American Tobacco Trail Historic & Natural Significance

The American Tobacco Trail is a recreational rail-trail located on an abandoned railroad corridor of the Norfolk Southern Railroad. Constructed in 1906, the original railroad traveled from Duncan to Durham near the New Hope River, transporting tobacco leaf from farming communities in Wake, Chatham and Durham counties for processing at the American Tobacco Company in Durham. Railroad traffic decreased over time due to competition from interstate trucking. One of the last major uses of the railroad was to haul materials for the construction of the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant near New Hill. With the railroad no longer in use, the tracks were removed in 1987.

Local residents began using the rail corridor as an informal recreational trail and in 1989, a group of citizens organized the nonprofit Triangle Rails to Trails Conservancy to promote the development of the corridor into a managed rail-trail. The N.C. Department of Transportation purchased the corridor from the railroad company in 1995 and subsequently leased the corridor to the counties to be developed and operated as a recreational trail open to the public. It was officially named the American Tobacco Trail to reflect its historical roots, and planning and construction of the trail began.

As you traverse along the trail by foot, bike or horse, you can expect to see traces of the old railroad, while enjoying the sights and sounds of a variety of wildlife, including beavers, songbirds, squirrels, snakes, owls, white-tailed deer and more.

Natural Features and Game Lands

Beaver Creek Wetland

Photo of an American Beaver in the shoreline in the Beaver Creek wetland area along the American Tobacco Trail
Beaver at the Beaver Creek wetland in February 2020
Photo by Eddie Owens at the Beaver Creek wetland - February 2020

Beaver Creek can be found at the bridge near the 21.5-mile marker. Along this section of trail there is a marsh area that exhibits an array of plant life among the obvious snags (standing dead trees). This is due to the presence of beavers. Beavers are nature’s engineers and play an essential role in our forests.

Beaver dams naturally create ponds, lakes, wetlands and meadows that in turn increase biodiversity and improve the overall environment. This wetland habitat not only provides a home to beavers, but seasonal waterfowl, woodpeckers and more.

Jordan Lake Game Lands

During hunting season, you may see a hunter on game land in close proximity to the American Tobacco Trail. The Jordan Lake Game Lands encompass the American Tobacco Trail (ATT) in certain sections throughout Wake, Chatham and Durham counties. Game land property is located within the Wake County section along the first mile-and-a-half north from the New Hill trailhead and again south a half-mile from the Wimberly trailhead.

Hunters can gain access to game lands from the ATT corridor. During hunting season this activity is permitted, as long as they are on game lands, are wearing hunter orange attire and following trail regulations pertaining to no loaded firearms on the trail and no discharge of firearms across the trail.

Natural Resources Inventory Database (NRID)

Discover Nature at Wake County parks and preserves!

Want to explore the wildlife and plants seen at our Wake County parks and preserves from home? Check out the Wake County Natural Resources Inventory Database (NRID)! Anyone can use it – whether you're a birdwatcher, teacher, student, citizen scientist or just curious about nature. Explore data and photos, print checklists, or discover fun nature facts here.

If you photograph an animal or plant along the trail, we would love to include your sighting in our database. Please email picture and location to [email protected].

 

Historic Structures

Tobacco Barns

Photo of an old tobacco barn along the Wake County section of the American Tobacco Trail
Old tobacco barn, made of hand-hewn logs, alongside the ATT
This tobacco barn, made of hand-hewn logs, can be seen along the Wake County portion of the American Tobacco Trail.

Tobacco has been part of the state’s economic and social history for three centuries. The tobacco leaf supported thousands of families for generations and helped create cities, support universities and build hospitals across the state. Tobacco barns were used along the railroad line for the drying, curing and bundling of local tobacco crops.

At the peak of traditional tobacco cultivation in the mid-20th century, there may have been nearly a half-million tobacco barns in the state. Harvesting and curing tobacco was an annual ritual for thousands of NC families. There are probably less than 50,000 still standing, with thousands of them vanishing every year. As the old barns disappear, part of North Carolina's history will fade away with them.

Triangle Rails to Trails Conservancy and the Creation of the American Tobacco Trail

Triangle Rails to Trails Conservancy

The Triangle Rails to Trails Conservancy Inc. (TRTC) was founded in 1989 to work with local and state government officials to preserve local abandoned railroad corridors for future transportation and other interim uses such as recreational trails.

Working within the Triangle J Council of Governments service area of Chatham, Durham, Johnson, Lee, Orange and Wake counties, TRTC, led by its first president, Jon Parker, obtained federal tax-exempt status, and identified what became its principal project, the American Tobacco Trail, a 22-mile long rail-to-trail conversion that runs on the former Norfolk & Southern railroad corridor from Durham to New Hill-Olive Chapel Road in western Wake County.

To find out more or access additional trail maps and projects, search here.

Railroad to Trail in Wake County

The American Tobacco Company was founded by J.B. Duke in 1890 and dominated the entire industry by acquiring the Lucky Strike Company and over 200 other rival firms. The company-built processing plants and warehouses in Durham were served by several rail lines. Due to antitrust action against the American Tobacco Company in 1970, it was later broken into several major companies: American Tobacco Company, R.J. Reynolds, Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company, Lorillard and British American Tobacco. In the 1970s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Jordan Lake reservoir in Chatham County, necessitating the relocation of the New Hope Valley rail line that connected tobacco fields near Bonsal to the American Tobacco Company facilities in Durham. A new rail line was built on higher ground a few miles to the east. The American Tobacco Company left Durham in 1987, and the tracks where removed from the right-of-way.

