Riding the American Tobacco Trail
I got an email back from Joe Godfrey, the Senior Park Planner for Cary, in response to my inquiry on the completion date of the American Tobacco Trail telling me that he expects the trail to be complete from New Hill to I-40 in mid to late August. Completion of the trail requires the completion of bridges over Panther and Northeast creeks in Chatham county, some grading and paving, the installation of info kiosks, and various other aesthetic concerns. Translating the government time line into real world time (municipalities and Microsoft both use the same alternate time measurement - much slower than real time) means that we will be lucky to get an official opening this year (the ATT pedestrian bridge over I-40 was scheduled to be finished in late 2008 as recently as 2007). However, having grown up in the area and having been witness to the construction of dozens of miles of greenway trails, I knew that the bridges and elements essential to use are often completed long before the official opening date. They use the rest of the time to finish grading and landscaping, install parking, put up warning signs that I never read, and arrange an official opening attended by local big-wigs.
Therefore, my wife, sister and I made an attempt to ride the entire tobacco trail this last weekend. I read on a couple of websites that the construction is in progress on the two remaining bridges in Chatham county needed to complete the trail up to I-40. Coming from the south, I have successfully forded Panther Creek (interesting name - does it hearken back to the time when native panthers roamed the area?) giving nothing but wet and muddy shoes in payment. The northern creek, Northeast Creek is much more formidable. I think this portion of Northeast Creek is backed up from Lake Jordan - the creek is very wide, looks deep, and I could not detect any flow. The bank on the other side is pretty steep, almost vertical. I didn't fancy swimming my bike across, and climbing the muddy bank, so I was forced to turn back.
This time out, I was prepared to route around the under-construction bridges (which requires a 6 mile juant along 2-lane, speed limit 55, highly traveled hwy 751) but was hopeful that we could ford, cross, jump, swing or fly across any section of bridge that might be unfinished.
After ferrying a car to downtown Durham, we parked in the parking lot for the ATT on hwy 751 south of US 64. It was raining on and off all afternoon, but it was Memorial Day, and the lot was pretty full of families out for a relaxing stroll or ride. It seemed that most users that day were out on their bikes.
When I get moving on my bike, I'm often pretty bad about keeping an eye out for wildlife. While many of my most exciting moments in wildlife viewing (Bear! Wolf! Sea Turtle!) have been on bicycle, I attribute this more to the amount of time I spend on the saddle in the middle of nowhere than to my keen eye while mounted. I almost ran over a cotton mouth in Dare County because my attention was further down the road.
Luckily for me, then, an observant family pointed out this prehistoric monster not a mile into our trip:
This is turned out to be our best wildlife sighting of the day. It appears to be a Chelydra serpentina, or a Common Snapping Turtle, though I am by no means a reptile expert. I was sure enough of my identification to keep my fingers and toes away from her mouth. She sat still for photographs, and allowed us to use a stick clear the grass from around her without snapping, or even hissing. All of which was extremely disappointing. What's the use of encountering dangerous animals if you can't brag about your courage later?
We decided to leave the turtle alone, with no stick-poking or active molesting of any kind. I'm pretty sure she was annoyed with us just for being there. Snapping turtles are crabby like that.
Continuing on, we enjoyed the shaded path and flat topography. The trail cuts through several rural neighborhoods and some old farms. The trail goes through a tunnel underneath Highway 64. The tunnel was constructed when 64 was widened several years ago, in anticipation of the ATT's creation. Signs on the exterior of the tunnel warn cyclists to dismount to walk through the tunnel, and to wait for all horses to exit the tunnel before proceeding. While the horse advice might be good, we rode straight through without dismounting, and were able to avoid disaster.
There are bathroom facilities open at the White Oak Church Road access, but no running water. While poking around the parking area and checking out the bathrooms, we noticed several cyclists pull up hoping to fill up their water bottles, only to be thirstily disappointed. Make sure to bring enough water for your entire trip, and then add a little more! I found no public water fountain on the southern portion of the entire ATT.
A little over eight miles from our starting point in New Hill, we hit our first unfinished bridge, over Panther Creek. For several sections of trail preceding the bridge, we were confronted with warning signs, telling us of construction, danger, and horrible things if we were to proceed. The trail is officially closed from north of New Hope Church Road. It was a busy day on the trail, and with proper mob mentality, we followed several other cyclists around the signs and rode on through to check out the state of the bridge.
This map from Google shows the old train truss' that the new bridge is being built upon.
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Most of the bridge has been completed - the concrete ramp on the northern side that connects the trail to the bank to the bridge has not yet been framed. The only way across was a 10*2 board stretched across the gap. It was maybe a 15 foot gap, with a 15 foot drop to the rocks below. We decided at this point the wisest course of action would be to loop around to the other side trail, rather than risk the crossing.
North of Panther Creek the trail was not as well groomed, it was narrower and rougher, with significantly less traffic. This section of trail in particular is a bit isolated. It is bounded by two unfinished bridges and crosses only one street. It seems like most of the users of this section of trail live in the immediate area. We saw only dog walkers and individuals out for a stroll - no families or bicycles.
After crossing Okelly Chapel Road, we came to our next obstacle; the bridge over Northeast Creek.
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This bridge is less complete - planking is only laid over 2/3 of the truss' and the ramps on both ends are not yet started. We captured this adventurous trail user climbing up to check out the progress:
After another lengthy detour, we found ourselves on the north side of the Northeast Creek bridge. From here to I-40, the trail is even more rough, with less grading. We came across a local volunteer - at least he did not appear to be a government employee - mowing the grass that grew in the middle of the trail with a riding mower. I couldn't get my camera out before he rounded the corner, but in this picture you can see the grassy nature of the trail between the Northeast Creek bridge and Massey Chapel Road.
