TIPTOP — Trains don't rumble over the 100-year-old Dawkins Line Railroad anymore, but officials in three Eastern Kentucky counties look at the old rail corridor and see a vision of a brighter future for the entire area.
The idea is to turn the rail line into a 36-mile biking, hiking and horseback-riding trail that, it is hoped, would bring thousands of "adventure tourists" to Johnson, Magoffin and Breathitt counties and provide an economic boost for an area that is struggling in the continuing coal downturn.
"It already has created genuine excitement and pride here," says Magoffin County's David May, vice president of the Friends of the Dawkins Line Rail Trail, a citizens' group that advocates for the project.
"We think it could be an essential piece in the overall economic development puzzle. Younger people gravitate to adventure tourism today, so we think the trail will bring in people. Hopefully, corporate heads would look at that and maybe locate companies here."
May says the trail should fit in well with Shaping Our Appalachian Region, the effort to revitalize Eastern Kentucky that is commonly called SOAR.
The state provided $3.5 million for acquiring, planning and building the first section of the Dawkins Line Rail Trail, which opened in June 2013. It runs 18 miles from Hagerhill in Johnson County southwest to Royalton in Magoffin County. Local folks say it's already drawing visitors from far and near.
Gov. Steve Beshear announced a $1.47 million contract in September for the next section, which would take the trail 9 miles to near the old Tiptop railroad tunnel on the Magoffin County-Breathitt County line. It's tentatively set for completion next spring.
Most of the overall funding is coming from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. The trail will be managed by the Kentucky Department of Parks when it's finished.
Ultimately, officials want the trail to continue through the Tiptop Tunnel and wind up at Evanston, a former coal camp in Breathitt County. It would form Kentucky's longest rail-to-trail project, offering a continuous 36-mile stretch free of vehicular traffic, taking visitors past rural homes and remote areas with beautiful scenery, running through old railroad tunnels and over numerous renovated trestles.
A question mark, however, is the 1,500-foot-long Tiptop Tunnel, which was heavily damaged when vandals set fire to it several years ago. Making the tunnel usable again apparently would be expensive.
Parks department spokesman Gil Lawson said state officials are studying the tunnel, but don't have a plan as yet.
Supporters, however, insist that Tiptop is an essential piece of the trail, since it would tie Johnson, Magoffin and Breathitt counties together. Trail riders and hikers would enter the tunnel in Magoffin and emerge 1,500 feet later in Breathitt, they note.
"It's really the centerpiece of the trail," contends Martin Douthitt, a Breathitt County businessman and mountain climber who has climbed some of the world's tallest peaks. "That area is probably the most remote part of the trail, and it has some of the most beautiful scenery. The trail really wouldn't be complete without it."
The rail line dates to 1912, when the Dawkins Lumber Co. started building a railroad to carry timber from near Paintsville into Breathitt County. However, the 1929 stock market crash took the steam out of the plan before the rails reached Breathitt.
The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad took over the project and eventually completed the line into Breathitt County, building the huge Tiptop tunnel in the process. The railroad operated under various owners over the years, including the RJ Corman Railroad Group, which eventually closed it and removed all the rails. The state then bought the right-of-way, and planning for the rail-to-trail project got rolling.
Victoria Doucette of Salyersville says some residents opposed the project at first, fearing it would cause disturbances or attract lawbreakers. But worries faded soon after the first trail section opened, she said.
"I really think it's brought people here together. Local people are getting out and walking the trail and talking to their neighbors," she said.
"I often get on the trail at Royalton and now I see people from many different locations — Washington State, Wisconsin, West Virginia.
"That's with very little publicity. So I'm sure that if we can get out the word about the trail, it will really pick up next spring."
Indeed, some residents at Royalton are looking for new business opportunities, such as bed and breakfast cottages, offered by the trail's presence, Doucette said.
Prestonsburg attorney Jo Ann Harvey said she thinks the trail is one of the smarter moves in recent Eastern Kentucky history. Harvey, an avid bicyclist, says she rides the section between Hagerhill and Royalton several times a week when the weather allows.
"I think it's a terrific asset for the area," Harvey said. "It's beautiful and you don't have cars to contend with. You can do a long, hard bike ride or an easy ride; get out on your horse; or just walk for exercise. It's great for kids and families. I can't wait for the whole thing to be completed."
The project already has spawned at least one new business. Don Fields, who owns a bicycle shop in Prestonsburg, opened a satellite shop at Royalton last month, right beside the trail. It sells, services and rents bikes, offers a shuttle service for riders, and has a coffee shop, all catering to people using the trail.
"People were calling wanting to rent bikes or be shuttled back and forth on the trail, and I just thought it would be easier to put a small shop out there," Fields said. "Right now, it's open part time. But when they complete the next 9 miles of trail this spring we'll be open full time."
Lawson, the parks department spokesman, says the opening of the Royalton Cyclery is an early sign of the kind of development that state and local leaders are hoping the Dawkins Line Rail Trail will generate.
"We're seeing some good, positive signs," he said. "The trail seems to be getting a lot of attention, and we're seeing strong support from the local people and elected officials. But it's going to take time."