For well over a decade, locals in Henderson and Transylvania Counties have been dreaming of a greenway to easily connect their towns by non-vehicular traffic. Now, following the recent purchase of the former Ecusta Paper Mill rail line, that dream is one step closer to reality!
People are talking about the future Ecusta Trail. If you’ve heard the name, but don’t know the details, we’re here to help. Today, we’re answering your top five questions about the Ecusta rail-trail in Western North Carolina.
What is the Ecusta Trail, and Where is It?
When complete, the Ecusta Trail will be a 19.4-mile, 12-to-14-foot-wide, multi-use greenway along an unused railway corridor. The “rail-trail” is designed to connect Hendersonville and Brevard, as well as all the communities between them, for use by walking, running, biking, and wheelchair. Along the route, it will travel through fields and forests, alongside streams, and past bucolic country outposts, offering a quiet view of life in our mountains.
Currently, trail designers are developing the 5.7-mile section beginning at South Main Street in Hendersonville and ending at US 64 after passing through Laurel Park. The eastern end of the trail will connect to existing greenways in Henderson County, including Oklawaha Trail, and become an important link in the regional Hellbender Trail. The western terminus of the Ecusta Trail will be at Oskar Blues Brewery in Brevard. From that end of the trail, it will connect to the Brevard Bike Path and Estatoe Trail. But the Ecusta Trail will also connect locals to the history of the site.
What’s the History behind the Ecusta Trail?
The word “Ecusta” is derived from the Cherokee word for rippling waters, a reference to the French Broad River that runs along portions of the rail-trail. But more specifically, the name comes from the Ecusta Paper Mill in Brevard, which used sections of this railway.
Harry Straus opened the Ecusta Paper Mill in 1939 to make lightweight specialty papers, like cigarette papers and bible pages, from flax straw. At its prime, the mill employed nearly 3,500 workers on a 535-acre site and was operating three of the world’s largest lightweight printing paper machines. After a series of buyouts, the mill closed in 2002 and became a brownfields site. The site was sold for mixed-use development in 2007, but the company behind the project later decided to sell the property.
In 2008, community members began talking about transforming the unused Ecusta rail line into something new. More than a decade later, in 2019, the land became available to purchase. And in 2021, Conserving Carolina and the Friends of the Ecusta Trail worked together to make the purchase. Now that the land has been purchased and railbanked, all that remains is to build the trail.
What is Railbanking, and What does It Have to Do with the Ecusta Trail?
The federal practice of railbanking was established in 1983 as an alternative to the rail corridor abandonment process. According to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, railbanking is “a voluntary agreement between a railroad company and a trail agency to use an out-of-service rail corridor as a trail until a railroad might need the corridor again for rail service.” Because a railbanked corridor is not considered abandoned, the complete corridor can be sold, leased, or donated to a trail manager. Thus far, railbanked corridors have preserved 6,200 miles of railways in 40 states that would otherwise have been abandoned.
Many railbanked corridors have been redeveloped as rail-trails, multi-purpose public paths with gentle grading. The Ecusta Trail is set to follow the route of the Ecusta Paper Corporation rail line almost exactly, barring any development difficulties.
Did I Hear that the Ecusta Trail has a Theme Song?
You heard right! Singer/songwriter Jeff Michaels wrote “Waiting For the Wheels” to benefit the trail. The song features Eric Congdon on lead guitar and Tyler Matthews on drums.
When Will the Ecusta Trail be Complete?
Work is already underway along the proposed Ecusta Trail. Steel rails and crossties are being removed, and a design firm is developing plans for the Hendersonville end of trail.
Ultimately, construction of the Ecusta Trail depends on a number of factors, including permitting and approval, funding, and challenges and constraints. Construction in Hendersonville could begin by late 2022, with the first phase opened a year later and the fifth phase of the Henderson County leg opened in 2027. Presently, there is no similar timetable for the Transylvania County section.
Want to Learn More about the Ecusta Trail?
The Friends of Ecusta Trail is a nonprofit working with Conserving Carolina and local governments to bring the trail to fruition. Their website features valuable information about the trail, including its cost, its economic impact, and ways to donate and volunteer.
Learn more at ecustatrail.org.