In a surprise announcement on Monday, December 10, Friends of the Cheat (FOC) was awarded a $3 million grant to aid in construction of the highly-anticipated Cheat River Rail-Trail. The funds will be used to expand recreational opportunities along the popular Cheat Narrows section that runs from Rowlesburg to Albright.
FOC plans to implement a layered project with environmental, recreational, and economic implications. This multifaceted project also has a daedal title to match: Reclaiming the Cheat River as an Economic Asset through Trail Enhancement (RECREATE).
“The title of the project is probably the best acronym I’ve ever come up with in my life,” FOC Executive Director Amanda Pitzer said.
The grant was awarded by West Virginia Governor Jim Justice and stems from federal dollars made available by Congress to the Office of Surface Mining, which allocates funds to the state via the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP). The WVDEP administers this grant through the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) Pilot Program.
The foundation of the project is the Cheat River Rail-Trail. The majority of the grant funds—around $2 million—will be used to construct the trail. The proposed route parallels the Cheat River Narrows, a popular class II-III whitewater paddling destination, for about 8.5 miles. By way of trail building bolstered through a community enhancement program, the project will serve as an economic asset to communities along this portion of the Cheat River.
Liz Moore, guide and general manager at Blackwater Outdoor Adventures, leads whitewater trips on the Narrows. “There’s a lot of greatness to it,” Moore said. “The wonderful part of it for all river users, whether you’re swimming, fishing, or boating, is that it’s really easy access. It’s roadside and there are multiple places to pull off.”
This section of the Cheat is free flowing, meaning the river flows naturally without any dam control managing the natural fluctuations of the river. The upper reaches of the Cheat to its only dam at Cheat Lake constitute one of the longest sections of free-flowing river in the eastern U.S. Its free-flowing nature accentuates the unique aspects of the local climatology and hydrology of the Narrows.
“We’re all dependent on weather and the character of the rapids, so any given day is vastly different from the day before, which makes it really fun,” Moore said. The class III Calamity rapid stands out as the most prominent rapid among sets of more manageable whitewater passages. “Calamity has the largest drop… when you get to the bottom in the steepest part of the drop you have a few obstructions,” Moore said.
With boaters already making the trip to the Narrows, the rail trail may provide more opportunity for those who wish to remain dry. The Cheat River Rail-Trail will be on an old railroad grade on river right, opposite of Rt. 72, which is on river left. To improve trailhead access, re-decking and improving a preexisting 430-foot trestle bridge over the Cheat River is also included in the project plans.
FOC purchased this property from CSX and is required to address contaminants in the soil when it constructs the trail over the contaminated section. “So it’s really likely that the trail will be paved,” Pitzer said. Paved trail is more expensive than the packed gravel typical of rail-trails, but will make the trail more accessible and user friendly. “It’s kind of a risk that became an opportunity, so we’re excited that the trail will likely be paved,” Pitzer said.
In addition to the rail-trail, a hiking trail will spur off and lead up Lick Run. The spur trail will run from the Preston Site, cross over Rt. 72, and lead up property owned by FOC that leads to the Lick Run Portals. The portals are abandoned mine land—half of which is reclaimed.
“It makes it a really unique place for people to learn about acid mine drainage and mine reclamation,” Pitzer said. The dichotomy between the two halves is startling: on the left lies an attractive, reformed hillside with grass.; on the right sit three open portals discharging hundreds of gallons of polluted water. “It’s an otherworldly scab of metals,” Pitzer said.
Additional project plans include an outdoor learning park at the Lick Run Portals for tours and school groups to hear from mine reclamation experts. Because Lick Run is the largest source of acid mine drainage (AMD) flowing into the Cheat, FOC wants to conduct bench testing experiments at Lick Run to implement AMD treatment.
The Trail Town component of the project complements the other facets as the large economic driver. The Trail Town component is modeled after the Great Allegheny Passage Trail Towns project. “We’re going to bring experts in to Rowlesburg, Kingwood, Albright, and Tunnelton to work with community groups, small businesses, and volunteers to help prepare for our new trail economy,” Pitzer said.
These experts will work with towns like Rowlesburg to conduct assessments that will harness the economic opportunities provided by the trail. “There’s certainly not a lot of work around here, like factory work, so if it would bring tourism to Tucker, Preston, or anywhere along the Cheat, that would be a good thing,” Mayor Eric Bautista of Rowlesburg said. Mayor Bautista hopes the Cheat River Rail-Trail will end in Rowlesburg and spur new economic growth.
To further economic growth, $50,000 of the grant funds will go back to the businesses and groups involved in the program that will help make the Cheat River Rail-Trail a reality. “That is the homerun; that’s what we’re most excited about,” Pitzer said. “We’re not going to just build a trail through the woods and expect to change the economy in Preston County, but with this Trail Town component, we really can.”
Mat Cloak is a reporter for The Parsons Advocate and a teacher at the Mountain Laurel Learning Cooperative.