Friends of the Cheat does more than host the raddest river festival in all the land; most of the time their work focuses on the restoration of waters polluted by acid mine drainage, environmental education, and recreation access projects. This year, FOC took some exciting steps towards rail trail projects that have been more than 15 years in the making. Read about the history of the Preston Rail-Trail Committee and the work forthcoming below, from PRTC member and Friend of the Cheat Janet Szilagyi.
Rail-Trails At Last!
By Janet Szilagyi, April 2019
In 2002, Friends of the Cheat formed the Preston Rail-Trail Committee with the goal of developing rail-trails in Preston County. CSX had announced plans to abandon the rail line along the Cheat River from Rowlesburg north to Rt. 7, the section known as The Narrows. There was also another potential rail-trail opportunity on the old West Virginia Northern Railroad from Kingwood to Tunnelton.
At the time, Executive Director of Friends of the Cheat Keith Pitzer worked for a rafting company which ran trips on the Cheat Narrows, so he understood that having the railroad section along the Narrows become a rail-trail would provide a very special opportunity for people to connect with a beautiful section of the Cheat River, a river that he was now focused on restoring, preserving and promoting. He also understood the potential impact that developing trails in Preston County would have on recreation and tourism in the area.
After many years of meetings, members of the small but dedicated committee learned much about the process of acquiring support and grants. The 10-mile section of the West Virginia Kingwood Northern from Kingwood to Tunnelton was purchased in April 2015. Then, in April 2016, the section along the Cheat Narrows was purchased. This initial section of the Cheat River Rail-Trail is about 8.5 miles long with the possibility of extending it in the future. The Kingwood to Tunnelton purchase was made in partnership with the Preston County Parks and Recreation Committee, and the Cheat Rail-Trail purchase in partnership with the WV State Rail Authority – with grants from various government agencies and matching grants from local organizations and fundraising efforts.
Early in its existence, the Rail Trail Committee realized that funding was needed for operating expenses such appraisals and surveys as well as funds for matching grants. In 2005, in conjunction with Cheat River Festival, the Cheat Fest 5K race was established as a fundraiser for the rail-trails. The Cheat Fest 5K is run on Saturday morning of Cheat Fest with over 100 runners and walkers of all ages participating.
In December 2018, FOC was awarded over $3 million for development of the ~8.5 mile section along the Cheat Narrows. This Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Grant will allow for construction of the trail, including renovating the former railroad bridges, developing access points, and covering the contaminated soil to protect public health from the legacy of industry pollution. This three year project will create numerous construction and engineering jobs, as well as partially funding the retention of two full time FOC staff members. The renovated trail surface will make it easier to walk, bike, access by wheelchair, or push a stroller to see the whitewater, incredible rock formations, and beautiful mountain scenery. There will also be an emphasis on working with the nearby towns of Kingwood, Manheim, and Rowlesburg for tourism and economic development.
Work on the West Virginia Northern Rail-Trail has included stabilizing or razing buildings at the land known as “The Shops” in Kingwood to prepare that area as an access point. On April 13, 2019, the improved first mile of trail was introduced to the public and the Tunnelton access was dedicated. The Tunnelton Depot has been restored and is now open as a museum on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 3 p.m. June through October.
The promise of having access to these two rail-trails in the near future is exciting for the committee members who have put countless hours into the projects and equally exciting for those yearning to get out on the trails.