- Associated Press - Saturday, November 15, 2014

COVINGTON, La. (AP) - In decades past, the Illinois Central railroad line that ran between Covington and Slidell was a thread that tied St. Tammany’s towns together.

Carrying timber and people, the train provided a pipeline through which residents could reach markets on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain and beyond.

The railroad line was abandoned in the late 1980s, however, after which the corridor could have been left to be reclaimed by weeds, swamp and pine forest.

Now, the 31-mile-long Tammany Trace - built on that abandoned rail corridor - is one of the parish’s main lures, drawing some 300,000 visitors per year.

On many mornings, the steady hum of cyclists spinning through the trees or joggers’ footsteps clapping the ground are joined by the sounds of local wildlife, including deer, rabbits, birds, snakes and turtles.

The paved asphalt trail stretches from Covington east and ends just west of Slidell. It passes through pine forests and neighborhoods, past swampy, lily pad-covered ponds and over creeks and bayous. The “trailheads” in each of the Trace’s municipalities are hubs of activity, with concerts, farmer markets and other community gatherings.

The parish recently celebrated the Trace’s 20th anniversary, noting it has become an integral part of north shore life.

It’s difficult to believe it might not have happened as political opposition and a tight time frame nearly derailed the project.

That would have been a blow for the parish’s rapidly growing population, according to Kevin Davis, now the director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. At the time of its development in the 1990s, Davis was a police juror and later parish president.

Davis said the Tammany Trace has a tough sell.

After the railroad declared its intention to abandon the line, Davis set to work on new uses for the corridor, including impact in Covington, Abita Springs, Mandeville, Lacombe and Slidell.

“The parish was developed because of that railroad. There ought to be some way to save it,” Davis recalled. He first checked to see if he could prevent the abandonment. After that failed, Davis, consultant Bill Oiler and others turned to other options.

One of those ideas was that the parish could run its own train on the tracks as a tourist attraction.

“We found a train in New Orleans and met with some railroad enthusiasts,” Davis said. But that idea died, too.

Finally, Davis said the line could be used for a “rails to trails” project, part of a national campaign to turn abandoned railway corridors into walking or cycling paths. He went to Pinellas County, Florida, where a similar trail had been constructed, and was impressed.

“We came back and said, ‘This is something we need for us,’ ” he said.

But some were skeptical, Davis recalled, including the parish’s legal counsel and some of his Police Jury colleagues.

“I said, ‘Members, if you just have faith in me, we can pull this off,’ ” Davis said. “I just pleaded, and they said, ‘We are going to go with it.’ “

Meanwhile, Davis had learned something unusual about the line: Unlike most other rail lines, where the land under the tracks remains the property of individual landowners, the Illinois Central line had a single owner. The railroad had sold it to local businessman Richard Blossman.

Davis was able to persuade Blossman to sell the corridor to the parish for less than its appraised value of $2.4 million. Blossman would get $1.4 million, and the remaining $1 million of value would count as a donation to the parish.

The deal was struck in late 1992, but Blossman set one condition: The deal had to close by the end of the year. That left Davis with another conundrum: where to get $1.4 million to buy the land?

For that, Davis turned to the federal government. He thought he could get federal highway dollars, but that money would have to come through the state - no easy task. In this effort, Davis had help from fellow Police Juror Steve Stefancik.

“During Christmas vacation, I took some extra days off, and I was in Baton Rouge every day,” Stefancik said. St. Tammany officials were able to get all of the officials who still had to approve the project in one room and convince them it was a good idea.

“We left there about 3 p.m. on Dec. 30 and called a press conference for 5 o’clock” to announce the deal, Stefancik said.

After the purchase, Davis set about getting community buy-in.

“The public was skeptical,” he said.

Some suggested the many street crossings would be dangerous for cyclists or joggers.

“There were a couple of meetings where I thought they would throw tomatoes at me,” Davis said.

One of those early supporters was developer Bruce Wainer, who still serves on the board of the Tammany Trace Foundation, the nonprofit group that oversees the Trace. Wainer described Davis‘ vision for the Trace as “brilliant.”

In those early days, the foundation hosted fundraising dances, Wainer recalled. One of the first events was held at Abita Park, and despite freezing temperatures, it was very successful. “It was in its infancy, and we were searching for funding,” he added.

In September 1994, the Trace’s first section, an 8.5-mile stretch from Mandeville to Abita Springs, opened with a bike ride.

The Tammany Trace now draws people to the parish and has a marked impact on the parish’s economy, according to St. Tammany Economic Development director Don Shea.

“When there is an event at the (Covington) trailhead, the businesses along Columbia Street do better,” he said. “Same thing in Abita and Mandeville - farmers markets and art sales go there,” he said.

What’s more, the Trace doesn’t just lure visitors. It attracts people who may become residents.

“We are trying to promote this place as a good outdoorsy lifestyle,” Shea said. “The Trace is the spine of that.”

___

Information from: The New Orleans Advocate, https://www.neworleansadvocate.com

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