Free Daily Headlines


Set your text size: A A A

Ask Matt ... why 'Slow Train Ecusta' is gaining speed

The last train hauling Canadian flax and wood pulp to the Ecusta Mill in 2002 dropped their load and never returned.

PF Gladfelter, a maker of cigarette paper, sold the mill to Purico, just the year before. The Transylvania County mill had been operating since 1939 and its employees that once numbered 3,500 were well paid. mattmattesonMatt MattesonBut union-management disputes reached an impasse and the new owners locked out the workers. Some contend Purico had no intention of reinvesting in the Ecusta Mill and closing it was simply a business decision. Still, after the mill was shuttered, many locals held out hope that they could attract another industry and that Norfolk Southern trains would run again on the 19-mile Hendersonville-to-Brevard spur line.
Five years after the mill closed, the property was sold to Renova Partners, a Massachusetts firm that specializes in old industrial sites. Renova pitched a new use for the 527-arce tract and got it zoned for a mixed use complex named Davidson River Village. The project would have no need for rail service.
In early 2009, some local cyclists began talking about a rail trail for bikers and walkers – a concept catching fire across the country. Michael Oliphant, then an instructor at Brevard College, assembled a group of trail pioneers. They met at an Etowah church to figure out how to convert the unused 19-mile rail corridor into a public trail. To test the waters, a petition was circulated in both Henderson and Transylvania counties. The results were more than encouraging. Interest soon grew beyond just the bikers and the “craft beer crowd” as many in the community saw the recreational, health and economic benefits of a trail. Hendersonville was the first city to pass a resolution of support; next came Flat Rock, Laurel Park, and then the Henderson County Chamber. It was time to get serious so in April of 2010 Friends of the Ecusta Trail (FOET) was formed as a nonprofit.
Interest and support for the trail grew. A website was launched, t-shirts were sold at street events, and an economic impact study was commissioned. The FOET made every attempt to reach out to rail line property owners – supporters and doubters alike. The trail group had by now learned how an unused line could be “railbanked” under federal law as was the case with the Swamp Rabbit Trail from Travelers Rest to Greenville, South Carolina. In 2012 the Hendersonville Lightning ran a three-part series on the Ecusta Trail. It seemed that a deal was just around the bend but Norfolk Southern showed no interest.
The FOET pressed on, raising funds from generous donors and rallying support. In 2013, the project was almost derailed when a New York company eyed a site along the rail line for a waste-to-energy plant. After local residents created a firestorm the project died. The next year, Norfolk Southern sold 94 miles of its rail system to Watco, a Kansas-based short line railroad. The package included the 19-mile “Ecusta Trail” portion. The new owner made it clear that they were in the business to make the line profitable and began an aggressive search for clients.
Ecusta Trail Nation continued to grow. In 2015, Henderson County, the Brevard-Transylvania Chamber and the City of Brevard both voiced support for the rail trail project. By this time, watching the overgrown rail line deteriorate, few in Henderson County believed that a business needing rail service could be found. Yet across the county line, Transylvania’s commissioners remained hopeful and their economic development partners were marketing the now bare Ecusta site for industrial use.
Finally, 10 years after those first bikers gathered in Etowah, Watco was ready to deal. The willing buyer was Conserving Carolina, a nonprofit whose mission is to acquire and preserve land in the region. In August of 2019, the N.C. Board of Transportation awarded a $6.4 million grant to Conserving Carolina to acquire the Ecusta Trail rail corridor. The FOET found Conserving Carolina to be a competent partner that can quickly move the rail trail project to the next phases of design, fundraising, construction and eventually management. It took 18 years for that slow train to reach its first stop. It should be a shorter ride to the next.

* * * * *

Matt Matteson, is a board member of the Friends of the Ecusta Trail. Other members of the 2020 Friends of the Ecusta Trail Board are Hunter Marks, president; Dean St. Marie, vice president; Nancy DePippo, secretary; Chris Burns, treasurer; George Banta, Ervin “Baz” Bazzle, John Ditillo, Tad Fogel, Paul Hansen, Lynn Huffman, Valerie Naylor, Frank Porter, Joe Sanders, Ken Shelton, Mark Tooley, Christine Vigue, and Daniel Cobb, ex officio.