Environment, Latest News, Preston County

Friends of Cheat plans trail-head, scenic bridge overlook for Cheat River Rail-Trail

This is the first of a series on Friends of Cheat’s trail and creek reclamation plans.

MORGANTOWN — An abandoned railroad trestle and an empty lot that once housed a coal processing plant will soon become the centerpiece of the Cheat River Rail-Trail.

A recent $1 million Abandoned Mine Lands grant will help that happen, Friends of Cheat Executive Director Amanda Pitzer said.

“We’re trying to attract people here to Preston County, just put our best foot forward,” she said. “We’ve been patient and persistent. We’ve been working on the trail projects for 18 years now.”

In 2018, Friends of Cheat received a $3.2 million AML grant for trail design and construction. The new grant will cover developing a trail-head destination site at the former Patriot Mining processing plant site on the north end of the trestle, along W.Va. 72 south of Kingwood.

The money will allow FOC to work on the first eight miles of trail form Kingwood south to Mannheim. They eventually want to reach Rowlesburg.

The Cheat is already known for rafting and fishing. “Adding the trail is essentially going to double the amount of access and really create a trifecta of outdoor recreation that will really have something for everyone,” including biking and walking, Pitzer said.

Projects like this often get dubbed with acronyms and the trail-head project is called RECREATING (Reclaiming the Cheat River as an Economic Asset through Trail Investment and Nurturing Greenspaces), a s sequel to the trail construction project, called RECREATE.

The site of the former coal processing plant

Pitzer explained that CSX pulled out its railroad tracks along the Cheat in the late 1990s. In 2008-2009 FOC worked out a deal with Patriot Mining to buy the former processing plant property – 18.5 acres – for a trail head. And Friends of Cheat has a right-of-way lease agreement with the state Rail Authority for the rail corridor.

Now, the site is a vast tract of gravel with a small slab of concrete, surrounded by trees, mounds of grass and a patch of cattails. But they have a vision.

First, they’ll need parking. They originally thought 20 spaces, but the COVID-19 pandemic drew so many people outdoors that now they believe they’ll need more.

They want the space to be green and park-like, Pitzer said. There will be river access and trail access maps, seating and picnic areas.

The next item in the vision is a building. FOC has long wanted to move its office there, Pitzer said. But they see more. They envision trail-head facilities, a vendor space, maybe an interpretive history center. They see it as a draw for educational events.

“From the flood of 85 to the mine blowouts and the restoration, the story of the Cheat, we think, is really inspiring and would attract people to the trail.”

The 430-foot trestle will the the showpiece of the trail, Pitzer said. It survived the flood of 1985 and is pieced together from three other bridges. They’ll re-deck it and add safety railings. They want a clear Plexiglas cantilevered overlook for breathtaking views below.

Pitzer said construction is planned to begin in 2021, either on trail head, the trail itself, or hopefully both.

RECREATING has three other goals. One, FOC will partner with the Department of Environmental Protection to look at treating polluted water from nearby Lick Run in a facility either at the trail-head site or closer to the portals, and 1.5 miles away. It dumps about 250 tons per year of toxic metals into the Cheat.

FOC wants to build a spur trail up to the portals – a vision that will be spelled out in another story in this series.

Two, the grant includes support for negotiations with private property owners for the possible purchase of an additional trail corridor, extending the rail-trail into Rowlesburg.

And three, the grant includes money to purchase trail maintenance equipment.

Tweet David Beard@dbeardtdp Email dbeard@dominionpost.com