BENHAMS, Va. — Dr. James Lapis hopped onto the Mendota Trail on a recent Wednesday afternoon.
“This leads to a beautiful big trestle,” said Lapis, a retired medical doctor and president of the Mendota Trail Conservancy.
The conservancy is a nonprofit group aiming to make the Mendota Trail a 12.5-mile reality.
Come Friday, it will be halfway there.
With a ribbon-cutting ceremony, a continuous 5.2-mile section will connect Bristol to Benhams, including a freshly built 2.1-mile section featuring the 193-foot-long Trestle No. 3 at Benhams, standing 40 feet above Abrams Creek.
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Opening this section is a grand achievement, trail supporters like Lapis say.
But, over the course of two decades, building the Mendota Trail has been like chugging along at the pace of a snail with a broken shell.
After all, it’s now been 20 years since the city of Bristol, Virginia, began making plans to build this trail on an abandoned rail line.
Originally, that plan called for stretching the trail from Bristol to the Scott County line for 14 miles. The city spent more than $600,000 on the property and concepts. But all those plans were eventually tied up in legal wrangles before the city called it quits after 16 years.
Those legal squabbles came from landowners who claimed they owned the long, skinny piece of land that was once the path of an active railroad from the 1890s to the 1970s.
In 2016, the city deeded the property to Mountain Heritage Inc., a nonprofit that went to immediate work on opening the first mile — from Mendota to the North Fork of the Holston River — in 2017.
Next, in 2018, Mountain Heritage volunteers opened a 3.1-mile section that connected Bristol’s Island Road to Washington County’s Reedy Creek Road.
Along the line, legal counsel Frank Kilgore, of St. Paul, Virginia, took maps into the field and explained to adjacent landowners how this skinny parcel of land weaved its way between farms and private residences.
Kilgore’s explanations, he said, were meant to calm landowners who had believed that the trail property reverted to them when trains stopped running in the 1970s.
More recently, in October, Mountain Heritage transferred ownership of the property to the Mendota Trail Conservancy.
Today, horseback riding is not allowed on the Mendota Trail. But it is open to hiking and bicycle riding and cross-country skiing “if we get snow,’ said Lapis.
Trail user John Iskra, 56, a math professor at Emory & Henry College, lives less than two miles from the trailhead in Bristol, Virginia. But, being close is not the only reason Iskra visits the Mendota Trail nearly every day.
It’s just beautiful,” Iskra said. “Along the entire length of the trail, there are a lot of different animals. I’ve seen deer. And people have horses beside the trail.”
Iskra likes the first mile at Bristol, saying the steep climb makes a good workout.
“And people along the trail are friendly,” he said.
A court ruling in 2007 declared that the city of Bristol owned the railroad property “in fee simple.” That means it’s not just a right-of-way but a long strip of land, Lapis said.
Clarifying that issue with the individual landowners is “still ongoing,” Lapis said. “I think they really know but they don’t want to hear it. But probably, more importantly, the trail users have been very polite. They don’t litter and they don’t wander off the trail.”
When it comes to owners of land adjacent to the trail, Lapis said, “Far more have bent over backwards to help us. We’ve had land donations.”
Four adjacent landowners have donated land to the trail to develop a future parking lot and a future picnic area, Lapis said.
“We’ve worked hard to meet every landowner’s needs,” he added.
In one instance, he said, the trail builders relocated a property owner’s driveway while constructing a ditch along the trail.
During the 1970s, trains quit running in Mendota. Yet for a while, the abandoned Southern Railway line became an excursion train.
Resurrecting the railroad line as the Mendota Trail, Lapis said, has been a tedious process of finding funding, clearing brush and overseeing construction of such landmarks as trestles.
To complete the trestle at Benhams, the engineering work was performed by Tysinger, Hampton & Partners and the construction was completed by Inland Construction.
“We are extremely excited about this long-anticipated addition to the trail,” Lapis said. “Our volunteers and donors have generously provided their time, energy and financial support to open this beautiful segment for the enjoyment of our trail users.”
Lapis would not release financial records on the trail, saying, “It’s still a moving target.”
But he did say the conservancy is working on a master plan that will help determine what it will take to complete the trail financially.
Money to pay for trail expansion and maintenance comes from private donors, Lapis said.
Each year, Lapis said, maintenance on the trail costs $8,000 to replace gravel added to the cinder that was left behind from the site’s former use as a railroad.
Lapis, 74, said he wanted to work on the Mendota Trail “to do a little public service. The area needed economic rescue, even growth if possible.”
Crossing the commonwealth
Turning a rail into a trail is not new.
The popular path to the Devil’s Bathtub in Scott County, Virginia, was once a railroad corridor. And so was the trail along the Falls of Little Stony in the Jefferson National Forest of Scott County, just south of Coeburn.
Rail-trails have also been constructed for 52 years across America — with the first being built in Wisconsin in 1968.
Virginia’s longest rail trail, the New River Trail State Park, spans 57 miles in Southwest Virginia.
In part, the Virginia Creeper Trail, which attracts 250,000 visitors a year to Washington County, between Abingdon and Whitetop, has inspired Mendota Trail leaders, Lapis said.
Currently, according to Lapis, the Mendota Trail attracts about 6,000 visitors each year.
Building the Virginia Creeper Trail was not without some controversy, as some neighboring landowners said they did not want it built in the 1970s and 1980s.
Today, it’s a property asset to be located close to.
And the town of Damascus has flourished with bike shuttle businesses along the Virginia Creeper Trail.
Mendota Trail volunteer Eva Beaule wants to see the same success come to Mendota, a once-incorporated town at the base of Clinch Mountain in the northwestern corner of Washington County.
And so does Saul Hernandez, the representative for Mendota and Benhams on the Washington County Board of Supervisors.
At a recent board meeting, Hernandez praised the trail association after hearing a presentation by longtime trail supporter Ellen Mueller.
“I’ve been a trail supporter for a long, long time,” Beaule said.
As the owner of Adventure Mendota, a kayaking company on the Holston River, the 64-year-old Beaule is dreaming of a complete trail. But, she said, the 12.5-mile length will not include the 1.5 miles from Mendota to the Scott County line, as originally proposed by the city of Bristol.
“It will end on Mendota Road. It’s a natural place to stop,” she said. “It will run through the Wolf Fun Gorge. And I would love to see the last six miles completed in the next six years.”
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