals needed to power the Industrial Revolution, surveyors from Norfolk & Western Railroad set out in 1882 to find a suitable route for a spur linking the main line in Pulaski to Mount Airy, North Carolina.  At the time, the Pulaski area was known as Martin’s Station.

By 1887 nearly 29 miles of the route, originally known as the Cripple Creek Extension, had been completed, linking the community of Austinville to Pulaski and by 1904, the line had been extended all the way to Galax – linking the communities of Pulaski, Foster Falls, Austinville, Ivanhoe, Fries (pronounced “freeze”) and Galax together.

Bertha Mineral Company, Austinville, Virginia. Courtesy: Norfolk & Western Historical Photograph Collection
Bertha Mineral Company, Austinville, Virginia.
Courtesy: Norfolk & Western Historical Photograph Collection

According to Trail Link, “While iron ore was the primary source of freight, there was also other outbound traffic, including agricultural products, milk, forest products, less-than-carload movements (which could include anything an individual wished to ship but not did fill an entire freight car), and cotton mills in the Fries area. Notable inbound shipments included coal, animal feed, fertilizer, agricultural products, and oil. After the N&W fell into receivership during 1896, it seemed new management lost interest in completing the extension to Mt. Airy, perhaps because the railroad now already had two notable lines into the Tarheel State at Durham and Winston-Salem…”

The line typically had two trains that ran each day and Norfolk & Western continued to provide passenger service until after World War II, making its final run on September 5, 1951.

Not too many years ago, it wasn’t that difficult to find an old timer around those parts who had ridden a passenger train into one of these communities for a day or two to visit relatives or attend school or something of the sort; sadly, first-hand stories such as these are quickly becoming a lost memory throughout this part of Appalachia.

The railroad continued to operate the line even into the mid-1980s, during the early Norfolk Southern (NS) years.

Unfortunately, with many lines customers closing, including New Jersey Zinc, Norfolk-Southern elected to abandon all remaining operations south of Pulaski, and trains made their last runs on October 5, 1985.

The following year, the Commonwealth of Virginia acquired the abandoned land as a donation from the Norfolk-Southern Corporation and attempted to do something exceptional: convert the former rail into a trail.

Volunteers worked feverishly, transforming the overgrown line into a linear “trail park”, the first of its kind in Virginia, and in May 1987, The New River Trail State Park opened, with only 4 miles of trail available for use.

Three decades later, history has proven the advocates of the rails to trails program true visionaries as 57 miles of trails have been made available to hikers, walkers, bicyclists and horseback riders and the park has seen as many as 1.2 million visitors in a single year, pumping critical money into the rural community and allowing entire villages to spring up, catering to the needs of cyclists and trail users.

Jogger on New River Trail State Park,  PHOTO: Virginia State Parks
Jogger on New River Trail State Park,
PHOTO: Virginia State Parks

Running north to south, trail mile markers begin at Dora Junction outside of Pulaski. The Town manages a spur trail that connects the park to the renovated train depot where visitor services, including a bicycle shop, are available. From Dora Junction, the trail travels through the railroad villages of Draper and Allisonia; past the 19th-century Jackson Ferry Shot Tower; through the historic mining towns of Austinville, Foster Falls, and Ivanhoe; and past the Buck and Byllesby hydroelectric dams to Fries Junction.

At this point, the trail splits, with one section branching off to follow Chestnut Creek to Galax and the other continuing along the New River to Fries. Bicycle shops and other visitor services are available in both Galax and Fries.

The New River Blueway runs south to north along with the river’s current, and begins south of Boone, North Carolina and runs through New River Gorge to Fayetteville, West Virginia. Along the trail, boat access points with parking are available at seven different locations and primitive, canoe-in campgrounds are also located along the river at various spots.

Thirty years ago, the local Virginia communities along the New River received what seemed to have been devastating news — their railroads and mines were about to disappear.  Rather than attempt to live in the past, however, they tried something that had never been done in the state before and a generation and a half later, their children are enjoying the fruits of their foresight.

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