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‘It’s a Big Deal’

A view of the Chessie Trail

Physical Plant’s grounds crew has been working to resurface the Chessie Nature Trail, correct drainage, and improve pedestrian gate access. – VMI Photo by H. Lockwood McLaughlin.

LEXINGTON, Va., Oct. 12, 2016 – The Chessie Nature Trail has been abuzz with activity lately. That’s not just because of those congregating to enjoy the cooler weather, but because of hard work being done by members of VMI’s Physical Plant to get the trail in perfect condition in advance of the 2016 Chessie Trail Half Marathon and 5K Oct. 15, an event organized by the Friends of the Chessie Trail.

The race has been a catalyst for identifying and executing improvements that will serve members of the wider community for years to come, including surface improvements, gate modifications, and pedestrian bridge repairs.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had this much P2 activity down on the trail at one time,” said Capt. Aaron Groah, project manager. “There’s definitely been a lot more effort from our end on the Chessie.”

VMI staff members have contributed to taking care of the trail since it was converted from the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway line.  The trail was dedicated in 1981 after VMI, the C&O Railway, and community groups worked extensively to clear away the remnants of railroad infrastructure and make it ready for use.

In fact, one runner in this year’s race had a small part in that conversion, working to remove railroad ties along the trail all those years ago.

“While working for the VMI grounds crew, I had an opportunity to work for a company on weekends clearing the old wooden ties. It gave me firsthand views of the end of an era,” said Buddy Johnson, a fixture of the local running community who worked in VMI buildings and grounds during a summer away from college.

Feelings for the trail run deep.  Johnson, like many others in the community, has built memories on the trail and alongside the river over the years.

“My dad worked in the athletic department for nearly 40 years, and I was literally on his heels with many a fond memory. We would often slip down to the river, cross the tracks, fish, and watch the sunset behind barracks. To this day, watching the cars pass on the tracks and the lonely sound of the whistle are still etched in my mind,” said Johnson. “Within a matter of years, fishing gave way to trail running, and to this day Chessie is a favorite place for me to run.”

“It’s a big deal, you know,” said Groah. “We take a lot of pride in providing this trail for the community." 

Over 200 tons of fine gravel will have been spread to even out the irregularities of the trail by the end of the year, in addition to the regular mowing and maintenance duties performed by Physical Plant staff.

“We’ve spent about twice the amount of time working on the trail as we have in past years,” said grounds foreman J.B. Harris. “The goal is to go the whole length of the trail with that gravel.  We can’t do all of it this year. We’ll go a little further down this end this year, do a little more on the other end next year, and sooner or later we’ll meet in the middle.”

Harris and his team have also improved drainage along the trail to even out ditches and eliminate muddy spots, including a drainage system implemented by Physical Plant staff member Cory Hatcher in the pasture closest to Lexington.

Completing the installation of pedestrian gates was accomplished with the help of the Friends of the Chessie Trail, a community organization that is working with VMI’s Physical Plant to maintain and revitalize the trail.  All but one of the gates has been improved, allowing for easier access while better securing farmers’ livestock.

An assessment of the safety of the pedestrian bridges over streams along the trail has resulted in physical plant making various improvements over the past two years. Currently, physical plant staff members Joe Fix and Matt Cline are working to improve the pedestrian bridge over Warm Run – near the Interstate 81 overpass. 

“We’re going to put handrails on the side and we’ve replaced the rotten decking on that bridge,” said Cline.  “It sits fairly high, but this particular bridge never had railings on it.”  In addition to this most recent project, Cline and Fix worked to rebuild a small bridge over a gulley near the Buena Vista end of the trail and replaced handrails on another bridge last year.

Going forward, Physical Plant has received a $330,000 grant to implement further improvements, including a 26-space parking lot, interpretive signage at Reid’s Lock, and further surface improvements.

– John Robertson IV 



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