Life in Our Foothills – April 2024 – Making An Impact – The Thermal Belt Rail Trail

Published 8:05 am Tuesday, April 2, 2024

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There’s been quite a buzz around our foothills about the proposed Saluda Grade Trail, a 31-mile multi-purpose paved trail that would follow the old Norfolk Southern railroad corridor from Inman, South Carolina, to Zirconia North Carolina, passing through the towns of Landrum, Tryon and Saluda. 

If you want to get a taste of what the SGT might be like, head over to Rutherford County and take a bicycle ride or stroll on the Thermal Belt Rail Trail. It’s a 13.5-mile, 12-foot-wide paved multi-purpose trail that follows an old Norfolk Southern railroad corridor from Forest City northeast to the community of Gilkey, passing through the towns of Rutherfordton, Spindale, and Ruth.

“It’s had an enormous impact on our communities,” says Jerry Stensland, executive director of the non-profit Rutherford Outdoor Coalition which manages the trail. “Every sector of our community is using it.”

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The old railroad corridor that’s now the Thermal Belt Rail Trail used to serve textile mills that lined the route, but when the textile industry moved much of its production to other countries, the mills closed.

“The local businesses wanted to keep the railroad here when Norfolk Southern was going to sell it, and they actually created an entity and bought the corridor locally and kept it going for a while as a railroad,” says Stensland. 

That venture eventually fizzled leaders with the county and four towns along the route decided to convert it into a rail trail. Planning and surveying began in 2016, and the rails were pulled up and gravel put down. The RHI Legacy Foundation, a non-profit that promotes health and wellness in Rutherford County, provided a $4.25 million grant for paving the trail and creating infrastructure such as parking and signage. The newly paved trail opened in 2019. 

According to the Rutherfordton Outdoor Coalition from June 2022 to June 2023 more than 112,000 people used the trail, an average of about 307 people a day. 

Jimmy Poole comes from his home in Shelby to cycle the trail about twice a week. 

“I actually officiated basketball for about 20 years, and I retired, and I was looking for an opportunity to continue some cardio and to kind of somewhat stay in shape and spend some time with my family, and this track just kind of gave me all of those answers that I was looking for,” says Poole.

The trail is mostly flat with only slight elevation changes along the way. The northwest section of the trail from Gilkey to Ruth is rural and pastoral and passes by the Bechtler Mint Site Historic Park. The southeast section from Ruth to Forest City is more urban, passing by many businesses that seem to benefit from having the trail close by. 

“This trail stayed open during the pandemic, and I think it’s helped a lot of these businesses stay afloat because of the trail users coming and spending money here,” says Stensland.

“We’ve seen a lot of increase of cyclists,” says Eric Reid, assistant manager at Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria, which is across the street from the trail in downtown Spindale. “Yesterday we had a group of ladies that came in that drove all the way from Charlotte just to come and ride the rails to trails.”

While Stensland says the ROC has no concrete data on the trail’s economic impact, there’s lots of anecdotal evidence from businesses like Barley’s. A new bicycle shop called “Grumpy’s” has opened in Spindale and offers sales, service and rentals. A new restaurant called Flyboy Pizza and a brewery called Flygirl Brewing have both recently opened along the trail, and Stensland says a housing development near the trail is tripling in size. He says the trail helps promote tourism too, attracting many out-of-town visitors. 

“I’ve been to parking lots on the trail, and I don’t see a car from North Carolina sometimes,” he says. “A lot of people come from two hours or more away just for the day. We’ve got these main street communities that are perfect to visit.”

The Thermal Belt Rail Trial has also sparked a $2 million investment to develop a new skate park and bicycle pump track that will connect directly to the trail. The Town of Spindale is leading the project in partnership with the Methodist Church and has received funding from half a dozen public and private organizations. 

Since the trail opened, the ROC has overseen some beautification efforts including tree plantings along the corridor and fence artwork to screen out some of the less attractive industrial sites along the route. The ROC also has plans for expanding the trail. It’s done a feasibility study to lengthen it 18 miles to the north from Gilkey to Marion where it would connect with another rail trail. A new feasibility study is about to begin that will examine lengthening the trail another 6.4 miles to the east from Forest City to Ellenboro.

Improvements and expansions will no doubt delight trail users like Poole who appreciate having a place to cycle without worrying about traffic. 

“It’s very family-oriented, somewhere that’s very safe where I can bring my grandson and my family, and we can come and enjoy the track and not worry about looking over our shoulders,” says Poole.