They call it a "Phoenix project," a rail-trail vision now rising from the ashes.
Ever since trains on the Mountain Goat Railroad stopped running in 1981, the people of the Cumberland Plateau in Middle Tennessee have wondered whether there was a way to turn this disused corridor into the asset and vibrant avenue it once was.
The trains that climbed up and onto the Cumberland Plateau at Cowan earned the nickname Mountain Goat (right), and it stuck. Along a spur of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, they carried coal mined from Tennessee's mountains
through Sewanee and Tracy City, Coalmont, Gruetli-Laager, and Palmer. Most of these towns are now doing it pretty tough. The withdrawal of the railroad dragged away with it a lot of life, commerce and opportunity.
When the railroad ceased operations some of the corridor was secured by local landowners. Crucial to this story, the railroad company kept a 17-mile section that was not sold. Almost immediately, locals saw the great public potential of the corridor, and came together to advocate for the creation of a rail-trail. A lot of energy and support grew behind the idea. But the unfounded fears of adjacent landowners that a trail would have negative impacts, and a lack of cooperation from the railroad extinguished that community energy, saw the rail-trail plan run out of steam.
Meanwhile, the University of the South at Sewanee had itself purchased a 2-mile section of the corridor adjacent to their campus, obviously aware of the great appeal of a bike and pedestrian path to new and potential students (left) and staff. In the early 2000s an Eagle Scout by the name of Ian Prunty decided his good turn to the community would be to raise money to construct and pave a trail along the corridor. That short, but vital, section of rail-trailwould have an impact on the two counties that even young Prunty couldn't have imagined.
It became a key segment of the university's Perimeter Trail that connects the entire campus, as well as Saint Andrews-Sewanee High School with downtown Sewanee. Almost immediately, more people were biking, more people were walking and jogging and enjoying the trail. The success of this short section rekindled a local desire for the original rail-trail plan.
With real, undeniable evidence of the popularity of public trails right in front of them, local officials started to become amenable, the supporter-base of residents and business grew from the ground up once again, and now, 20-something years later the Mountain Goat Rail Trail project, itself a vision of rejuvenation, is back from the dead.
Better than that, it looks as if this thing might actually happen.
The Land Trust for Tennessee and the Mountain Goat Trail Alliance (MGTA) are collaborating in negotiations with landowners to acquire the rest of the corridor. The MGTA has raised about $200,000 in donations and pledges from residents and local businesses, has secured the easements for the Sewanee to Monteagle section, submitted final design plans for construction, assembled funding, and is working with elected officials in Monteagle and Tracy City to make that section of the trail a reality. And all of this local effort, local fundraising and local volunteer commitment is being supported by a federal Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) grant.
Patrick Dean is the only paid staff member of the Mountain Goat Trail Alliance. He's the website manager, the social media guy, the press guy, the campaigns guy - supported by a volunteer list of a few hundred and a volunteer board. He says that everyone behind the trail effort is conscious of the fact that, like many communities around America at the moment, the local counties have some pressing financial challenges.
"But the support from here has been incredible. Everyone is excited about working with us to get their section of the trail built. We've had road construction people offering their services to level and pave the trail, and locals offering in-kind materials and equipment."
Is the community getting behind it? Late last year two local kids asked their parents and family not to buy them birthday presents and instead donate the money to the Mountain Goat Trail.
Monteagle Mayor Charles Rollins - "We have a lot of cyclists in the area. I believe it will improve tourism for people who have an active lifestyle."
State Senator Jerry Cooper - "This trail will only add to amenities available to residents and visitors year-round."
"No rail-trail project ever dies," Marianne Fowler told me. My colleague here at RTC, whose family roots run deep through Tennessee soil, has been keeping an eye on the fortunes of the Mountain Goat Trail for many years and is delighted to see a terrific idea find fertile ground, now that the many benefits of trails and options for biking and walking have been proven beyond a doubt.
"The obstacles the project faced back in the 80s proved insurmountable, but the dream never died," she said this week. "The perseverance of these wonderful advocates in Tennessee is about to pay huge dividends for everyone in that community."
If you love inspiring stories of local communities making the seemingly impossible possible, then sign up to the Mountain Goat Trail Alliance's email updates, and pull up a front row seat. It's happening, people.