Sunday, May 17, 2009

American Tobacco Trail - Background

The American Tobacco Trail is an interesting example of the unintended result of land use policy. What was created as a means to facilitate timber harvesting in the early 20th century has become a haven for cyclists, walkers, equestrians and alternative commuters.

The American Tobacco Trail (ATT) is currently an approximately 22 mile-long urban trail constructed on abandoned railroad lines. It runs from downtown Durham just acr
oss from the DBAP in the north, crosses I-40 at Southpoint Mall, runs through the north-eastern corner of Chatham County, and continues in Wake county to the southern trail head located just to the west of Apex on highway 751.

History and Geography
The ATT is constructed on the remnants of the old Durham and Southern Railroad, organized by W. Roscoe Bonsal, Samuel O. Bauersfeld, and Henry A. London. Railroad companies had immense political power at the turn of the century, and the study of how they affected the growth and development of the region is worth a whole post by itself.

Bonsal was a railroad executive with exclusive rights to expansion in the area, and London owned the timber rights to the land in New Hope Valley, the current location of Jordan Lake. The original line, completed in 1906 ran from the new community of Bonsal, just west of New Hill, NC, to Keene, a community in the south of Durham and the location of an existing line. This junction is located near the present-day intersection of Fayettville Street and Cornwallis Road near Hillside High School.
During a period in the 20's, this small spur of less than ten miles, now transporting tobacco instead of timber, made enough money to pay for the operation of the entire 900+ mile network of railroads owned by Norfolk Southern. In 1920, the larger railroad Norfolk Southern leased out the track owned by Durham and Southern Railroad, and constructed track from Keene directly to the warehouse area now known as the American Tobacco District in downtown Durham.

the map below shows the location of the line before the construction of Jordan Lake

In 1945, a devastating hurricane hit southeastern NC, causing severe flooding on the Cape Fear River, particularly in Fayettville, NC. With normal legislative alacrity, the government of NC finally authorized the construction of a flood control project 1963. Originally named the New Hope River Project, it called for a dam on the New Hope River to flood sections of that river and the Haw. Secondary uses for the lake were to provide drinking water and recreation.

Before construction was complete, the legislature changed the name of the dam to the B. Everett Jordan Dam to honor B. Everett Jordan, a US Senator from NC. The lake then became known as Jordan lake.

According to statute, the Army Corps of Engineers (ACoE) is required to replace railroad track that it inundates with the creation of a new lake. Construction of the replacement line to the east of the original track was completed in 1974 and remained in use until 1981, at which time the line was abandoned (before Jordan lake was done filling - in 1983). There is a great video about the construction of the rail line at "Bridging Rails to Trails", a frustratingly unfinished website containing information about the ATT. The video contains an animation showing the relocation of the rail line, and the filling in of Jordan Lake.

There a lots of good local stories concerning the ATT. The best one I heard was that the railroad had to carry three loaded trains as part of it's certification. The story goes that the third train took up the track on its way out after certifying the line. Great story, and totally believable, but I was unable to confirm that, or a number of other anecdotes that I came across in my reading.

After the railroad abandoned the line, several large sections of it were bought by public and private interests to construct, among other things, Sharon Harris nuclear power plant, and a section of I-40, and portions of the Woodcroft neighborhood in southern Durham. The NC DOT was pleased that they didn't have to build an expensive overpass to cross the train tracks when they built I-40, now we're paying for it as Durham tries to fund a pedestrian bridge across I-40 that will complete the ATT. It should be pointed out that a pedestrian bridge costs considerably less to build than an interstate overpass or rail bridge.

Almost immediately upon abandonment, a six mile stretch from Bonsal to New Hill was purchased by the East Carolina Chapter, National Railway Historical Society
for use as a working museum, or a "hobby railroad". The New Hope Valley Railroad still operates passenger trains on this section of track one Sunday every month.

Between 1995 and 1998, the NC DOT purchased the bulk of the line still owned by Norfolk Southern. Founded in 1989, the Triangle Rails to Trails Conservancy has worked to bring this former rail corridor into public use as a trail. The first three miles of trail was opened in Durham in 2000. Since that time, almost the entire trail has been graded and conditioned, with a portion in Chatham county being the last section to be completed. Also in Chatham county are two former railroad bridges that are now being re-fitted to allow pedestrian, cycle, and horse access. This grading and bridge construction project is currently projected to be complete in mid- August. Once that is finished, the only broken link on the trail will be the pedestrian bridge over I-40. Durham has settled on a final design for the bridge, and construction is slated to begin this summer. The city says this project will be complete by the end of 2010.

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