The Creation of the Virginia Creeper Trail

by Al Bradley,
Town Planner, Abingdon

Dr. French Moore, Jr. and Dr. Dave Brillhart were both members of the Washington County Planning Commission back in the late '70s when it was discussed that Norfolk and Western (N&W) intended to close the railroad. Dr. Brillhart mentioned that he had read of a railroad being converted to a hiking trail out in Wisconsin. That provided the spark.

First off, however, the county here and Ashe County in NC tried to save it as an operational railroad. That petered out when Ashe County found that NC law wouldn't allow them to do that. The County (I was County Administrator then) went on and made an offer to N&W anyway, but N&W didn't want to see it being operated. N&W wanted it closed. Period.

In 1984 bridge number 6 was "mysteriously" burned.

So, eventually Drs. Moore & Brillhart started an effort to convert the rights of way into a hiking trail and vigorously sought out grants, etc. to do that. The County wouldn't have any part of it because of the influential owners along the Trail who wanted "their" property back and filed a lawsuit to do just that. Nothing ever really became of that suit. Attorney Jim Elliot was very helpful in seeing to that part and in doing a title search for this effort.

Meanwhile Abingdon and Damascus bought the Trail jointly with monetary help from the Virginia Division of Conservation & Recreation (VADCR) grant money. Damascus bought the section between their sewer treatment plant and the Town themselves with grant help, because their sewer lines were in the railroad right of way.

Much of the construction was done by
the Job Corps.

First, Dr. Moore had to keep N&W's salvage contractor, Chicago Salvage Company, from removing the trestles, so he put together an investment group and paid Chicago Salvage a nominal amount for the value of the trestles - about $5,000, if I recall correctly. Fortunately, the owner of Chicago Salvage knew Jim Elliott some way and he became convinced that the trail was a worthwhile effort and supported the early efforts to keep the trail usable and intact so he left the trestles alone until they could get their acts together.

The two Towns had the entire right of way appraised and purchased it from N&W, with N&W forgiving part of the cost, grant money from VADCR and the Virginia Commission for Outdoor Recreation (VCOR), and very little on the part of the two Towns in 1982.

Then we went to work to put the trail into use by decking the trestles, grading and shaping the Rights of Way, etc. We had grant money from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to do that plus the use of the Town of Abingdon's personnel and equipment.

The Jacobs Creek Job Corps and the Flatwoods Job Corps (from near Norton) supplied the labor to do the trestles, after some persuasion by Rick Boucher, who helped in a variety of ways to create the trail. We purchased and supplied the materials for the decking and handrails, and two other guys, John McCormick and John Garrett, actually delivered the materials to them using the Town's vehicles. That work was completed in 1984 or so and the complete trail was opened after that. Some sections were opened sooner as they were completed.

The last real hangup was a trestle that had burned just south of Watauga Road. Dr. Moore found a trestle in Yadkinville, NC, that an owner wanted to be rid of. We used more grant money from the VDCR to remove that trestle and ship the necessary repair pieces here and repair and complete that trestle. That was the last piece to complete the trail.

Congressman Rick Boucher (right) visits the trail
near Damascus in 1983.

I remember going over with the Town Council all the costs associated with trestles, rights of way, grading and making it all usable and it came to some then-phenomenal numbers. The Council had been through several battles, had faced opposition from landowners including personal friends, but were guided by one principle: What would be best for the residents of our area, and what would be best for their children? They believed in the trail, but there were some doubts. After I had done my summary Council members all looked at each other and someone said: "Will anyone actually USE this trail after we do all this?" We had no idea that the VCT would become as popular as it is now.

Al Bradley, written in February 2005

See the related photo essay, "Opposition to the Virginia Creeper Trail."