Rails To Trails In East River Valley

The Past - Rails

In 1892 the New Glasgow Iron, Coal and Railway Company began operating a branch railway line in the East River Valley. The trains hauled iron ore from four mines to a smelter located at mile one near Eureka. They also transported limestone and forestry products and provided a passenger service to the Valley residents. The railway was acquired by the Intercolonial Railway in 1911. There were stations established at Ferrona Junction, Eureka, Bridgeville (it is still there) and Springville. Known in the industry as the Sunny Brae Subdivision the railway ran from the intersection with the main line at Ferrona Junction for approximately 20 kilometres following the East Branch of the east River up to Sunny Brae. In 1923 the Canadian National Railway (CNR) took over the management and operation of the Intercolonial Railway. At this point we must mention that there was a longstanding attempt to have the Guysborough Railway constructed. This 67 mile long line would have connected Sunny Brae with the Town of Guysborough. After many starts and stops construction was never completed although a section from Sunny Brae to Eden Lake did go into operation (For an interesting account of the Guysborough Railway’s history see Bruce MacDonald’s 1973 publication: The Guysborough Railway 1897-1939).

Prior to applying to abandon the Sunny Brae Subdivision in 1967 CN had terminated passenger rail services in the mid-1950s but did continue a service using buses for a period of time. In the mid-1970s the last freight train chugged through the East River Valley. At the end of its operating life it has been reported that the railway was in such poor shape that trains were limited to travelling no more than 10 miles an hour. The railway era had come to an end but the infrastructure remained.

The Present - Rails to Trails

The Province of Nova Scotia acquired the railway lands in 1980. These lands, with a few exceptions, are 100 feet wide (50 feet from the centre line of the actual track). Now managed as Crown land by the Department of Natural Resources the government has recognized that abandoned railways offer excellent opportunities for recreation, tourism and community development as managed recreational trails. The government emphasizes the importance of taking into consideration the needs and interests of adjacent landowners to find an acceptable balance between public recreational use of the land and the legitimate interests of these landowners. Across the province abandoned railways have been developed as recreational trails by either local community-based organizations or municipalities. Natural Resources together with the Department of Health Promotion and Protection work in partnership with local initiatives to ensure the trails developed are both sustainable and meeting the needs of the communities.

In June 1998 the Nova Scotia Abandoned Rail Lines Audit reported on the Sunny Brae Subdivision and the Guysborough Railway (Sunny Brea to the Town of Guysborough). This study was designed to identify: (1) trail development barriers and possible solutions, (2) potential recreation and tourism potential and constraints, and (3) complementary cultural and natural values. The audit’s author noted “The Sunny Brae Subdivison tells the story of the East River Valley”. The potential for trail development of the Sunny Brae was considered very favourable. The Pictou County Trails Association initially accepted the challenge of developing the trail but other priorities resulted in minimal progress in the East River Valley. Despite the recognized potential for converting the rails to trails the project has not been advanced until early 2008. In 1992 an exciting national project started with the creation of a volunteer-led non-profit organization accepting the challenge of leading the development of the world’s longest recreational trail. The Trans Canada Trail Foundation had the vision of a continuous shared-use trail connecting communities across our country from “ocean to ocean to ocean”. The Nova Scotia Trails Federation is the cooperating partner with the Foundation is coordinating the building of our portion of the Trans Canada Trail (TCT). The Sunny Brae Subdivision has been identified as a possible section of the TCT in Nova Scotia. The Guysborough Nature Trail (using the uncompleted Guysborough Railway) is already open. There are sections of the TCT in Stellarton, New Glasgow, Pictou and in the county from the Town of Pictou to the Colchester County line.

The East River Valley Community Development Association (ERVCDA) has now stepped forward to lead the development of the Sunny Brae Subdivision as a shared use recreational trail. Bringing such a community recreational facility into reality will make a lasting contribution to achieving the community development goals of the ERVCDA.

The Future – East River Valley Shared Use Trans Canada Trail

Imagine a peaceful walk with your family along the well-maintained trail following the valley of the East Branch of the East River. You stop among the hemlocks at a look-off high above the river flowing below. While you sit at the picnic table enjoying a lunch packed in with you a majestic bald eagle flies down the valley unaware of your presence. Before you leave a young couple arrives and lowers heavy backpacks to the ground. While stretching their tired muscles they respond to your greetings in a heavy European accent. You discover they are German tourists hiking the Trans Canada Trail. They are excited to learn that an eagle is nearby and dig into their pack for a camera. They will ask if you would mind taking their picture and tell you that the East River Valley is some of the nicest countryside they have seen so far. On your way back you encounter a couple of ATVers who stop beside the trail to talk. As they remove their helmets you realize they are fellows you know from another valley community. As you get back to the trailhead some cyclists are about to head out the trail. Because the trail has been well-built it is dry in the spring and you can walk along it at any time of the year provided the snow is not too deep. You decide to invest in cross country skis so you can enjoy your trail all year round. Any community would enjoy such a facility but how did this shared use Trans Canada Trail come to be in East River Valley?

In Nova Scotia recreational trail building, including the Trans Canada Trail, takes place under the community development model. This means that volunteer-led community-based organizations take responsibility for building a trail in their community according to the needs, wishes and priorities of the community.

In the East River Valley family of communities we have just started the process that will lead to the future just described. As of August 2008 permission has been obtained from Natural Resources to clear brush from the rail bed to permit a careful assessment of the existing infrastructure for trail development. The Department of Natural Resources has established standards for trail development based on intended uses. For example, a shared-use trail is expected to have at least a three metre (10 feet) tread way. Bridges have to be built to acceptable standards, drainage has to be managed effectively, environmental regulations must be observed, and measures to ensure public safety have to be put in place. Highway crossings have to be managed to ensure safety for both trail and highway users. The assessment involving a number of people on the subject of trail building will identify the work that has to be done to bring the existing rail bed up to shared use standards. One of the biggest challenges will be crossing the river at Island East River – a span of at least 130 feet.

ERVCDA will inform and consult the public in communities along the proposed shared-use trail to gain a consensus on trail uses and development plans. Once this has been achieved a Letter of Authority will be requested from Natural Resources outlining the terms and conditions for trail development. Detailed plans and cost estimated will then be prepared to support funding applications to such organizations as the Department of Health Promotion and Protection, the Off-highway Vehicle Infrastructure Fund and the Trans Canada Trail Foundation. If all goes according to plan we should be able to start construction next spring. This is an aggressive schedule requiring lots of hard work and cooperation. To date ERVCDA has been very pleased with the support and encouragement it has received. We are establishing relationships with the key government departments and communicating with others in a position to assist us. ERVCDA will be joining the Nova Scotia Trails Federation, an essential step to becoming a TCT builder as well as gaining access to the general liability insurance policy that is required for all recreational trails built on Crown land.

So, the immediate future will be taken up with planning, consulting, partnering and fund raising. This will be followed by trail construction that we hope can begin next spring. Construction will take several years to complete.

We firmly believe in the community development model for trail development. The assets we have to work with are outstanding – the railway infrastructure, the beautiful setting, the local history, the routing of the Trans Canada Trail and the availability of some critical funding. To move forward will require a sustained commitment from the community for it is the residents of East River Valley who will lead the project and manage the trail when it is completed. If you share this vision of the future please consider actively supporting the effort by volunteering your time, donating other resources when required and, more generally, by simply embracing the idea of having a high quality shared use recreational trail in our community.