In the 1980s the Triangle Rails to Trails Conservancy (TRTC) was formed to preserve the corridor as a multi-use trail and developed a Master Plan for the American Tobacco Trail (ATT) in 1992.

In July 1998, Wake County Parks, Recreation, and Open Space (WCPROS) began the public planning process for the American Tobacco Trail in Wake County. The purpose of this planning process was: To develop a management plan that addresses the multiple purpose possibility of the inactive railroad corridor known as the American Tobacco Trail. In doing such, consider how to protect the interests of adjoining property owners while providing a recreational opportunity to the urbanizing county.

In September 2000, the County selected design professionals to facilitate the development of design drawings for the multi-use trail project. Check out the “Phased Opening” section for more details on construction of the trail within the Wake County section.

The growth of the trail, by connecting municipal trails and greenways from the Town of Cary and Apex (White Oak Greenway from Cary and Beaver Creek Greenway from Apex), will set up the ATT as the backbone of a regional trail system that will provide an alternate transportation and recreation link for bicycles, pedestrians and more.

The New Hope Valley Railroad

The former railroad corridor on which the American Tobacco Trail is built was originally developed as the New Hope Valley Railroad. This later became the Durham and South Carolina Railroad.

The Durham and South Carolina RR (D&SC) began construction in New Hope Valley in September 1905 and was completed in October 1906. The line followed the New Hope River basin passing the communities of Seaforth, Farrington and others, until it joined the Durham and Southern RR, and again the Seaboard Air Line RR, in East Durham, using their track to reach downtown Durham. In 1920, Norfolk Southern penned a 99-year lease with the D&SC RR, and in 1957 they bought the small railroad outright.

In April 1969, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers entered into a relocation agreement with the D&SC, with Norfolk Southern as a third party, to move the rail line from the New Hope River basin to higher ground in preparation for the building of the New Hope Dam and Reservoir, later known as Jordan Lake. The Corps spent about $250,000 to negotiate and acquire the land for the rail line and then $4.9 million to construct the 18.5-mile railroad. The new line branched off the old one about 1,000 feet south of what is now I-40 at a place called Penny and rejoined it near Bonsal in Wake County. The line was improved with 100-pound steel rails, replacing the 70-pound steel rails used on the old line built by the Durham and South Carolina railroad. In March 1974, the transfer took place, with the D&SC and Norfolk Southern getting the new steel and fee-simple property from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; however, earlier that year, the Southern Railway and the Norfolk Southern had merged, making the D&SC line redundant. It was decided to abandon the line. The Southern Railway would later merge in 1982 with the Norfolk & Western, forming today's Norfolk Southern Corporation.

The relocation agreement stated that before the transfer, three trains had to run over the new line to test its stability. The story goes that as the third train backed up the route, it took up the steel and ties for their salvage value. An adjacent property owner accounted that he saw only one train, which carried pulpwood – not tobacco – ever use the corridor. Formal abandonment began in 1979. The tracks, ties and gravel were removed in 1983, leaving a long "dirt road" that was used informally as both a recreational trail and dumping ground for area residents.

Until 1995, the majority of the railroad corridor remained under Norfolk Southern ownership, although several sections of the corridor were acquired by other business or private entities. Carolina Power and Light, now Duke Energy, had begun construction of its Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant directly on the D&SC railroad property, and acquired the 12 miles of rail corridor from the plant to Duncan. The NC Department of Transportation now did not have to build expensive railroad bridges over US Route 1 nor the soon to be constructed I-40.

Also, in Durham, the developers of Woodcroft acquired the railroad property at its intersection with Woodcroft Parkway, with plans for commercial development. The developer of Folkstone acquired half of the RR corridor in 1982 for $1,800 and sold it to the City of Durham for part of its Greenway in 1992 for $28,000. Some of the adjacent property owners in Wake County were able to buy back from Norfolk Southern the property they or earlier owners originally sold to the Corps. The Town of Cary purchased just over a mile of the corridor to carry its water line from Jordan Lake to its filtration plant. The East Carolina Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society purchased six-and-a-half miles of the line from the Durham and South Carolina RR in 1983 and now operates the New Hope Valley Railway, a hobby railroad, and the N.C. Railroad Museum. Between 1995 and 1998, the remaining sections of the railroad corridor (in southern Durham, Chatham and Wake counties) were purchased by the NC Department of Transportation.

In April 1987, the Durham City Council, at the encouragement of the Durham Urban Trails and Greenways Commission, passed a resolution stating that all abandoned rail corridors in the City were to be incorporated into the city's Greenway System Master Plan and were thereby protected from being developed upon. The intent was that these corridors should be saved for future rail service by interim trail use. Similar action has been taken by the Durham County Commissioners.

Phased Opening of the American Tobacco Trail

A photo from the Grand Opening celebration of the Wake County section of the American Tobacco Trail in 2003 - man speaking at podium
Speaker addresses the crowd at the grand opening celebration of the ATT in 2003
A photo from the Grand Opening celebration of the Wake County section of the American Tobacco Trail in 2003.

The American Tobacco Trail was built in sections; the first paved section was opened in 2001 in downtown Durham. Wake County opened its first, granite-screened, 3.75-mile section, from New Hill-Olive Chapel Road to Wimberly Road, in 2003. Phase II occurred in July 2005, extending the length from 3.75 miles to 5.5 miles. In 2006, the remaining 1-mile section was completed, to fully extend Wake County's portion of the trail to 6.5 miles. Chatham County opened its dual surface (paved and granite screening) 4.5-mile section in 2010.

With the completion of the I-40 bridge in Durham in 2014, the trail now extends 22 miles from the New Hill Trailhead north to Durham Bulls Athletic Park.