Published August 16, 2019
Hendersonville Times News

The news for supporters of healthy outdoor recreation, tourism and economic development couldn’t have been better.

The N.C. Board of Transportation on Aug. 8 approved $6.4 million to purchase the rail line between Hendersonville and Brevard that’s been languishing without freight traffic for 17 years.

With the support of elected officials and dedicated citizens who have been working for more than a decade, this stretch of rusting rails, rotting ties and weeds will one day become a 19-mile paved path for walkers and cyclists: the Ecusta Trail.

“There is still a lot of work to be done and a lot of processes to work through that will take time, but this is a large step forward,” said N.C. Rep. Chuck McGrady, who was instrumental in lining up the funding.

The proposed trail is named for the Pisgah Forest paper mill where generations of workers manufactured ultra-thin paper for cigarettes and Bibles between 1939 and 2002. It was named for the Cherokee term for “rippling waters,” a reference to the Davidson River that provided water for the mill.

The trail, should it become reality, promises to be a premier outdoor recreation destination on par with DuPont State Recreational Forest just a few miles away, and a standout among greenways across the South.

Like the popular 34-mile Virginia Creeper Trail between Abington and White Top, Va., it’s in the mountains and will follow a converted railroad. Unlike the Creeper, it will be mostly flat as it winds through the French Broad River valley, crossing and following the river in Horse Shoe.

A 2012 economic impact predicted the Ecusta Trail would generate $20 million and 180 jobs in Henderson and Transylvania counties during construction, a $42 million one-time return plus $9.4 million in annual returns in tax revenues, tourism spending, health care cost savings, property value increases and direct-use values.

The numbers were based on the trail drawing 20,000 visitors annually, a very conservative estimate considering the nearest major greenway, the Swamp Rabbit Trail between Greenville and Travelers Rest, S.C., averages 1,000 visitors each day.

Last summer, McGrady and trail supporters got word that the company that owns the line might be open to selling it. In April, Kansas-based Watco Companies announced it would reopen a one-mile spur around Hendersonville, but noted that would not affect prospects for the Ecusta Trail. The stars appeared to be aligning, but “finding the money was another thing,” McGrady noted.

Then NCDOT called McGrady last month with news that the Ecusta Trail would qualify for federal funding, but only if supporters applied quickly for a grant that was about to revert to the federal government.

“When Chuck McGrady called several weeks ago and informed us of this potential funding source, we just had to jump on it and do all we could to make it happen,” said Chris Burns, board member for the advocacy group Friends of the Ecusta Trail.

Trail advocates got to work, with local land trust Conserving Carolina writing the grant that the state approved. Conserving Carolina, Friends of the Ecusta Trail and other partners must raise at least $1.6 million to match the grant funding.

Surveyors and appraisers are now working to come up with a price acceptable to Watco. After that, trail advocates must reach a voluntary “rail banking” agreement allowing it to be used for a trail.

It has and will be a long process. Yet substantial funding in hand should go a long way toward helping to make this dream trail a reality for Henderson and Transylvania counties, and Brevard, Hendersonville, Laurel Park and other communities along the route.