TUCKER COUNTY, W.Va. — Several new trails will be added between tourism hot spots in the West Virginia mountains, to help transform the area’s coal heritage into tourism heritage, the Friends of Blackwater announced Thursday.

The Appalachian Regional Commission will award a $1,226,000 “POWER Grant” to the non-profit Friends of Blackwater for a new “Blackwater Loop Trail” connecting the towns of Thomas and Davis, Blackwater Falls State Park, and the Monongahela National Forest.

The 8-mile “Blackwater Loop Trail” will connect and improve existing trails, build new segments, and provides new pedestrian/bicycle crossings of the Blackwater River and its tributaries. In addition to Thomas and Davis, it will also connect key hubs of tourism and employment, historic assets, and other important areas, according to the release.

Conceptual sketch of the proposed pedestrian/bicycle cable suspension bridge on Blackwater Loop Trail. (Courtesy: Friends of Blackwater)

The ARC grant will also support an interstate initiative to create a new “West Virginia Mountain Railroad National Historic Trail” between Elkins, West Virginia, and Cumberland, Maryland. The trail would connect Blackwater to the Broader Potomac Highlands Region, spanning from the City of Elkins, through Thomas and Davis, up to Cumberland and to 20 other heritage locations in four West Virginia counties.

Proposed West Virginia Mountain railroad national historic trail map (Courtesy: Friends of Blackwater)

“Appalachia is a region with unique downtown communities, vibrant cultural and arts traditions, and beautiful natural assets,” said ARC Federal Co-Chair Gayle Manchin. “I’m excited that this POWER grant to the Friends of Blackwater will help boost regional tourism, promote outdoor recreation in Northeast West Virginia and Western Maryland, and bolster partnership between two Appalachian states.”

Blackwater Canyon, a rugged and beautiful eight-mile-long gorge carved by the Blackwater River in the Allegheny Mountains, which includes Blackwater Falls State Park, is a world-class outdoor recreation and heritage tourism area.

West Virginia is investing heavily in outdoor recreation and heritage tourism to make up for other dying industries that once kept the state alive. Tourism is now $5 billion sector that is growing and helping the state diversify and prosper economically. According to Friends of Blackwater, the Potomac Highlands region where this project is focused produces $317.5 million in total direct tourism spending every year and 4,100 jobs, according to data from 2018.

All along this rail corridor are the remains of the early industrialization era in the mountains – some crumbling, some standing strong. From coal mines and sawmills, to coke oven complexes, pulp mills, leather making facilities; from company stores and headquarters to company houses, railroad bridges, tunnels, depots, repair shops, power plants, and banks.

Today, this corridor is a place of great beauty, as nature has healed the scarred industrial landscape and opened up new opportunities for outdoor recreation and heritage tourism as an important industry, taking the place of mines and mills.