Hopkinsville's Rail Bed Recycling Project

Jan 14, 2014

Credit Casey Northcutt

This story originally aired Sunday, March 3, 2013

As the nation becomes increasingly conscious about the environment, people recycle more and more, giving new life to various items. Abandoned railways, however, are usually not among them. Yet, the city of Hopkinsville has begun a Rails to Trails project, revamping an old Fort Campbell track into a beautiful new walkway, which officials hope will add flavor to the city.

Hopkinsville Director of Community and Development Services Steve Bourne starts up a John Deere Gator and drives down an old Department of Defense railway that used to haul Fort Campbell soldiers and equipment through town.

In the middle of February, the trees are bare and there isn’t much of a view, but Bourne paints an interesting picture of what this area could look like in the future.

During the next year or two, when the flowers bloom, a walkway will cover the current bed of gravel and connect residential neighborhoods, commercial areas and picturesque sections of the city.

“The city now has this opportunity to really have a unique feature, “said Bourne “But, part of the appeal here is that you are up against the river and you do have some of those natural settings.”

Hopkinsville is home to more than 31,000 people. And, according to its Health Department's 2012 Community Health Assessment study, the city and county rank at the bottom for communities statewide that provide a physical environment promoting health. Yet, Bourne says Hopkinsville leaders have been contemplating a Rails to Trails project, for at least six years. Such an endeavor could help the infrastructure issue.

Several trails already exist in cities nearby including Nashville, Clarksville and even Cadiz. Now, Hopkinsville’s new walkway will join more than 20,000 miles of converted rail beds across the country thanks to efforts from the Rails to Trails Conservancy. The nonprofit is dedicated to creating a nation-wide network of paths where railways once stood. Eric Oberg is the Conservancy’s manager of trail development in the Midwest region.

 “The group there is doing wonderful things,” said Oberg.

Oberg’s organization serves mainly as an information source for trail efforts around the nation and that local groups take ownership of these projects.

Back at the trail site, Bourne says his city has taken ownership of its walkway and pushed so hard for its creation because the project will help Hopkinsville further establish its own community identity.

“What you’re trying to do in any community development effort is develop a sense of place, a sense of purpose, and having these types of assets provide that sense of place, where people want to be a part of and have access to,” said Bourne.

As Bourne drives down the gravel rail bed, we pass through an interesting cross-section of the city, including industrial centers and residential neighborhoods. Kids play nearby, and Bourne even stops to talk to a woman walking her dog.

People already walk along the rail bed, which Bourne says the Department of Defense donated to the city around seven years ago.  He hopes, though, that even more residents will utilize it if city officials can drum up the estimated $1.7 million to pave the path and to construct railhead facilities and bridges. Mayor Dan Kemp says they have applied for one governmental grant and received another, but the city and private sector will fund the bulk of construction. A group called the Pennyrile Rail Trail Foundation even hosts an annual fundraiser for the project. But, the entire community has not always backed the Rails to Trails effort. Kemp admits that some residents had reservations about the safety of the trail as well as about the fact that it would run by several backyards.

 “I think a lot of those concerns and objections have been addressed. You hardly ever have a project that’s 100 percent supported, but I’m confident that a pretty sizeable majority of the people in Hopkinsville, as well as the City Council support this project,” said Kemp.

Kemp hopes to at least finish the first phase of the trail, or the first three miles, by the end of the year. When finished, the trail will run about eight miles through the city, linking both residential and commercial areas so citizens can walk to the park or to the downtown shops. This way, Kemp and Bourne believe the project will boost the quality of life in the city.

 “It’s just a great thing to be close to a rail trail, where you can get out there and walk and jog and ride bikes. We need areas like that particularly in Hopkinsville,” Kemp said.

And trails like that could make Hopkinsville a healthier place in general. Kemp certainly hopes so as he pushes for citywide rail bed recycling.