abandoned L&N line from Appalachia to Big Stone Gap to become trail, pipeline and fiber optics line?

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Wed Jun 24 07:38:15 EDT 2009

Southwest Va rail spur prepares for rebirth
Posted 6/23/2009 3:40 PM ET E-mail | Save | Print

By Steve Igo Kingsport Times-News
BIG STONE GAP, Va. - There's a whole lot riding on an abandoned rail spur even though trains no longer do.
Wise County and the towns of Big Stone Gap and Appalachia are poised to effect the rebirth of a locally revered section of railroad that packs quite a lot of potential into its mere 1.8-mile stretch, including one of the shortest railroad tunnels in the country and some splendid views.

Originally built in 1890 by L&N Railroad, the spur between Big Stone Gap and Appalachia saw the end of train operations in the 1970s. Local officials have signed a lease with the current owner, Norfolk Southern, for right of way to transform the spur into a Rails-to-Trails project with more than a footpath in mind.

While they're at it, the towns and county will install a pipeline to connect the two town water systems and a fiber-optics line to boot.

"This is a three-in-one type of project," said Lenowisco Planning District Commission Executive Director Glen "Skip" Skinner.

"From my perspective, the water project is the premiere part. It's the finish. It's our last major project from the regional water study we started years ago to have everybody interconnected for redundancies. There may be a 'Part B' eventually to connect Norton and Appalachia (water systems), but this allows the interconnection for emergency water supplies to be shared back and forth as the needs arise, and that's kind of the premiere project from that aspect."

This is one old rail spur to be invested with all sorts of modern curves, he added.

"Appalachia is also one of the last communities (in Wise County) not to have a redundancy for Internet and broadband services. By utilizing the same right of way, we can make that happen as well," Skinner said. "Of course, the third thing is the local asset-based development of one of the prettiest hikes anybody can make anywhere. It's absolutely gorgeous."

The rail line follows the Powell River between the towns and features a trestle at either end that will be transformed for use by hikers and bicyclists. The 135-foot Callahan Nose Tunnel straddles the Big Stone Gap end of the spur and one of the most unique railroad tunnels anywhere -- Bee Rock Tunnel -- provides a smile at the Appalachia end. At 47 feet, Bee Rock is one of the shortest rail tunnels in the nation as it pokes through a fascinating slice of local geology.

Skinner said the localities have signed a right-of-way lease agreement with the railroad and await their copy of the pact. Total cost of upgrades to provide for the trail is nearly $1.5 million with the funding package still a work in progress and total project cost in the neighborhood of $2.5 million.

The federal Rural Development Agency, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has provided a grant to Appalachia for the waterline interconnect, but other funding aspects remain to be secured so a timeline to begin awaits the final money package. Wise County has earmarked $150,000 for the combined project.

"It's a good project. It's an exciting project for both towns and the county as well. It ties into the Spearhead Trail project that covers most of southwest Virginia, and it's a link between the towns not only for a hiking and biking trail, but the pipeline connectivity gives backup water supplies for both towns, and the fiber optics part is important, too," said Big Stone Gap Town Manager Pat Murphy.

"For Big Stone Gap, what we're excited about is we already have great recreational facilities now with our Greenbelt and our parks. This gives the potential to extend that Greenbelt to the new trail and just expand what we have already recreationally. Recreational tourism is one of the biggest things we have that we can develop to its full potential, and we're just now beginning to tap into that area."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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