Trail of the Month: August 2015
“I’ve heard dozens of times that it’s the best thing to have happened in this part of the country.”
On the cusp of its two-year anniversary, northern Mississippi’s Tanglefoot Trail is growing into its own. Reviews of the trail on TrailLink.com describe it as “absolutely perfect,” “a Southern gem” and “one of the best!” And it’s not hard to see why. At 44 miles, the Tanglefoot Trail has edged out the Longleaf Trace for the longest rail-trail in the state and can easily rub shoulders with the Rail-Trail Hall of Famer in terms of scenery, friendly towns, historical significance and trailside amenities. Its feeling is undeniably rural; cattle and sheep roam the pastures alongside the trail, and fields of soybeans, cotton and corn unfold under a wide sky.
“In the fall with the leaves turning, it’s absolutely beautiful,” says Don Locke, the trail’s manager, who points out that about 75 percent of the trail is under tree canopy. “We have hot summers, but in the summertime, the trail is lush and green and several degrees cooler in the shade.”
The sweet gum trees, which add pops of bright red in autumn, are a favorite sight of local resident Bob Chamblee. Living just a few blocks from the Tanglefoot, Chamblee bought a bike in anticipation of its fall 2013 opening and rode down the entire trail and back—a distance of more than 80 miles—on his 80th birthday. Since then, he rides the trail three or four times a week, about 20 miles at a time, an impressive feat for a person even half his age.
“The beauty of the trail is that the terrain is so gentle and it’s all asphalt,” says Sean Johnson, the marketing and tourism director for New Albany, the largest city on the trail and its northern terminus. “It’s inspired people to become a lot more active with a bicycle. You don’t have to be fit to use it.”
Chamblee was so enthused about the trail that officials gave him a special honor during the trail’s grand opening: the opportunity to carry a ceremonial silver railroad spike in a relay of bikers riding from the trail’s southern terminus in Houston to Pontotoc, its midpoint. A matching spike traveled from the opposite end of the trail at New Albany south to Pontotoc. The symbolic journey and meeting of the two spikes mid-trail was in recognition of the original 1888 ceremony of the railroad’s completion 125 years prior. On that momentous occasion, the railroad spike was driven into the ground by Effie Dean Faulkner, the daughter of Colonel William C. Faulkner, who ran the railroad. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because this very same man was great-grandfather to famed American writer William Faulkner, who was born in New Albany.
The trail itself sits between two historical sites from the life of another iconic American: Elvis Presley. His birthplace of Tupelo is about 20 miles east of the trail, and his Graceland estate is 70 miles northwest in Memphis. The rags-to-riches contrast between the two homes will be of interest to history buffs and rock-n-roll lovers who visit the rail-trail and want to explore the surrounding area.
Although 10 years passed between the abandonment of the rail corridor and the trail’s completion, it opened with a bang—all 44 miles at once, largely funded by a federal Transportation Enhancement grant. The project really took off in 2006, when a grassroots organization called the Rail Corridor Alliance was formed to advocate for and promote the conversion of the railroad right-of-way to a rail-trail. The trail passes through three counties (Chickasaw, Pontotoc and Union) and a half-dozen communities, and each one has a seat on the trail’s governance board, which meets monthly.
But it’s not just government agencies that are fully invested in the trail. Businesses and local citizens have embraced it as well. Locke says that the trail has 118 sponsors—individuals and private entities that run the gamut from restaurants to lodgings to bike shops and grocery stores—that have signed contracts to financially support trail projects (such as bridge work) with lump-sum payments or in annual installments over a five-year period. And it’s with good reason: it makes good economic sense.
“The trail’s been in operation for two years, and I can point to at least 10 businesses that have started along the trail since it opened,” says Locke. “We’ve seen a significant amount of new businesses open up.”
Johnson agrees. “Originally, people didn’t get it. They didn’t realize that it would have the impact that it does," he states. “But, in a sleepy town of 8,000, people started noticing when people from different parts of the country started showing up. We’ve seen a 20 percent increase in tourism tax revenue this year. That’s phenomenal.”
Not resting on its laurels, more improvements for the trail are underway. Three “gateway buildings” are being planned for the largest communities on the trail—New Albany, Pontotoc and Houston—which will serve as welcome centers for the trail and offer a variety of amenities, such as gift shops, office space, historical displays and parking, depending on funding. Currently, four smaller trailside facilities called “whistle stops” provide restrooms, drinking water and picnic tables about every 10 miles in Ingomar, Ecru, Algoma and New Houlka.
Another project will connect a cluster of hotels in New Albany to the Tanglefoot with a trail spur. “We hope to have it done within the next couple of years,” says Johnson. “The beauty of it is that it meanders enough that it adds another 6 miles to the trail round-trip, so you could do a century ride.”
Locke, who has been involved with the trail since its early development, is excited for its future. “We had our detractors, sure,” he says. “But by and large, the trail has been well received. It’s become a destination for cyclists. Once it was up and going, they could see people coming to our towns, eating in our restaurants, staying in our hotels and shopping in our stores. They realized that we didn’t have that before the trail was here, and I’ve heard dozens of times that it’s the best thing to have happened in this part of the country.”