Thermal Belt Rail Trail: A Trail with a Mission

Published 12:24 pm Friday, April 12, 2024

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By Carolyn Baughman


Walk into Rutherfordton’s Town Hall, and you will feel an immediate sense of place and hometown pride. The wide lobby features historical photographs and memorabilia of the town’s rich history. A picturesque Rutherfordton-branded mural is next to greet you, alongside a warm welcome from Rutherfordton Mayor Jim Dancy and Town Manager Doug Barrick. 

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We sit down to discuss all things rail trails and glean insights into how this community brought the Thermal Belt Rail Trail to life—insights that may help inform the vision and process for the proposed 31-mile Saluda Grade Trail just a dozen miles away.  

The 13.5-mile Thermal Belt Rail Trail begins in the township of Gilkey, NC, at its northernmost point and travels southeast through some of Rutherford County’s most picturesque areas. From there, the rail trail bridges the towns of Ruth, Rutherfordton, Spindale and Forest City. 

The first five miles of its northernmost section are more rural with long stretches between intersections and are great for biking, walking or running. Miles 5 through 13.5 are more urban, passing by towns, farmers’ markets, restaurants and businesses. Along the path, you may also encounter a bike repair station, picnic shelters, a splash pad, a hydration station, a public library, a playground and a dog park.

The Thermal Belt Rail Trail represents the first 13 miles of what could become over 100 miles of trail in the future, extending all the way up to Marion and beyond. Plans are currently underway to extend the trail 6.5 more miles to the town of Ellenboro.

As we look back at the development of the trail, Town Manager Doug Barrick shared that the town of Forest City really “led the charge” alongside Rutherfordton to purchase the existing rail corridor from its owner, the Rutherford Railway Development Corridor (RRDC). Once this occurred, “the rest of the communities got on board,” noted Mr. Barrick. 

This became one of the pivotal moments for the trail, as the neighboring communities of Rutherford County each became known as “trail partners.” All five trail partners now hold the lease rights for each town’s section of trail through the RRDC. Barrick shared that the “RRDC has really gone out of their way to make sure all of the trail partners have a say.” 

One of the first major steps towards the railway becoming a public-use trail occurred when Rutherford Hospital’s Legacy Foundation paved the first gravel section of the railway corridor along Whiteside Road. Next, following a joint venture between Rutherford Hospital, Inc. and Duke LifePoint Healthcare in 2015, the RHI Legacy Foundation aimed to identify health and wellness needs in Rutherford County. Doctors, volunteers and other supporters were invested in the idea of a Thermal Belt Rail Trail to help achieve that goal. Barrick shared that their goal was “to see the rail trail go from 6 feet wide to 12 feet wide and connect these communities.”

Next, the rail partners created a brief master plan of the trail and then went straight into engineering and cost estimating. The RHI Legacy Foundation would then go on to fund 99.4% of the cost of the trail.

Barrick noted, “Without their support, we would have never gotten the trail off the ground as fast as we did.” The RHI Legacy Foundation’s stipulation was that they would fund the lion’s share of the trail as long as the communities worked together in the process.

With anything new, there will be questions and community members who just aren’t sure. Mayor Dancy and Doug Barrick certainly experienced this as the Thermal Belt Rail Trail was proposed, planned and voted on. Barrick noted, “Change is hard, and when we talk about trails there is sometimes fear.” 

Barrick’s advice is to help community members feel connected, educated and informed on what could be. He advises working with property owners to help create options for fencing, etc.

People sometimes are fearful that there will be crimes, but Barrick noted “I don’t know of any incidents where because of the trail, it allowed crime to perpetuate.”

Mayor Dancy added, “I encourage questioning because that’s how you find things out. I have found that there comes a time when you need to step out and go in faith. So many projects have come from that one project.”

Rutherford County’s motto is “small town friendly” and it’s stayed true to that motto through the growth of the Thermal Belt Rail Trail. Along the trail, communities have seen growth in new residential units, new businesses inhabiting existing buildings, a new park, a Forest City Farmer’s Market pavilion, plus a new pump track.

Planning, building and maintaining a public-use trail (that never closes) certainly comes with a few hurdles. Every detail has to be navigated, from funding and master planning to logistics, signage, and most importantly safety for each and every trail participant. 

“We’ve had to help people understand that this is a rail corridor and we are stewards of that space. We have to manage the crossings as if it is still a railbanked corridor,” says Barrick.

Additionally, the county does not patrol the trail, so they are continuing to educate the public about the national “leave no trace” principles. 

As Mayor Dancy reflects on the impact of the Thermal Belt Rail Trail on the town of Rutherfordton, he notes, “ As mayor, council member, and a citizen, there’s joy that you receive when you’re working on a project and cutting the ribbon. But my greatest joy as a citizen is to go down to the park and play with my grandson and see families on the Purple Martin Greenway, enjoying just being together.”

“It’s a total win-win for our community, citizens, and businesses,” reflects Barrick.

Just thirty minutes southwest of Rutherfordton, a similar corridor is being proposed along the historic Saluda Grade Railway. This corridor has the opportunity to become a similar rails-to-trails line called the Saluda Grade Trail, a 31-mile mixed-use corridor connecting communities from Inman, SC to Zirconia, NC. 

For more information about the Saluda Grade Trail, visit