A finalized master plan to establish walking paths along the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, connecting it from Abingdon to Elizabethton, includes creation of a park and a section of trail on the property of the future Sullivan East Middle School.
The Overmountain Trail stretches 330 miles through Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina and traces the route that more than 2,000 local patriots used in 1780 to get to the Battle at Kings Mountain, where they fought British forces. The battle is known as a pivotal moment in the end of the Revolutionary War.
To develop the plan, environmental feasibility studies were conducted, meetings and discussions with landowners took place, and collaboration between the National Park Service, local governments and local trail development leaders occurred.
The Rocky Mount chapter of the Overmountain Victory Trail Association, Sullivan and Carter counties in Tennessee; Washington County, Virginia; Abingdon, Bluff City, and Elizabethton; the Bristol Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Eastman Foundation, the East Tennessee Foundation, the South Holston Ruritan Club, and individual donors and supporters have worked together for a year on the nearly $100,000 plan.
The park at East Middle would include a trailhead near Harrington Hollow Road and a section of the Overmountain Trail that begins between the baseball and softball fields. It would lead to a 15-acre parcel of land that architects have determined can’t be developed for the school because of the terrain.
On the parcel, there would be a spiraling walking trail with a sundial in the middle, and along it there would be a pond, observation deck, wetlands and an earthen amphitheater. The pond, wetlands, observation deck and amphitheater are intended to be used as outdoor classrooms. There would also be public parking.
A section called the Patriot’s Trail would also be created along Weaver Pike Road to link East Middle, Sullivan East High School, Fort Womack off Silver Grove Road, and the swinging foot bridge in Bluff City. It would include a path or tunnel under Weaver Pike Road near Harrington Hollow Road for students and the public to use.
Sullivan County Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski said she and the architects support the plans. The plans haven’t been presented to the Board of Education yet.
The paths in the master plan would connect the Abingdon Muster Grounds and Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area, both sites where the patriots mustered with the British, which would be designated as terminuses for the new trail. The trail could potentially connect the Virginia Creeper Trail and the Tweetsie Trail and include portions of the Appalachian Trail, according to Tom Vaughan, president of the Rocky Mount chapter of the Overmountain Victory Trail Association.
Congress established the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail in 1980 to preserve its history. The full length of the trail can be driven, but only 87 miles of walking and biking routes exist.
Local government bodies and associations in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia collaborated, along with the National Park Service, to create 93 miles of Overmountain Trail routes following creek corridors and using rural farmland, federal public lands, local parks, and urbanized towns to connect Abingdon, Bluff City, Piney Flats, Watauga and Elizabethton.
About 4.5 miles of existing trails are at the Abingdon Muster Grounds, Abingdon Wolf Creek Wastewater Facility, in Bluff City, in Elizabethton at Linear Park, and Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. Implementing the plan would cost nearly $29 million.
Vaughan said he believes the new walking portions of the Overmountain Trail would benefit the community overall, but especially millennials who enjoy interconnected trails.
“Hopefully, we’ll find a way to tie into some of the other local trails and turn upper East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia into a trail network that will provide recreational and historic education opportunities for a lot of people,” he said.
Vaughn said he expects the first project to be the park at East Middle.
An optimistic timeline for the master plan is 10-15 years and that’s only if it’s worked on consistently, according to Eric Woolridge, president of Destination by Design — the consulting company hired by the National Park Service to put the plan together. Vaughan said it won’t be done during his lifetime, but it will be during his children’s and grandchildren’s.
“It’s an opportunity to start it now and, hopefully, there will be more people … who will then be the next generation to take over and keep on pushing until a green [walking] 330 miles of continuous trail is in place,” Vaughan said.
The plan cost about $100,000. The NPS paid $61,500; Sullivan County, with the largest portion of the trail, contributed $7,500; other local government bodies contributed around $5,000 each; and the other foundations and associations contributed less than $5,000 each.
