Planners Turn Focus to South River Bridge

The ruins of the South River Bridge represent a break in the continuity of the Chessie Nature Trail. – VMI Photo by Maj. John Robertson IV.

LEXINGTON, Va., Feb. 13, 2017 – Since the VMI Foundation gifted the Chessie Nature Trail to the Institute in 2010, VMI has worked with the community to ensure the Chessie Nature Trail is maintained and even enhanced as an outdoor resource for cadets and members of the community.

At the moment, the biggest challenge in that effort is the absence of the South River Bridge – a situation the Institute is working to remedy.

VMI has submitted a grant through the Eastern Federal Lands Access program for $250,000 to design the bridge. Total cost of the construction of the bridge is still unknown, but it is estimated that it will cost a little over one million dollars.

To make the complete 7.2-mile journey from the Lexington end of the trail to the Buena Vista end, users must take a quarter-mile detour around the site of the old South River Bridge. Hurricane Isabel eliminated that bridge in 2003, and it has never been replaced.

Once a new bridge is complete, planners envision the trail becoming an even greater draw for outdoor enthusiasts from across the region.

“The trail is already a huge attraction for Rockbridge County,” said Col. Jay Williams ’83, post engineer.  Williams chairs the Chessie Trail Advisory Committee, which brings VMI together with the local group Friends of the Chessie Trail and landowners with property adjacent to the trail.

The main objective of the advisory committee is maintaining and making improvements to the trail. With VMI and the community’s best interests in mind, the committee comes up with ideas and Williams integrates those ideas into VMI’s master plan.

“This reestablishment of the bridge will allow a complete connection between Lexington and Buena Vista, making it a safe trail for all people who are using it,” said Williams.

What was once the path for the Chesapeake and Ohio railway, the Chessie Trail is named for the company’s mascot, the Chessie Cat. The trail – which follows the course of the Maury River – is mostly flat and shaded with parts of it winding through private property and cow pastures. It is a perfect path for walking, running, cycling, and marching.

“It’s kind of a destination,” said Capt. Aaron Groah, project manager. Groah is the Physical Plant lead engineer on the coordination effort between the Friends of the Chessie Trail and VMI. 

Last fall when the Friends of the Chessie Nature Trail hosted a half marathon and 5K, VMI’s Physical Plant crew reconditioned the trail in preparation for the event. Improvements included laying fresh gravel and building handrails on one of the bridges.  More than 300 racers showed up for the event, many of them from out of state, further strengthening the importance of maintaining the trail as an attraction to the community.

More enhancements are also on the way.  There is a $330,000 grant that will fund improvements all along the trail.  That includes a 26-space parking lot on the Lexington end of the trail near the East Lexington Bridge, and better signs to lead visitors to the trailheads.

On a larger scale there is also an effort led by Lexington and the Rockbridge Area Tourism office to connect the Chessie Trail to other area trails. The hope is to attract visitors to the Rockbridge area by developing a greenway that connects Brushy Hill Preserve, west of Lexington, to the mountains east of Buena Vista. Both the Woods Creek Trail and the Chessie Trail would play essential roles in that connection.

More trail users bring more business to Lexington and Buena Vista, and VMI, a school that makes physical fitness a top priority, understands that the trail is not just about attracting outsiders, it is also about offering community residents the outdoor space for healthy physical activity.

As Williams said, “The trail is a huge attraction… it’s recreation for folks with pets, serious runners, casual runners, cyclists, the works.”

-Kelly Nye


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