This portion of trail is a bit more traveled than the section between Panther and Northeast creeks. It is easy to access this trail from the neighborhoods south of Southpoint mall, and many people were taking advantage of the day off work for a nice stroll along the former railroad corridor.
The trail crosses Fayetteville Road (site of a future public access and parking lot for the ATT) and continues on to Massey Chapel Rd. Here it seems that trail maintenance ends, but it is possible to continue following the former rail right-of-way on the north side of the road. Here the trail became narrow, bumpy, and muddy in the flats.
The trail continued around the back side of Eagle's Pointe neighborhood, eventually dumping us out at a retention pond behind Morrell Lane.
Thus began the least enjoyable leg of our journey. We quickly found ourselves out on highway 715, a six lane road as it crossed I-40. We tried to keep up our pace and stay well to the right until we came to Audubon Lake Drive, which allowed us back over to highway 54 and the southern end of Durham's portion of the ATT. This leg introduced us to a challenge my wife was hoping to avoid - hill climbing! One of the nice things about a former rail corridor is that trains don't climb hills very well. The rolling hills of the Piedmont are conveniently graded to be nearly flat, providing a lovely venue for causal peddling.
Starting at the corner of highway 54 and Fayetteville Road, the Durham portion of the ATT is an asphalt-paved path with a 1 foot gravel shoulder on each side. I remember reading that this layout was a compromise with trail advocates, who were pushing to have the pavement laid down 12 feet wide. However, I can't find the link for that just now.
This is the oldest section of rail corridor that the current ATT sit upon. It was constructed in the early part of the first decade of the 1900's and remained in use for eight decades. This is truly an urban trail, with houses and shopping centers visible from the trail for the majority of the trip.
Crossing Fayetteville Road, you cross onto a newer section of right of way. The community of Keene, located at this junction, used to be the terminus of this trail until the Durham and Southern Railroad was taken over by Norfolk Southern and the rail was continued into downtown Durham.
A couple of crossings take you over major roads that require crossing signals, and at the time of our trip, there was construction going on at the Martin Luther King Parkway intersection. Barrels, barricades, tape, arrows and signs force you off the trail, on to the bike lane on the side of the road, to the intersection of the two large roads. Stranded away from any crossing signal buttons, you are then forced to dash across traffic if you can find an opening. Having negotiated this particular obstacle before, we opted to go around the barricades and jump the median. This is quicker and easier than trying to look for traffic coming from four different directions at a busy intersection. Here's to hoping they have that mess cleared up soon.
Many of the bridges along the trail have been retro-fitted to function as pedestrian bridges, crossing on the original trusses. Riding through this section (I've never walked the ATT, I always seem to be on my bike) is truly a pleasure, as you slice through neighborhoods and hillsides on a flat, straight, graded trail.
After Norfolk Southern opened the American Tobacco Spur in the early 20's, complaints started piling up that trains parked at the warehouses blocked traffic on Enterprise street, a connector between the Forest Hills and St Theresa neighborhoods. If ever there was an example of the proverbial "wrong side of the tracks", this is is. The Forest Hills neighborhood is one of the nicest in the urban area of Durham. As you travel up the ATT, it is almost impossible not to notice the dichotomy - large, elegant houses with large, manicured lawns on the west side of the tracks, small, run-down houses with more dirt than grass in their small yards to the east. Enterprise street was used at the time by many of the St Theresa's residents to travel to their service jobs in the wealthy neighborhood of Forest Hills.
As a mitigation for blocking Enterprise Street so regularly, Norfolk Southern agreed to build the Apex Street overpass, a bridge over the railroad just a bit south of Enterprise Street to allow travel between the two neighborhoods.
In recent years, the Apex Street bridge has begun to deteriorate. The city began contemplating closing the bridge to auto traffic and eventual demolition. This closure became a politically hot issue, as it began to be perceived that the move to close the bridge was driven largely by white residents in Forest Hills with racist motives, wishing to cut off access to less well-off black residents in St. Theresa's. There is a good short film about this issue and its resolution on the website "Bridging Rails to Trails".
Community activists from both neighborhoods led an organization effort that resulted in the closing of the bridge - first to auto and then to foot traffic. The pedestrian access was maintained by the creation of a foot path across the ATT connecting the two neighborhoods. The original bridge constructed by Norfolk Southern is now slated to be removed.
Coming out of the woods near the northern end of the ATT, you are greeted with a great view of the Durham skyline:It is nice to consider that many a train conductor had the same view of warehouses (minus high rise office buildings) over the decades as they brought their trains into Durham.
This is the ATT's northern terminus.
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It's the perfect place to end a bike ride, with the Mellow Mushroom, Tyler's and several other nice restaurants directly across the street. The DBAP is also right there, as is the new Performing Arts Center.
We had a great time and logged nearly 28 miles on our bicycles checking out this local treasure. When the bridges are all complete, it will be an easy, long, straight ride from rural Wake County to downtown Durham. The trail already has heavy usage, and it will undoubtedly pick up, especially when the pedestrian bridge over I-40 links Durham with Southpoint Mall south of the interstate. Durham has already had to amend the hours of operation for it's portion of the trail to accomodate all of the commuters who use it to travel back and forth to work. Bicycle commuting from even farther south, from Chatham and Wake Counties into Durham will become much more viable when the trail is complete.
The ATT is slated to become part of the East Coast Greenway, linking Maine to Florida. In the more immediate future, the trail will link to the area's expansive trail network, making it possible to ride from downtown Durham, through Cary to Umstead Park in Raleigh, on to the Raleigh Art Museum, and on to the Nuese River Trail east of Raleigh, without traveling on a road!