Why I support the Rails-to-Trails project
Published 10:19 am Thursday, October 20, 2022
The old Southern Railway line through Tryon is likely to be converted to a rail-trail in coming years. Some of us who live here welcome it, others oppose it. For example, Ellis Fincher, whom I have known for more than fifty years and whom I admire and consider a friend, recently wrote a letter to the Bulletin expressing his opposition. I appreciate that Ellis has made his views known, and I read his letter carefully. I wouldn’t presume to tell him or anyone else what they should think about the rail-trail, but I’d like my chance to say why I am in favor of it.
I am very fortunate to have grown up in Tryon, on Piney Mountain just above Horseshoe Curve. Our land bordered on the railroad, and in the winter we could see through the trees the lighted windows of the passenger cars as the trains rumbled by. Though it was forbidden, many people walked on the tracks back then too. I remember my older brother walking with me along the tracks into Tryon for my first haircut at Thompson’s Barbershop when I was six years old.
When I was older I would sometimes walk by myself through the haunted deep cut below Piney Mountain, though the only thing that ever scared me there were the trains. A train could suddenly appear in the cut, blaring and screaming around the sharp turn, forcing me to lay back against the bank as its cars flew by just in front of my face.
Back then, you could pay a quarter to ride the passenger train from Tryon to Saluda. I remember how excited we were when our Cub Scout den took that ride. We glided past woods, big boulders, and waterfalls as the train traveled around Horseshoe Curve and up the Saluda Grade through the Pacolet River Gorge. Our mothers picked us up in Saluda that time, but we had to walk home another time when friends took an impromptu train ride in the other direction, over the high trestle to Landrum.
Although the trains are gone, the scenery remains. Many times in more recent years I have walked along the tracks to Melrose Falls, or to Town Lake, or to the wildflower paradise by the twin bridges. Often, family or friends, some of whom own property along the line, have joined me. The rail line ties us to our neighbors in Landrum and Saluda, and it provides access to parks and public lands along the way.
Since Norfolk-Southern abandoned the line its condition has deteriorated, with numerous washouts and the relentless creep of kudzu. I have worked with crews digging up kudzu crowns along the tracks, but without a comprehensive plan the task feels hopeless. If we do nothing the line will die of neglect and fade away.
I know from personal experience that conversion to a rail-trail can be a great solution. I had to leave Tryon forty years ago to pursue a career that took me to Morgantown, West Virginia. In the 1990s Morgantown converted many miles of railroad along its dilapidated riverfront to rail-trail.
When the rail-trail was first proposed in Morgantown there was some opposition. The opponents voiced more or less the same fears some people are currently expressing about our proposed Saluda Grade rail-trail. The most sensible of the objectors sounded much like my friend Ellis.
In Morgantown, these fears proved to be pretty much unfounded. Since its completion, every day you can see hundreds of people on the Morgantown rail-trail. These are mostly local people, friends and neighbors of every age, race, and income level. They are walking, running, roller-skating, bicycling, and pushing baby carriages. The trail has inspired many people to buy a bike for the first time since they were kids. Complaints from adjacent landholders have largely faded away as it has become clear that the rail-trail is a good neighbor.
I think most of us who love and live in Polk County don’t want to see big changes. But we want our area to remain generally prosperous, and we would like to see small locally-owned businesses grow and prosper. The rail-trail in Morgantown encouraged the growth of just such locally-owned small businesses including restaurants, B&Bs, and bike shops.
I understand that here in Polk County, as in Morgantown, some of our friends and neighbors have qualms and questions about the project. For example, some people are concerned that the value of their house and land will increase because of the rail-trail. Gentrification is a real issue, but trail development is not its root cause. Surely we the people, working through our government, can find a solution that allows us all to prosper together. Remember that the rail-trail might increase your property’s value a little bit, but only the government can increase your taxes!
Our rail corridor is truly a local gem, and an important part of our common Polk County heritage. I believe that we have the means and the energy to save it for the community, and that as a community we’ll be very glad we did. I also believe that, if we really try, we can keep alive our Polk County traditions of mutual respect, tolerance, and neighborliness. Ellis and I may disagree about the desirability of a new rail-trail. We’ll always agree on some things and disagree about some other things, but I know we can remain friends.