JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) -— It’s probably fair to guess that of the hundreds of Tweetsie Trail users in a given week, very few know the long journey the wildly popular Tweetsie took from concept to reality.
Of those who do know, former Johnson City mayor Steve Darden might be foremost.
Darden, an attorney by trade, was mayor in 2005 when city leaders began discussing in earnest whether a “rails to trails” project along the inactive former line of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina railroad was realistic.
Communities had begun to have great success with similar projects. The Virginia Creeper Trail was the closest example, though it didn’t have the relatively urban components a Tweetsie Trail would have.
While leaders agreed a 10-mile recreational trail from south Johnson City to the far side of Elizabethton seemed like a great idea, they probably had no idea what lay ahead.
Job one, Darden quickly learned, was to “penetrate the corporate structure of the Genessee and Wyoming Railroad.
“Ultimately we persuaded them to sell us this rail line that they were just going to abandon.”
Railroads have traditionally had tremendous power, but there were precedents, so the city found a lawyer that had worked with the national rails to trails conservancy. Darden worked with him to cover all the necessary bases for what’s known as “rail banking.”
Even with the purchase, the city still had to preserve the rail bed intact to comply with the federal Rail Bank Act. As Darden stood at the head of the trail on a sunny Saturday morning and dozens of trail users walked, biked and ran by, he explained that a day could come when tracks get laid again, highly unlikely though it may be.
“If there were some sort of national need or some sort of economic condition that they wanted to restore a railroad this line is preserved for that purpose,” Darden said. “That’s the essence of the federal Rail Bank Act.”
Darden and company met with Genessee and Wyoming executives for the first time in January 2006. The sale didn’t close for almost five-and-a-half years.
“It just is amazing how long it took but it also impressive how quickly it went from purchase to fruition and people began to use it,” Darden said.
Just good enough was plenty good
After the purchase, the city engaged a consultant, who provided a scenario for developing the trail. In the end, the city took another route.
“The price tag was prohibitive as it often proves to be so we decided we can do this locally, we can do it ourselves,” Darden said.
They also decided not to accept federal dollars and the strings that are so often attached. Instead, the city relied on a homespun effort with a task force led by audiologist Dan Schumaier. Darden, done with what had been a 10-year City Commission stint by then, was a member.
“There were a lot of people who were interested in seeing this happen. Local biking enthusiasts, walking, hiking enthusiasts.”
The community stepped up with financial donations, sponsorships and in-kind donations. By August 2014 the trail was open.
“It was just amazing how much dedicated people can accomplish,” Darden said.
Features have been added through the years, so that now a trip from the trailhead at Ralph Van Brocklin Way (the former Alabama Street) is both a physical and educational experience. Signs dot the route, exploring the region’s railroading past, other historical highlights and its natural features and wildlife.
The State of Tennessee named the trail its Parks and Recreation project of the year, and nearly a decade later Gov. Bill Lee included more than $6 million in the fiscal 2024 budget for a trail expansion further up the old rail line in a rugged section of Carter County.
As Darden spoke after struggling to find a parking place, customers rented e-bikes and browsed the selection at Local Motion Cyclery. The business, which has expanded to include an e-bike rental space and a tap house, is mere feet from the trail parking lot in what was a long-abandoned corner store.
“It really is impressive how this has grown and what it has spawned,” Darden said.
He said it feels really good “to have been part of the original vision and to conceive of what this abandoned rail line could become.
“It speaks a lot for our community. We’re a community that likes to provide a high quality of life but this is the type of thing that really puts you on the map.”
He believes the trail is an asset that has helped spur continued population growth in Johnson City.
“It’s a real asset to the physical and mental health of the people who live around here and who like to use it.”
He comes to the trail regularly with his family to walk, bike or run, and said the region could benefit from more amenities like it as people continue to migrate from other parts of the country — often drawn by outdoor and recreational opportunities.
“It’s a great tribute to our history, there are historical markers along the way that are of great interest and really enhance the experience and it’s a great tribute to our railroading past, which is a significant part of our history.”