Former Magoffin County school superintendent Don Cecil, 70, says that biking on the Dawkins Line Rail Trail has given him a new lease on life.
“I probably hadn’t been on a bicycle since I was a teenager. But I bought one right after the trail opened,” said Cecil, who had heart bypass surgery a few years back. “Now I ride the trail three or four times a week with my daughter or some friends. My blood pressure is down. It’s been great for me.”
Lots of others here are enjoying the new trail. And local leaders in Johnson, Magoffin and Breathitt counties are counting on the trail to boost the area’s sagging economy once it’s completed. But when that will happen is anybody’s guess.
Right now, the trail is in two disconnected sections. The first runs more than 20 miles from Hagerhill in Johnson County past Royalton in Magoffin County and ends near the century-old Tiptop railroad tunnel on the Magoffin-Breathitt County line.
The second segment, recently finished in Breathitt County, runs about nine miles from the county line to Evanston, a former coal camp.
The state, which is building the project, wants to link the segments by extending the trail through the 1,500-foot-long Tiptop tunnel. When completed, the three-county trail would stretch 36 miles, following the right-of-way of the old Dawkins Line Railroad, and would form the longest rail-trail project in Kentucky.
To make that possible, the state awarded a $5.9 million contract last year to SAK Construction LLC to rehabilitate the deteriorated tunnel and install electric lighting for trail users.
But a partial tunnel roof collapse brought work to a crashing halt earlier this year.
Gary Smith, an attorney for SAK, said workers were inside the tunnel on March 2 when part of the roof, or “crown,” suddenly fell in.
“No one was hurt, but it was a scary thing,” Smith said.
According to Smith, SAK is now waiting for the state to develop plans to shore up the tunnel and make it safe so rehab work can resume.
Ryan Watts, a spokesman for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, which is in charge, says state officials are “reviewing all options” for fixing the problem and “working on a new time line for completion” of the project. But work on the tunnel remains at a standstill for now, Watts said.
That leaves county officials and trail backers waiting and hoping.
And it’s tough because leaders here are counting on the project to lure waves of “adventure tourists” to the area to enjoy the trail and bring a badly needed influx of cash to a region economically ravaged by coal’s recent decline. They see tourism as a mainstay for much of Eastern Kentucky in coming years.
The key to making it work is getting the Tiptop tunnel open, the say.
“The trail can’t get into Breathitt County until the tunnel is finished,” Breathitt Judge-Executive John Lester Smith said.
Trail advocate Victoria Doucette of Magoffin County said opening the tunnel is “imperative.”
“Having the trail connected through all three counties would really put us on the map as far as adventure tourism is concerned,” Doucette said recently. “I think people would just flock down here for a chance to ride on the longest rail-trail in Kentucky, go through a 1,500-foot-long railroad tunnel, and see all our beautiful scenery. The tunnel is the real key.”
David May, an administrative assistant to the mayor of Salyersville, visited the recently finished trail section in Breathitt County this week and contends that the Dawkins Trail probably will be less of an attraction if both sections aren’t connected. Some of the most remote and beautiful scenery along the entire trail is in Breathitt County, he said.
Martin Douthitt, a Jackson businessman and a widely known mountain climber, said the Dawkins Line also could tie in with several existing or planned attractions in the county.
The trail’s terminus at Evanston would be near Breathitt’s elk-viewing station, where visitors can glimpse the county’s large elk population, he said. An Appalachian horse center already is planned nearby, as well as a multi-county ATV trail, he said.
“Altogether, it could be a really tremendous tourism draw, and we really need something down here to help offset the loss in coal,” Douthitt said.
Donna Stephens of Magoffin County said the trail already is bringing area people closer together to hike and ride, and it’s improving overall community health by encouraging previously sedentary residents to get more active.
Meanwhile, the Royalton community, which recently won state certification as an official Kentucky Trail Town, is busy promoting the Dawkins Line.
Doucette, who heads the Royalton Trail Town organization, said efforts include an annual trail festival, a recent horseback trail ride that brought about 50 participants, and a charity half-marathon on the trail. Volunteers also have been organized to cut bushes, pick up trash and generally keep the trail pristine for visitors.
Don Cecil said he’s looking forward to the trail being connected to its full 36-mile length, which should attract more people. He also said promoters could tie in the Dawkins Line with other attractions, including the nearby Red River Gorge and Natural Bridge State Park.
“It could be package for the whole area,” he said.