Trail of the Month: October 2003
American Tobacco Trail, North Carolina
At 23-plus miles, the American Tobacco Trail (ATT) is North Carolina's most ambitious rails-to-trails project. To rail-trail fans from outside the Triangle Region of Durham, N.C., though, this trail stands out for having one of the more curious names of any rail-trail across the country. Trails have come to be synonymous with healthy lifestyles which leads one to question the ATT's contradictory moniker. Built at the turn of the 20th century, the New Hope Railroad was driven by lucrative tobacco and textile businesses in Durham, and by the 1980s, Norfolk Southern owned the rail line. Its main customer was the American Tobacco Company which owned the Lucky Strike Factory in downtown Durham, and the rail line used to access the factory was known as the "American Tobacco" spur. Upon the abandonment and acquisition of this corridor in the late 1980s it seemed fitting to name the trail after the old rail line, and locals consider it a point of pride to see their trail being used to promote healthy and active living lifestyles.
To that end, the ATT is well on its way to creating a tradition of active living amongst Triangle Region residents. Once completed, the ATT will cover more than 23 miles from its northern end in downtown Durham near the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, to its southern end in western Wake County. The ATT passes through urban, suburban and rural areas, providing trail users in Durham with easy and safe access to parks and open spaces, schools, businesses and places of worship.
Heading south from downtown Durham, 7.7 miles of smoothly paved trail provide a great handicapped-accessible surface for inline skating, bicycling or just strolling. South of this section and at the beginning of the rural portion of the trail, three more miles of ATT right-of-way are open to the public. While the paved section to the north does not allow equestrians, this segment—which runs south from Massey Chapel Road to the Chatham County line—is perfect for horseback riding with its natural surface of crushed stone. After the ATT passes through Chatham County, which currently has no trail open to the public, trail users can enjoy another rural section in Wake County, where 3.5 miles of the ATT are open for use by hikers, bikers and equestrians.
The driving force behind the development of the ATT is the Triangle Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (TRTC), a volunteer citizens' group that has worked to preserve the rail corridor for public use since the late 1980s. Today, thanks to the efforts of TRTC, more than 98 percent of the corridor has been acquired and is in public ownership. The ATT is seen as integral to the creation of many miles of trail in the Durham area. In conjunction with the North-South Greenway, which will run from the Eno River through downtown Durham, the ATT will form the spine for a number of trails that have been or will be built to connect neighborhoods throughout the community. In addition, the ATT is also a vital component of the East Coast Greenway, a 2,600-mile trail network being developed to link cities, suburbs and towns from the Canadian border to Key West, Fla.