On track for 'an amazing trail’

Stephen Igo • Updated Jan 10, 2018 at 1:42 PM

APPALACHIA — During last fall’s grand opening of the Powell River Trail between Appalachia and Big Stone Gap, Lenowisco Planning District Commission Executive Director Duane A. Miller told an enthusiastic crowd that things weren’t going to stop at that mere 1.2 miles. It’s a lovely mile, to be sure, but rather short as trails go.

The vision expressed from the well-appointed Appalachia trailhead on opening day was to merely swivel from the direction of Big Stone Gap in the direction of the city of Norton, 10 or 12 miles opposite, following the same abandoned railroad bed.

Last week, the three towns and Lenowisco landed a $40,000 planning grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) for that Appalachia to Norton extension of the Powell River Trail and a much longer hiking-and-biking trail from Big Stone Gap through Appalachia to Norton (and/or the other way around).

“When we opened the Powell River Trail, the phase from Appalachia to Big Stone Gap, and seeing so much interest in that trail, I sat down with the three town managers — Fred Ramey (Norton), Fred Luntsford (Appalachia) and Steve Lawson (Big Stone Gap) — and there wasn’t any question about whether or not to submit that (grant application) just to do the preliminary planning work. That abandoned rail line actually runs past Norton, you know,” Miller said Tuesday.

The guys literally hit the funding trail while the first-ever hikers were still on the Appalachia to Big Stone Gap segment the day of the grand opening, a segment that includes the Bee Tunnel, one of the shortest and possibly most charming of all railroad tunnels in the U.S.

“There was no question we would continue moving forward to Norton. I mean, throughout that whole (grand opening) process, that trailhead (in Appalachia) was constantly packed. I mean, it was full of people, and winter weather hasn’t slowed that up all that much in the meantime, either,” Miller said.

The logic is simple, Miller said. Why settle for a smidge over a single-mile trail linking two municipalities when you can have a trail at least a dozen miles linking three, creating not just a largely local but now regional recreational attraction as well as a much larger economic impact potential while you’re at it?

“In terms of economic impact, a trail that’s a mile long really is more for local residents. Essentially, it’s a recreational venue for local residents,” Miller said.

“But at an estimate of 10 or 11 miles longer, that’s a trail network of 12 to 13 miles, and what that ends up doing is it opens it up to people outside of the area. Instead of spending an hour or two on a trail, most people who go on a trail want to spend half a day or a day on a trail. So Norton to Big Stone Gap certainly makes that ready to be more of a regional draw to bring people in. If we can build that trail? It would be an amazing trail.”

The planning grant will assess the entire length of the abandoned railroad bed from Appalachia to Norton, including how many trestles span the North Fork of the Powell River between the two municipalities, the condition of the trestles and the work needed to turn the old railbed into a proper hiking/biking trail.

“Then hopefully the study can come up with a cost estimate. What we certainly want to know is, as accurate as possible, just to get real good cost estimates. That’s a very important element when you apply for funding for projects,” he said.

“The next steps will be the procurement process to hire a professional firm to come in and do the study. I would like to have the study completed in the next eight to 10 months. I’d like to see it get done even sooner than that, but that’s a realistic timeframe to have as a goal for right now,” Miller said.

While a three-town-trail through some of Wise County’s finest natural scenery will be a major accomplishment, Miller said what the three municipalities have already achieved is special to behold.

“It’s been wonderful seeing Norton, Big Stone Gap and Appalachia working together on this and seeing how everybody is thinking ‘region first,’ ” Miller said. “It’s been a wonderful collaborative effort trying to get this trail built. The cooperation between the three towns and us to really work together, I just love doing that.”

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