Times, The (Shreveport, LA)

October 11, 2004

Developer to open section of Rails to Trails park

Author: Vickie Welborn; Staff
Author: Times=City
Section: Front
Page: 1A
Dateline: Goldonna, Louisiana
By Vickie Welborn

GOLDONNA -- Plans to create a 61-mile linear park stretching across four parishes are back on track after years of political wrangling and court battles derailed the project that is often referred to as Rails to Trails.

The public will get its first glimpse of what's ahead Saturday when developer John Tarver and his small group of committed volunteers open a 9-mile segment of the former Kansas City Southern railroad line between Chestnut and Goldonna.

A trail ride open to pedestrians, bicyclists, horseback riders and wagons will leave Chestnut at various times after 8 a.m., with the goal for all to gather in Goldonna around noon for an old-fashioned time of visiting and eating around a pavilion that is being constructed on a plot of land in the heart of the village that until now had seen little public use.

"It will pump a little life into our community," said Doug Harris, a Goldonna alderman who is volunteering his time to help longtime friend Tarver get the trail open.

Eventually, the trail, now referred to as L&A Trail, will run from Sibley to Winnfield -- crossing the parishes of Bienville, Webster, Natchitoches and Winn and taking in other small municipalities such as Heflin, Jamestown, Castor, Ashland, Calvin--and could include a series of parks along the way.

Tarver anticipates it will take at least another year to clear the entire abandoned rail line and open it for recreational use.

"That may be a little ambitious," he said.

And once it's "up and running," Tarver plans to seek state or federal grant funds for further development.

Particularly, Tarver said funds would be needed to repair a number of trestle bridges along the way. Paving at least portions of the trail to make it accessible to handicapped users is also a goal.

"If it helps the economic situation of these towns and villages, then we've been a success," Tarver said.

He just hopes the trail becomes as popular as ones across the country that draw walkers, hikers, bikers, joggers, and bird watchers. Motorized vehicles are discouraged because of the potential damage to the pathway that is primarily dirt and gravel.

"It takes you through the piney woods of Louisiana where there's no traffic," Harris said.

Picturesque journey

Indeed, the nature trail slices through picturesque forestland filled with pines and hardwoods. Streams and creeks parallel or crisscross sections of the trail. An occasional deer and coyote also vie for visitors' attention.

While Tarver's involvement with the trail has only been in the past three years, the idea for the linear park has been around since the late 1990s. The state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism was the first to jump on the idea.

The abandonment of railroad rights of way and the dwindling number of miles of track available for the future got Congress' attention in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, the federal government enacted a law that preserves the abandoned railroad beds for future railroad use, but in the interim allows use of the land as recreational trails. Similar linear parks can be found in 48 states, with the only other one in Louisiana in St. Tammany Parish.

KCS relinquished its use of the 61-mile branch line that stretched from Alexandria into Arkansas in 1989 and spent years taking up the rails and crossties. In June 1997, KCS filed a notice stating the line could be suitable for interim trail use.

State tourism officials, under the direction of then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, were involved in negotiations with KCS. Months of criticism from private landowners weighed in on the state's plans.

Voices of opposition

An opposition group called Citizens Against Property Rights Infringement of Northwest Louisiana gained almost 2,000 signatures of people who did not want the linear trail park near their property out of fear of it drawing the likes of drug dealers and other criminal elements.

Public hearings did little to ease concerns and eventually the state stopped its plans.

Enter Tarver, a retired historian with the LSU AgCenter and current Baton Rouge resident who grew up in Goldonna and wanted a chance to contribute to his hometown.

"When the state and Gov. Blanco were working on it, that's what got me interested. We didn't have firm plans at the time, "Tarver said of himself, his brother and another business partner. "We knew there would be some opposition ...but since then, politics has not impinged on it at all."

A court battle did, however.

Tarver sued Nan Bass Wiggins, J. Wayne Wiggins, Wiggins Logging, Inc. and Wayne Wiggins Construction after he discovered that someone had used a backhoe to dig a large ditch across the middle of the right of way along the trail near Jamestown in Bienville Parish. A large metal gate also was erected, chained, padlocked and posted with a no trespassing sign.

The defendants claimed to own land adjacent to the rail corridor and opposed the creation of a trail park. They argued once the rail line was abandoned, the rights of way should have reverted to the adjacent owners. U.S. Magistrate Judge Roy S. Payne of the U.S. District Court's Western Division disagreed, and in a ruling handed down in March declared that the quitclaim deed held by L&A Trail, Inc. for the KCS right of way was "superior" to the claims of the defendants. He also ordered them to pay for damages to the property.

Tarver goes into the project knowing that there's always a possibility that KCS will decide it wants to re-establish its rail service through the area. "I can't sell it, but I may have to turn around and give it back to them."