The National Park Service couldn’t be reached for comment on the plan due to the federal government shutdown.
Proposed sections of trail
Although the master plan is final, the proposed routes and sections of the trail are ultimately up to the local government bodies.
The trail is planned as close as possible and practicable within one mile of the historic route the Overmountain Men took, in accordance with the National Trails System Act, for the greatest public benefit and enjoyment, and to promote tourism, economic development and rural prosperity, according to the plan.
The project is part of the NPS’ ongoing efforts to develop regional master plans to strengthen multi-jurisdictional partnerships and engage landowners to expand and connect the growing network of certified trail segments throughout Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina, according to the master plan.
The section from Abingdon to Observation Knob Park in Bristol would be 14.5 miles and include the Observation Knob Park, Muster Grounds and Washington County Park. The estimated cost for this portion is more than $4.7 million.
The section from Observation Knob Park to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s South Holston Tailwater Trails in Bristol is proposed to be 13 miles at a cost of nearly $3 million. It could include the Pemberton Oak, South Holston Dam and Osceola Island at South Holston Lake.
The Overmountain Men gathred on a present day Bristol property at an oak tree — the Pemberton Oak — during their march. Vaughan’s family owns the property and has lived there for six generations.
From Tailwater Trail to Elizabethton would be 26 miles long and would include Cherokee National Forest and Holston Mountain at an estimated cost of around $2 million.
Another section would also begin at Tailwater and stretch 10.5 miles to Sullivan East High School and the future Sullivan East Middle School at an estimated cost of just over $4.6 million.
From Sullivan East middle and high schools, the trail would connect to a 4-mile section to Bluff City, which would include Fort Womack, Bluff City’s Swinging Bridge, Choates Ford and the South Fork of the Holston River. Developing this section would cost an estimated $1.1 million.
Bluff City is proposed to become a Historic Riverside Trail Town.
From Bluff City, the trail would connect to Piney Flats with an 8.5-mile stretch that would connect Piney Flats Historic Village and Mary Hughes School and would incorporate Main Street in Bluff City. This section is estimated to cost more than $4.6 million.
From Piney Flats, a 7.5-mile section would stretch to Watauga and include Rocky Mount State Historic Site, Watauga River, Watauga River Bluffs, and the town of Watauga at an estimated cost of $5.05 million.
The last section of the trail would be nine miles, beginning in Watauga and ending in Elizabethton, at a cost of $3.7 million. It would include Riverside Park, Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, the Fort Watauga Monument, Tweetsie Trail and downtown Elizabethton.
Hundreds of landowners would be affected by the trail, but Woolridge, Sullivan County Planning and Codes Director Ambre Torbett, and Vaughan said those they’ve talked to so far have been positive and supportive of the plan.
Public meetings have been held to inform landowners and the community about the details of the plan. Letters and emails have also been sent and phone calls made to landowners.
“Going forward, we’ll be at the mercy of funding and landowner consent,” Torbett said.
Possible funding streams include: the National Recreation Trails program, grants from state departments of transportation, Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, Tennessee’s Department of Environment and Conservation, state forestry departments and many others, according to the master plan.
“The Rocky Mount chapter of the OVTA and I will be continuing to reach out to landowners to provide information and support. Eventually, we will work towards building consensus on specific alignment of the trail and securing recreational easements, such as what was done for the Creeper Trail in the Abingdon area,” Torbett said.
She added that landowners’ driveways wouldn’t be affected by the trail and gates would be installed on farmland to prevent farm animals from getting loose.
Under federal law, private land can’t be taken for the trail, according to Vaughan, but if easements are granted — which would allow landowners to retain ownership of their properties — it would mean a tax break for them.
Woolridge said the next steps will be preliminary engineering, continuing to talk to landowners, and local governments figuring out how to fund their portions of the trail.
Torbett will present the final master plan to the County Commission at its February meeting.