Tennessee Central Heritage Rail Trail

Posted 08/01/13 by Laura Stark in America's Trails

Image © Chuck Sutherland

Trail of the Month: August 2013

"Our identity was coal...Now, our history and our beauty and our tourism will be our focus."

It's hard to imagine a prettier place for a rail-trail. The emerging 19-mile Tennessee Central Heritage Rail Trail winds across the high plains of central Tennessee between Cookeville and Monterey, a town "Where the Hilltops Kiss the Sky." Excitement is building for the new recreational amenity, which will be unique to these communities in a region that already counts itself lucky with gorges, waterfalls, caves, rocky bluffs and the Cumberland Mountains above it all.

Named for the Tennessee Central Railroad, a boon for the region in the early twentieth century, the rail-trail offers the enticing potential to spur a new rush of economic opportunity. Its advocates hope that the area's natural bounty within easy reach of two of the state's largest cities—Nashville and Knoxville—will make the trail a shoe-in for a tourist destination.

"Once the trail opens, it will help the economy greatly around here," says Ken Hall, Monterey's cultural administrator. "We lost our identity. Our identity was coal and when that industry died out, the town slowly started to die and we stumbled around looking for an identity. Now, our history and our beauty and our tourism will be our focus."

Hall hopes that when the trail is complete, it will be as well known as the Virginia Creeper. Like its famous cousin, the Tennessee Central Heritage Rail Trail will have no shortage of history for railroad buffs. It's currently bookended with two trailside depots and, midway, the quaint city of Algood hopes to add a third once its section of trail is complete.

"We hope it will help revitalize downtown," says Keith Morrison, Algood's City Manager, of the potential new depot. "There used to be a depot here that was a central hub. We want to build a replica and have Algood's history displayed inside."

On the trail's western end, the Cookeville depot has stood for more than a century though it had fallen into disrepair after the trains stopped running. It's hard to imagine now that the beautiful red brick building with its unusual and elegant pagoda-style roof was once scheduled for demolition before a citizens group (later known as the Friends of the Depot) mobilized and restored it.

Today, the depot serves as an anchor in Cookeville's reenergized downtown, surrounded by boutique shops and an eclectic mix of restaurants. Across the street, a large neon sign, nearly dwarfing the building on which it sits, blinks "Cream City Ice Cream," above an ice cream parlor serving up old-fashioned milkshakes and modern-day lattes.

"We don't have big national brands," says Melinda Keifer, Cookeville's economic and community development coordinator. "But we have a strong business community."

The depot in Monterey, on the east end of the trail, opened just last year and has already seen 15,000 visitors. Though it's a replica, it was thoughtfully recreated from an original diagram of the 1903 building. Ken Hall curates the museum and many of the pieces are his own, handed down from his father who loved the railroad and collected relics from the days of the steam-engine and early diesels.

"My grandfather started with the railroad in 1890 and my father in 1934," says Hall. "All my uncles worked on the railroad, too. Although I didn't choose the railroad as my career, I wanted that tie to the railroad to complete the circle."

The corridor that the trail follows originally belonged to the Nashville and Knoxville Railroad, founded in 1884, which later became Tennessee Central Railroad. The trains primarily carried coal, as well as other natural resources and manufactured goods. It had a long run, lasting until 1968 before finally going out of business. But the tracks did not stay dormant permanently. Nearly 20 years later, a few trains a week began to roll down the corridor once again under a new banner, the Nashville and Eastern Railroad, which now serves a large sand mining operation and other industries between Nashville and Monterey.

A few times a year, vintage 1950s-era trains also whisk bright-eyed tourists from Nashville to Cookeville and other communities along the way to enjoy farmers markets, antique shops, handmade crafts, friendly restaurants, and all the warmth and charm of small Southern towns. The themed rides, organized by the Tennessee Central Railway Museum, include fall foliage sightseeing, journeys with Santa, and Thomas the Train trips that proclaim to give youngsters the "ride of their life."

"The excursion trains carry 300 to 500 people from Nashville to enjoy our town," says Keifer. As the home of Tennessee Technological University, Cookeville is a college town that she calls, "a happening little place."  

The much anticipated pathway will be built on the outer edge of the active railroad's right-of-way. Such projects, known as rail-with-trails, are not uncommon around the country and offer effective ways of connecting communities. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is developing a report—anticipated to be published within the next few weeks—to provide tools and information on rail-with-trails like this one for the trail-building community.

"The railroad has been wonderful to work with," says Keifer. "They've been ready to compromise and work with us in any way that they can."

Currently, only a half-mile of the Tennessee Central Heritage Rail Trail has been constructed, but more trail is coming, and soon. A partnership of four government agencies—Putnam County, Cookeville, Algood and Monterey—is actively pursuing its development, and a nonprofit volunteer group will manage and maintain the trail.

The remainder of the trail will be built in four phases, starting in Cookeville and moving east. Funding is in place for the first phase, a four-mile stretch from Cookeville to Algood, and bidding is expected to get underway within the next few months. Construction may begin as early as next spring. The second phase of nearly seven miles is expected to follow hot on its heels.

East of Algood, passage up the side of Brotherton Mountain for phase three will prove a challenge, but also an appealing attraction for adventure seekers. The trail diverts from the rail corridor here with switchbacks used to manage the elevation.

"I think the section that will draw the most tourists will be the rustic section between Monterey and Algood," says Hall. "It will be a beautiful trail with mountain scenery, woodlands and lots of wildlife."

The last phase, about a mile long, will connect the trail to the already open segment in Monterey. The town is awaiting word on a potential grant for construction and, once in hand, can begin the bidding process. Hall thinks the section could be completed as early as the end of the year.

After many years of slow, but steady progress, this flurry of activity makes the trail more tantalizingly palpable than ever. "There was a tremendous amount of excitement when the project was originally thrown out there," says Keifer of the trail, which was first proposed in the mid-2000s. "Once we get our next piece on the ground, it will re-energize that momentum."


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