More lawsuits possible

Fern Dryden doesn't believe KCS will ever rebuild its rail line and she remains adamant in her opposition to Tarver's plans. Dryden said she and other landowners are "in the process" of filing a class action lawsuit to stop further development.

"It will disrupt our lives," Dryden said of the trail that she says sits within 50 feet of her back yard.

Dryden lives nine miles south of Castor on property homesteaded by her grandfather, "who was here before the train was." Her grandfather granted an easement to the train company to establish its line, she said.

Once abandoned, the land should be given back to the adjacent landowners, Dryden said. "They stole our land."

Dryden fears she and others along the route will lose their privacy because of public use of the trail. Wayne Wiggins, a defendant in Tarver's lawsuit, and Leeman Wiggins are also involved in the class action lawsuit, Dryden said, adding that signatures are still being gathered. She did not know when the lawsuit would be filed.

Preparations continue

It's taken a few months, but Tarver and a handful of close friends who have volunteered their time finally dove into the hands-on hard work needed to prepare the trail between Chestnut and Goldonna for Saturday's trail ride.

Just two weeks ago, the railroad pathway was so overgrown with weeds and saplings that it was only popular with hunters who had forged their own way in and out. Charles Cloud, a Goldonna contractor, stepped in and donated his equipment to grade the still solid rail bed.

It's still bumpy in places, but Tarver said Cloud would make another pass through before the trail ride. "We couldn't have done it without him. He's a strong supporter of what we're doing," Harris said.

Tarver and Harris used their own sweat and muscle to replace a crosstie bridge.

And since a majority of the route passes through or nudges the Kisatchie National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service also has been helpful with some aspects such as seeding a reclaimed area near the old tank pond where Harris and many other Goldonna youngsters learned to swim back in the railroad's heyday.

The pond had silted in, but now scooped out it will serve as a resting spot along the trail's route. A sign makes not e that it was once a popular spot for hobos.

"This whole place holds a lot of history," Tarver said.

Since the early 1900s, Goldonna's history has been intertwined with the railroad. The tiny Natchitoches Parish village like many others scattered through the state sprang up along the once active rail line. It brought life and commerce.

But it also brought tragedy and yet another turning point.

In 1976, a train wreck in the heart of the village caused an explosion that burned many homes and businesses, one belonging to Harris' relatives.

With the economy already ailing, those businesses did not reopen and it signaled a continual decline in activity in Goldonna.

Pat Davis owns Pat's Country Corner, the only store in this village of about 450. Although it's too soon to gauge how popular the trail will become, Davis is optimistic whatever activity it generates will benefit her store and the community.

"I think it's a great thing.  I just hope it will be used," Davis said.

Just around the corner, Goldonna native Dwaine Sampey was dabbing paint on the interior of a store that had been vacant for the past 10 years. Sampey and wife Delores hope to open Sampe's Cajun Restaurant sometime next month. It sits on a hill where the L&A Trail comes into Goldonna.

"I didn't base my opening on the trail, but whatever it does will benefit my restaurant," Sampey said. "It will be good for this little town, definitely."

Sissy Harris, wife of Doug Harris, said hikers and bikers already have shown interest and inquired about the upcoming trail ride. She and Davis, who for years have been involved with Goldonna's only festival, the Drake Saltworks Saline Creek Festival, are looking at ways of incorporating the trail into the Labor Day weekend festival, which is in line for revamping.

"We hope the trail allows us to far surpass the festival," Sissy Harris said.

If you go

L&A Trail will hold a 9-mile demonstration trail ride Saturday to acquaint the public with recreational use of the trail. Everyone should meet at the trail where it crosses state Highway 9 in Chestnut. Hikers will leave at 8 a.m.; bicyclists, at 8:45 a.m.; and horseback riders and wagons, at 9 a.m. Motorized vehicles are prohibited. Arrival time in Goldonna is estimated to be noon. Vendors will be set up at the trail's end to sell food. Music and political speeches from state and area politicians will round out the day.

For more information, call Doug Harris at (318) 727-8860, Murle Cheatwood at (318) 576-3274, or John Tarver at (225) 343-8132.

Photo Captions:

Goldonna native John Tarver, who now lives in Baton Rouge, looks over a recently refurbished tank pond that once served the Kansas City Southern rail line. Tarver is behind the development of what is expected to be a 61-mile linear park stretching from Sibley to Winnfield as part of the L&A Trail. A 9-mile section from Chestnut to Goldonna is scheduled to open Saturday.

Vickie Welborn/The Times

John Tarver (left), developer of the L&A Trail, and childhood friend Doug Harris, a Goldonna alderman, stand on what will become a pavilion next to the trail that crosses through the heart of the village.

Copyright (c) The Times. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co., Inc. by NewsBank, inc.
Record Number: shr2004101216280565