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With visitation to the New River Trail State Park topping the 1 million mark again last year, 2013 could be the year when the 57-mile-long linear facility becomes the most-used park in Virginia.
That’s not a New Year’s resolution on the part of park manager Sam Sweeney — it’s more of a long-term goal.
While that milestone might not happen in 2013, the park has a lot of work planned for the next 12 months to prepare for even more public use.
It looks like the New River Trail stayed on target to hit 1,050,000 visitors in 2012, the park manager said. Typically, the park hosts in the range 950,000 to 1 million visitors range.
Many of the ongoing improvements have begun at the park’s centerpiece at Foster Falls, with an effort to save the old mining hotel that became an orphanage from falling into further disrepair, to add a maintenance shop and to move the administrative offices out of a trailer and the “washroom building” to a renovated home.
Foster Falls is in Wythe County, just outside Carroll County. The trail also passes through Carroll and Grayson counties and has trailheads in the Town of Fries and City of Galax.
Joe Elton, Virginia’s state parks director, says making Foster Falls village and the trail more attractive gives Virginia a great showcase to tell a “pretty spectacular American story.”
His dream for the historic village includes interpreters dressed in period garb, telling the story of life in the iron mining town during the 1800s, adding to its allure as a tourism destination.
When a huge network of mining tunnels ran under Austinville and Ivanhoe, this region stood on the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, the parks director said. The availability of these natural resources led to the biggest and longest operating carbide factory being developed near these mines.
Both Elton and Sweeney feel confident that the culture and history, as well as the opportunities for outdoor recreation, can pull in even more travelers off interstates 77 and 81, and become more of a destination for tourists.
The stabilization of the Foster Falls hotel and related facilities at the park headquarters is the last improvement effort to be funded out of a 2002 state bond issue before the money runs out.
“We have enough money to make a real good start on it,” Elton said. “We don’t have enough to finish it out on the inside.”
The parks director can foresee the hotel completely restored and functioning as another draw to the New River Trail.
Park officials hope to turn the hotel back into overnight lodging, but the funding provided by the bonds will not get them there. Sweeney explained that it will only be enough to rebuild the structure, but not to finish it on the inside, due to inflation.
Though the bond issue came out 10 years ago, the construction estimates might have been put together as early as 1999.
So, park officials will do what they can and hope for further financial assistance from the state in upcoming budgets.
“It’s ripe for the picking, but we never quite have the money...” Elton said.
This will add another type of lodging to the park, where only primitive camping exists now.
“That will be one of the components that the public’s asked for for years,” Sweeney said.
In the meantime, a maintenance shop going up behind the old section master’s house will spare park workers from using the middle of the parking lot to pursue their tasks.
Contractors continue to rehab a home on the outskirts of the Foster Falls village to serve as the park’s administrative offices.
Those three projects cost a total of about $1.6 million.
“The exterior will be stabilized,” Sweeney explained about the hotel that was built when Foster Falls supplied iron to population centers as far away as Baltimore, Cincinnati and St. Louis, after 1880.
“The interior would be basically gutted... walls, electrical, plumbing would have to be put in.”
Considering that several community rooms and other accommodations have to be put in, as well as a fire suppression system, the cost for finishing the interior will probably exceed $1 million, he estimated. “It’s still a hefty number.”
Renovation of historic structures is generally not cheap.
“It will be a gorgeous facility inside and out, we just have to wait a little longer,” Sweeney said.
Another element of the New River Trail, the Shot Tower, remains closed while a construction company replaces the timbers on the porch at the top of the structure.
Other improvement efforts planned for the state park in 2013 include:
• placing more interpretative signs along the trail after planting the first at the new Ivanhoe horse trailer parking lot finished in 2012.
The park’s Patrick McFall will spend the winter months compiling the histories on the communities, the mining processes, the railroad and the towns along the route and finding old photos for the signs, Sweeney said.
One sign will be about Grayson Sulphur Springs , which used to stand near where Buck and Byllesby dams are now.
“One of our goals is to tell the history of the whole region,” the park manager said.
• inviting representatives of visitors and the community to help gather information to improve user experience when they come into the park.
• working to remove vegetation that could end up damaging the trestles, especially on the north end of the trail.
Removing trees that could cause damage is a good wintertime project, he said.
• resurfacing the trail from Austinville to Fries Junction awaits confirmation of a $30,000 in funding from a recreational trail grant.
• arranging for a river clean up of around 200 tires that have been disposed of in the New River near the Ivanhoe trestle.
• assisting with a pollinator garden at Foster Falls to be spearheaded by master gardeners from Wythe and Bland counties.
“A garden of this type is designed using native plants with the purpose to attract and nurture bees, hummingbirds and butterflies,” according to information from the Wythe-Bland Region Master Gardeners. “Some of the planned plants include pawpaw trees, echinacea and an eastern redbud tree. As the garden is developed the list of plants will grow.”
• improving parking at the Austinville section of the trail, including accommodations for horse trailers there.
The state park acquired land off of Virginia 69 from the Austinville Limestone Company last year, and administrators hope to utilize it in several ways.
Possibilities include a mining museum, picnic shelter and playground, Sweeney said.
Some of the land there will be reclaimed with a variety of native trees and other parts will support natural plantings and stands of hay.
“We’ve got lots of game plans for 2013,” he said. “What we don’t get done we’ll work on in 2014.”
Ideas for further boosting trail visitation include a new station/visitor’s center in Galax as well as a campground in the vicinity of Horseshoe Bend.
If the trail’s leadership keeps pursuing improvements like these, Sweeney could see New River overtaking First Landing State Park on the eastern shore as Virginia’s most-visited park.