New section links Valley Forge to Hampton through rugged section of Doe River

ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL) – A long-desired corridor that could link Valley Forge to Hampton via the Tweetsie Trail just got a lot closer to reality.

Carter County commissioners approved a 28-acre donation of property along an old highway grade and the former East Tennessee and Western North Carolina railway Monday.

Offered by Management Properties Inc., the section starts at the end of Mill Pond Road in Valley Forge and ends at the terminus of Railroad Street in Hampton.

It traverses an extremely rugged section of land where a steep ridge forces the river into a horseshoe bend and includes an old highway bridge and a former railroad tunnel through the ridge.

The land donation allows a Tweetsie Trail extension traversing a rugged section of the Doe River and letting cyclists and walkers get from Valley Forge to Hampton while avoiding busy Highway 19-E.

“It’s a piece of the puzzle to make it an economic driver of what we’re looking for for an outdoor recreation destination,” Carter County Mayor Patty Woodby said Wednesday.

Commissioner Mike Hill, who represents a Hampton district, agreed.

“The trick is to capture it while it’s available — especially at no cost,” Hill said.

Hill said the section is one of several that, if developed and fully linked, will give cyclists a safe route all the way from Johnson City to Roan Mountain — and someday, possibly beyond.

“The more of these blanks we fill in the more of a viable attractor and differentiator the trail becomes,” Hill said.

Woodby said the county will work closely with the City of Elizabethton and its Parks and Recreation Department as the first legs of the project occur.

Those will include improving the old highway between Mill Pond Road and the dilapidated bridge, which will be chained off and signs placed — in essence, barriers that would keep “a reasonable person” from using the bridge. That’s a key to limiting liability as funds are sought to improve the bridge decking or possibly place a new pedestrian/bike only span over the river.

The county will also work to improve the section on the Hampton side of the bridge, from Railroad Street to through the tunnel. On the Valley Forge side of the tunnel there is a short downhill trek from the Tweetsie right of way to the old highway at the end of the bridge.

Carter County Mayor Patty Woodby said she recently walked the stretch of the Doe River with her son and called it “a hidden gem.”

“It is a hidden gem,” Woodby said of the entire stretch. “I walked it with my little boy. We walked from the Mill Pond end on the Valley Forge end. Unbelievable.”

Management Properties contacted longtime Tweetsie volunteer Ken Gough and let him know it was willing to let go of the property at no charge to the county.

Both Woodby and Hill said they believe the project can attract grant funding to repair the bridge.

“There are a lot of grant opportunities to do that and especially now since the pandemic’s happened people want to be outdoors,” Woodby said.

“I think Governor Lee is offering a lot of opportunities for outdoor recreation, so Carter County’s gonna jump on that,” she said.

Hill said pre-engineering was done more than two decades ago to restore the bridge decking so it could handle foot and bike traffic. And he said the historic element of the former railroad and what he called a “point of historical interest” at Green Bridge Landing Park in Hampton should open the door for multiple grant opportunities.

“If you have a point of interest on one end and access and availability on the other end, it opens us up to apply for these multimodal (transportation) grants that are available,” he said.

Green Bridge Landing Park is on the opposite side (Hampton side) of U.S. Highway 19-E from Railroad Street. A continuation of the trail would take cyclists across the Rittertown Road bridge, along the highway for a bit and then cross.

The section features many views of the Doe River, particularly on the Valley Forge side.

From there, Green Bridge Landing Park offers access to the river, at that point on the other side of the highway, the Hampton Watershed mountain bike trail system and potentially the railroad grade again.

A couple miles still remain between the current Elizabethton terminus of the Tweetsie at Hatcher Lane and the end of Mill Pond Road. A small portion of that would likely involve getting onto the shoulder of 19-E as well.

Hill said he considered the donation a “visionary thing” that creates a great legacy to Carter County.

Woodby concurred.

“It was donated to us without any type of stipulations, there’s no strings attached.”

“We’ve still got to do some paperwork and get the deed signed but … we’re super excited about it.”