By Errol Castens
PONTOTOC – The pavement is laid and striped. Signage and lighting are in place. Whistlestop restrooms are being completed.
And after years of anticipation about this area’s first multi-county recreational rails-to-trails conversion, it’s safe to say that bikers, hikers and runners are eager to see the opening of the Tanglefoot Trail.
Trail officials know this, because they’ve had to remind quite a few that it’s not yet open to the public.
“Board members, we’ve got to politely tell people, please don’t be on it yet,” said Randy Kelley, executive director of Three Rivers Planning and Development District, at a recent meeting of the GM&O Rails-to-Trails Recreational District board.
So, when will it open?
It’s a bit fuzzy yet, because the whistlestop rest areas have to be completed, and then MDOT engineers have to do final inspections before they turn the trail over to the District.
“We hope to have the Trail open to the public sometime in August,” said Karen Heintze of Three Rivers.
Like hundreds of similar trails across the country, the 44.56-mile Tanglefoot is a conversion of an abandoned railroad converted to recreational use.
The project began in 2003, when the Mississippi-Tennessee Railway announced plans to abandon the right-of-way from New Albany to Houston. After hearing from Longleaf Trace Manager Herlon Pierce about the successes of that 40-mile rails-to-trails conversion in south Mississippi, a formal group was formed in 2006.
It eventually took on the GM&O name for the last railroad that included the route in Tennessee-to-Gulf-Coast service. Later “Tanglefoot” was adopted for the trail name after a steam locomotive on the original line built by novelist William Faulkner’s ancestors. (“Tanglefoot” is also pretty descriptive of the kudzu that grows alongside much of the trail.)
“Starting out, the hard part was just selling an idea that was new to all of us,” said Board Chairwoman Betsey Hamilton. “One of the most exciting things is to hear the very positive comments from those who were, in the beginning, naysayers.”
Perhaps even more important than providing recreational opportunities, she said, such Federal Railbanking Act projects keep rail properties intact in case they are ever needed again as either railroads or other public utilities.
Sheriff’s departments in the Tanglefoot Trail’s home counties of Union, Pontotoc and Chickasaw will patrol the trail both at crossings and along the path, using golf carts the Rails-to-Trails District has furnished, and the District may hire part-time deputies for extra patrols.
“The sheriffs have bought in,” Kelley said. “That’s key, for them to be on board.”
Along with the nearly complete whistlestop rest areas in Ingomar, Ecru, Algoma and New Houlka, visitor centers are planned for the “gateway” cities of New Albany, Pontotoc and Houston.
New Albany Mayor Tim Kent said local leaders hope to create a temporary staging area in the Union County Library parking lot, just south of downtown, eventually building a formal visitor center adjacent to Bankhead Street.
“We really would like to put a gate, wrought iron, bicycle racks, so we can draw visitors into downtown,” Kent said. “We’ve got to find somewhere to get some money, whether that be through sponsorships, donations or other sources.”
Pontotoc Mayor Jeff Stafford said officials in his city hope to buy a five-acre former industrial site along the trail for a gateway.
“We’re going to try to build a Tanglefoot Park with restrooms and recreational facilities for visitors and our residents,” he said. The decision depends on support from residents, but Stafford said the park would greatly enhance the site just a few blocks west of the square.
“We’ll remove the blight and make it a really attractive area,” Stafford said.
Houston’s trailhead is planned for a site off Church Street. Mayor Stacey Parker said the Tanglefoot’s opening will be “one of the best opportunities that have happened to us in a long time.
“The biggest asset we have on our end is the Natchez Trace,” he said. “We’re very much trying to draw people from there onto the Tanglefoot.”
The trail will show a cross-section of Northeast Mississippi to visitors and locals alike. Hardwoods such as oaks, hickories and poplars dominate the treescape, with a lot of pines and an understory of cedars, dogwoods and many other native species, along with wildflowers and awe-inspiring stands of kudzu.
“I think the prettiest stretch is from Houston to Houlka, because a lot of it is covered with hardwoods that form a canopy over the trail,” said Trail Manager Don Locke. “The area from Ecru to New Albany is more open, but there’s some nice cropland out there – hills on one side, bottomland on the other.”
Ben Hamby, director of economic development for Jefferson Davis County, said his area has benefited greatly from the Longleaf Trace.
“We have people from out of state here just to ride the Trace,” he said. “We get people all the time from Florida and other states, and we refer them to local places to eat and to stay while they’re here. Economically, it’s important to us.”