Trail of the Month: May 2022
“The economy took a huge hit after coal left here, so we’re using what we have available to us, which is our outdoors—and it’s beautiful.”
—Lara Pack, volunteer for the Paintsville/Johnson County Trail Town Committee
Before she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid disease in 2008, Lara Pack was an avid outdoors person. She loved kayaking, canoeing, horseback riding, hiking and fishing through the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Now pushing 60 years old, Pack said while the pain can be pretty debilitating, she chooses to focus not on her limitations but on her passion: advocating for turning Eastern Kentucky into an adventure tourism destination.
“The economy took a huge hit after coal left here, so we’re using what we have available to us, which is our outdoors—and it’s beautiful,” said Pack. “We’re going full blown toward the adventure tourism arena. It gets more popular every day.”
Her advocacy work, including volunteering as a trail town catalyst for the Paintsville/Johnson County Trail Town Committee founded in 2017, helped spur the development of the Dawkins Line Rail Trail, Kentucky’s longest rail-trail. The 36-mile crushed-stone path is now open to bicyclists, hikers and horseback riders; a short, paved portion is also available in Royalton. The trail takes visitors on a journey back in time as they wind through the bright green Appalachian forests of Breathitt, Johnson and Magoffin counties.
From Lumber to Coal to Tourism
The Dawkins Line Rail Trail was originally a rail line for lumber, built in 1912 by the Dawkins Line Lumber Company to haul out chopped trees, before coal started to come on strong in the early 20th century.
“For nearly 100 years the Dawkins Line fueled the local economy by exporting natural resources,” said Ron Vanover, deputy commissioner for the Kentucky Department of Parks, noting that lumber and coal from the hills of Eastern Kentucky helped construct towns and powered cities far from Appalachia.
But the forestry boom didn’t last. The stock market collapse of 1929 led to the Great Depression and the shutdown of rail companies across the United States. The Dawkins Line was used sporadically until it was purchased by the R.J. Corman Company, a rail company out of Lexington, in the early 2000s. The line was later purchased by the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 2011, and funds from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet turned the route into a multiuse trail. Its first section, stretching 18 miles between Hagerhill and Royalton, opened in 2013.
The evolution of the use of the rail corridor from natural resources to tourism has benefited modern users. The transformation from rail to trail means a mild grade throughout as users enjoy the lush scenery, 24 scenic trestle bridges, a series of waterfalls and the 680-foot Gun Creek Tunnel. (The Tip Top Tunnel is not yet accessible to the public; the Kentucky Department of Parks said its future use was under review.)
“You get a different glimpse of what the world looks like from the trail,” said Pack.
Historical sites also line the trail, including the one-room house where a small-town doctor used to serve mountain patients, century-old cemeteries, homesteads that belonged to turn-of-the-century inhabitants and the remains of a former vault from an old bank building.
Small Town Centerpiece
The trail terminus in Johnson County boasts the must-see Griffith Family Farm Trail Store. According to Pack, the owners left traditional jobs and built a homeschooling cooperative for their kids and other families near the town of Swamp Branch. The store next door—a big red barn-like structure—sources local products like bread, meat and canned goods, and offers adjacent boondock camping and a gravel parking lot with plenty of space for horse trailers.
Victoria Doucette was born and raised in the nearby town of Royalton, where she now works as president of Royalton Trail Town Inc. Her town is smack dab in the middle of the Dawkins Line, boasting a gas station with a country store attached and a bakery called Cheesecake Lady.
“The small rural city of Royalton is the centerpiece of the trail,” said Vanover. “[The trail] has benefitted the small businesses tremendously.”
Four years ago, the trail town nonprofit received a $1.9 million grant from the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program, a federal fund to help communities reclaim land mined before 1977. Doucette plans to turn 15 acres right on the Dawkins Line into a campsite with a stage, showers, a laundromat and eventually, Doucette hopes, a small shop serving meals and snacks. Future dreams include providing transportation for folks who want to cycle one way and shuttle back, guided trail rides and even pet sitting or childcare services. R.J. Corman, the former owner of the railroad, gave Doucette an old red caboose that she plans to park at the front gate to the campground.
“Our project is going to create jobs,” said Doucette. One of her neighbors had already sold plots of land for cabins for new homeowners or to rent to new visitors. “It’ll open things up along the trail.”
The Trail’s Mother Teresa
The trail, now such a boon for the area, may never have taken off if it hadn’t been for Jane Beshear, the former first lady of Kentucky when her husband, Steve Beshear, served as governor from 2007 to 2015. An avid horseback rider, she became a strong advocate for transforming the old rail line into a trail.
“I call her Mother Teresa,” said Doucette. “Ten years ago, she worked very, very hard to get the Dawkins Line Rail Trail built. In fact, we have a trailhead at Royalton named the Jane Beshear Trailhead.”
The hills surrounding the Dawkins Line have plenty of trails for horseback riding, but Tamara Hicks, a horseback rider from Northern Kentucky, said when these paths are wet—as they often are in the spring—the Dawkins Line offers a welcome reprieve.
“It’s a great place to ride when all the trails are muddy because you’ve got this solid base,” said Hicks, who’s been to the Dawkins Line about half a dozen times. Plus, she added, there’s history. “You can ride through and imagine trains going by and see remnants of railroad signs and posts.”
Hicks and her husband have two horses, Tank and Hank. But she had to retire Hank for five years because he came up limp with a fractured hock in his lower leg. After half a decade of therapies and vet visits, Hank recovered, and Hicks has been riding him ever since, bringing him to the Dawkins Line this spring and calling him “my unicorn.”
“Jane Beshear saw [the trail] as something needed,” said Doucette. “We’ve got a lot of beauty up there to share with people and then get some revenue.”
New Economy for Eastern Kentucky
Pack, once on the board of commissioners for the local tourism authority, said coal mining was a way of life in Eastern Kentucky for so long that every family, including her own, has been impacted economically by coal’s exodus.
“It’s been hard to recover from that,” said Pack. “We went from self-subsistence farmers to being exploited by lumber and coal companies, and now in the absence of all that we have a really unique opportunity to be masters and mistresses of our own destiny. We can decide what we want to be, and what our economies are going to look like, so it’s an exciting time.”
She’s particularly driven to advocate for the rail-trail and create better opportunities for her community and her 16 grandchildren.
“I hope they have the opportunity to go and do whatever it is that sets their soul on fire, and I hope that’s here,” said Pack. “I hope that they don’t have to go searching somewhere else for a better life.”