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High Bridge Trail features 2,400-foot long bridge

Commonwealth of Virginia and partner Norfolk Southern Corporation are working together to preserve High Bridge Trail State Park featuring .

From Virginia State Parks

photo of tall steel bridge
The historic High Bridge built in 1914 on the site of the Civil War era crossing

The High Bridge Trail concept began to take shape when Norfolk Southern Corporation announced plans to abandon their railroad corridor between Pamplin and Burkeville. The line was abandoned in 2005.

The last passenger train to Farmville rumbled across High Bridge on October 26 2004, stopping for 45 minutes on the half-mile span more than 125 feet above the Appomattox River. The special five-car train carried local officials, representatives of state agencies and some nostalgic local folks who remembered when rail transportation was the most convenient way to travel through Southside Virginia.

Riders admired the view and heard about the benefits of turning the 34-mile stretch of railroad right-of-way between Pamplin and Burkeville into a long, thin state park for hiking, biking and horseback riding. The stretch roughly parallels U.S. Route 460 and hopes are that it will again become a strong part of the community. In its new life, the rail line will be known as High Bridge Trail State Park. The rail-trail would connect Pamplin to Burkeville and run through Prospect, Farmville and Rice, each of which has unique history and assets.

photo of tall steel bridge
The bridge before trail development

Acquisition and Planning

The deed was transferred from Norfolk Southern to the Commonwealth of Virginia in December 2006. During the transfer, the Department of Conservation and Recreation got a VDOT grant and completed an engineering study, an environmental review and a property survey. Funds were also used to develop a master plan for the trail. Also, gates and signs have been placed to deter trespassing and unauthorized uses of the property.

An advisory committee of local residents was formed to guide state planners in developing a master plan for the new rail-trail park. One of the first steps in developing the master plan was developing tools to keep neighbors and others informed on what’s going on with High Bridge Trail State Park. This site and a local newsletter, the High Bridge Progress are just two of those tools. The Progress has answers to many of the questions residents have about the new park and its progress.

The committee met monthly from May through October 2006. Meetings held to gather public comment for consideration in the park's master plan also were held in August and October that year. After much work by the committee and thoughtful public suggestions, a master plan was adopted in October 2006. The Board on Conservation and Recreation and the legislature then approved the plan, which guides the park's development. The new rail-trail project has been embraced by the local governments in the area. Not only will the new state park offer recreational opportunities for its neighbors and other nearby residents, it will also serve as a draw to bring tourists into the area.

According to an economic study conducted by Chmura Economic and Analytics from Richmond, the new state park could draw as many as 114,000 visitors annually who would spend nearly $1.5 million in the surrounding communities. The purpose of High Bridge Trail State Park is to provide a premiere non-motorized, shared-use path for pedestrians, bicyclists, and horseback riders in the Heart of Virginia; to preserve and protect the historic, natural, and recreational resources along the trail; and to interpret the trail corridor to offer an understanding of the region’s historic events and their causes, impact and legacy to individuals, the community, and the nation in the full context of American history.

The master plan is an important document in the life of High Bridge Trail State Park. It guides its phased development over the next 20 years or so. More importantly, the master plan must be developed and approved before park development funds can be secured. The first phase of the master plan focuses on the park’s namesake, High Bridge, and providing access to it from the east. It calls for securing and decking the bridge, surfacing the trail between the bridge and Aspen Hill Road, developing an Aspen Hill Road parking area and a controlled access road from the new parking area to the bridge. Interpretive signs and kiosks for the parking lot and bridge are also included. Management improvements in phase one are an administrative office, maintenance area and ranger residence.

The next phase will connect Farmville with Rice, with later phases connecting Farmville with Prospect, Prospect with Pamplin, and Rice with Burkeville in that order. The rate at which these phases are developed depends on funding.

History of The High Bridge

The bridge was built in 1854 of wood-on-stone piers. High Bridge proved to be an important military objective for both the Confederate and Union armies during the final months of the Civil War. On April 6, 1865, prior to the battle at Sayler’s Creek, an advance detachment of Union troops was dispatched to burn the structure in an attempt to trap the Confederates east of the river. The Confederates, however, attacked and defeated the Union detachment; thereby, temporarily saving High Bridge and also the wagon bridge below it.

On April 7, General William Mahone’s division arrived at High Bridge as the rear guard of the Confederate troops with orders to burn the railroad and wagon bridges behind them to prevent the enemy from crossing at this point. Through some misunderstanding there was a delay before the Confederate engineer received orders to fire the two structures. The Union soldiers were able to quench the fire of the wagon bridge whose green timbers were slow in burning; however, High Bridge was rendered impassable. This act of negligence in the Confederate ranks resulted in serious problems and delayed the westward movement of General Robert E. Lee’s army, eventually resulting in the surrender at Appomattox Court House. During the years of Reconstruction in the South the South Side Railroad slowly began to overcome the ravages of the war and resume its operation. The four-span wooden superstructure of the western end of High Bridge was rebuilt. While the railroad bridge was impassable, a train would run to one end and horse-drawn conveyances would transport freight and passengers over the wagon bridge to meet a train at the other end. The original bridge was replaced by an all-steel structure in 1914, but the stone piers still stand next to it.

Become a friend of the park

As the park continues to be developed new opportunities will continue to arise to support the park in a variety of ways. One of those ways is through the formation of a Friends group. Friends groups are non-profit organizations that are formed to support a local park through volunteerism, advocacy and fundraising efforts. Anyone interested in forming, or becoming involved with, a Friends of High Bridge Trail State Park can contact Park Manager Eric Hougland.

Eric Hougland, who has worked with DCR for 13 years, will manage the new High Bridge Trail State Park. He worked at New River Trail State Park, also a linear rail-to-trail park, for 10 years. A small portion of the park will open this summer and the full trail is expected to open during the summer of 2009.

For more information:

High Bridge Trail State Park,
118 S. South Street #508, Farmville, VA 23901
(434) 315-162

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