The old Columbus and Greenville railroad tracks in Maben sit unused with brush overgrowing the tracks and the ground sunken in places.
It brings no new business or agriculture to town, and drivers are cautious as the double tracks give their cars a giant thud when going over them.
Wilson Carroll, a Mississippi lawyer and avid biker, is looking to change that.
The unused portion of the railroad spans 92 miles from Greenwood in the west to West Point in the east, and Carroll wants the two Mississippi towns to serve as trailheads for a bike trail to go in place of the railroad tracks.
“Growing up in Greenwood, I knew the C&G had been abandoned, so in 2008 I formed the C&G Rail Trail Coalition to promote the idea of converting it to a rail trail,” Carroll said. “We got a lot of early support, but then the railroad was purchased by a company called Genesee and Wyoming. … They did not have any interest at that point in abandoning the line and converting it to a rail trail.”
G&W still owns the railway, with the piece between West Point and Columbus still in use. But after years of unfulfilled hope that the rest of the railroad would be active again, Carroll said the southern region vice president of G&W reached out to him in February saying the company was interested in letting the unused portion become a trail.
In order to obtain the 92 miles of railroad, Carroll said the first thing the coalition needs is an estimate on how much it would cost to take up the tracks and replace it with a 10- to 12-foot wide asphalt path that runs the length of the line. From there, Carroll intends to apply for federal funds from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which should support at least 80 percent, if not all, of the project.
“Most importantly, we’re relying on the Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area,” Carroll said. “They reached out when they learned we were pursuing the rail trail. It’s a federally funded agency that promotes economic development and historic preservation in their area of responsibility, and they’ve been extremely helpful in helping us professionalize this process.”
MHNHA helped the coalition retain the Neel-Schaffer firm for preliminary engineering and site analysis and an out-of-state firm to help with the economic impact statement, all of which is needed to apply for federal funding.
With the ball now rolling on the project, Carroll said acquiring the tracks and converting them to a trail would take three to five years.
“It’s a monumental undertaking, but I’ve been working on this since 2008 so that doesn’t faze me,” Carroll said. “We’d like to do the whole thing at one time, but we may end up doing segments because it’s going to be expensive. The federal funding may not be available in one lump sum, and we may have to get it in multiple years.”
Once Carroll knows the full cost of the project, he wants to garner support from city and county governments along the trail, but he does not want to approach the elected officials until he knows the project cost. Right now, the coalition is hosting Zoom meetings for those in government wanting to learn more about the project.
The path across the state would go through the hearts of many towns including Greenwood, North Carrollton, Winona, Kilgore, Eupora, Mathiston, Maben, Pheba and West Point.
Johnny Mack Morrow, project manager for research and economic development at the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute, is involved with the project through his work.
He said the trail will encourage bikers from all over to come to try the trail, and tourism in the towns and counties will increase with examples of towns like Houston and New Albany that have benefited from the Tanglefoot Trail, the most recent rail-to-trail conversion in North Mississippi.
“Throughout my lifetime, I’ve noticed that tourism projects when they come to rural areas tend to take a small town that’s maybe not doing much economically and turn it into a boomtown,” Morrow said. “If you go up to New Albany or Houston and those little towns between those communities, you see that happening. Small and rural communities, when you start bringing tourism, visitors from all over the world, you bring new dollars to that area. As an economist, I learned when those new dollars come to an area, they have a multiplier effect, and experts say they increase spending six times before they actually leave the city in which it was originally spent.”
The governing authorities will receive a resolution to form a rail trail recreation district. Carroll said because it has been done in Mississippi recently with the Tanglefoot Trail, the coalition will not have as much difficulty helping to form the district and all that comes with a rail-to-trail conversion.
The coalition has relied on its Facebook page to help connect those interested in rail trail updates, and statements in support of the project from mayors and other elected officials are scattered throughout the page. Maben’s mayor, Larry Pruitt, is one such official.
“The town of Maben is excited to support a project that will benefit our community and give our town a venue to showcase our homegrown hospitality and share our unique and historic heritage with the world,” Pruitt’s statement reads. “If everyone puts forth an effort in this development process, we will all benefit from the C&G Trail.”
One town Morrow is looking to speak with to drum up some interest is West Point. Morrow intends to visit the selectmen meeting next week in order to try to get someone in local government to attend the Zoom calls the coalition has to discuss its progress and where they are in the process.
Once the trail is complete, maintenance will be handed over to the local governments, and Carroll said every stop will have funding provided to create whistlestops, which will include tourism pamphlets like what to do, where to stay and more.
The eventual goal is to create a network of trails across north Mississippi. The 92-mile trail that will span from Greenwood to West Point will be the only trail in the state that crosses through the Natchez Trace, and eventually Carroll would like to have a connecting trail from the Tanglefoot to the Trace.
“A lot of people don’t comprehend how far people will come for a good trail,” Carroll said. “The longer the trail, the more excitement there is about it. Most trails are 30-40 miles long. The idea of being able to go 92 miles non-stop will draw people from literally all over the country.”
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.