On the Cusp of Ecusta

“Rails to trails” project will benefit Henderson and Transylvania counties

Chris Burns walks the line (in anticipation of one day riding it).
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

The conversion of unused railroad corridors into public, multi-use greenways —  commonly called “rails to trails” — is a growing trend. Nearly 5,000 miles of defunct lines in 33 states have been transformed into pathways for walking, biking, and hiking: Popular regional examples include the Virginia Creeper Trail in southwestern Virginia and The Swamp Rabbit Trail in Greenville County, South Carolina. Now a 19-mile trail is being planned between Hendersonville and Brevard. The Ecusta Trail, spearheaded by the nonprofit Friends of the Ecusta Trail, is expected to eventually connect Hendersonville, Laurel Park, Horse Shoe, Etowah, Pisgah Forest, and Brevard. Bold Life spoke about the project with Friends of the Ecusta Trail Treasurer Chris Burns, a founding member of the organization.

How’d you choose the name?

A lot of people ask and don’t understand that the trail isn’t named after the old cigarette-paper plant. It’s a Cherokee word that means “rippling waters” — the name the Cherokee gave the Davidson River. The paper plant was actually named after the river. 

How long have you been working on this project?

We met unofficially in 2008 and formed the nonprofit in 2009. We approached Norfolk Southern, and set about to learn all we could about rail trails and why they are important to the community. Our group has pushed through thick and thin. We’ve put more community-leader trips together to the Swamp Rabbit Trail than you can imagine. People want to know about the cost, parking, the economic impact. Hospitals say trails have absolutely huge health benefits for the community, and that was even before the pandemic.

Have you acquired the property?

In 2019, a federal grant came through for specifically purchasing these kinds of corridors. Friends of Ecusta has no paid staff; we are 100 percent volunteer [run], so we reached out to Conserving Carolina [a WNC conservation nonprofit] and said, “Let’s partner and make it work.” They applied for a $6.4 million grant, which they won. Henderson County also applied for grants to fund the construction costs. In August of 2020 they got three grants for roughly $5 million. 

Congratulations!

But there’s still a lot of work to do. The NCDOT will pull down federal funds to reimburse 80 percent to Henderson County. So while we got all the funds for purchase, we still need 20 percent, and the Friends of Ecusta Trail have to spearhead that fundraising. We will start a capital campaign in 2021.

Do you have an estimate of completion?

We plan to complete the railroad-corridor land purchase in the spring of 2021. The first six miles will be completed in three phases. The first one-and-a-half miles, from downtown Hendersonville to Laurel Park, will begin around January of 2022, with a completion estimate of the end of 2022. The next one-and-a-half miles through Laurel Park should start in January of 2023 and be completed a year later. The last three miles to the French Broad River should start in approximately the fall of 2024 and be completed the end of 2025. Henderson County has applied for two additional grants to complete the remaining five miles in Henderson County — and lots of options are still in the works for the Transylvania County section.

For more information or to offer volunteer support to Friends of the Ecusta Trail, visit ecustatrail.org. 

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