The history of the Ecusta Trail actually begins with the construction of the rail line by the Hendersonville and Brevard Railway, Telegraph and Telephone Company in 1894. The trail is called the Ecusta Trail in recognition of the importance of the Ecusta Corporation in the history of the region. The name was chosen as a way to honor history. One end of the rail trail is proposed to be within the vicinity of an historic area in Transylvania County – the site of the former Ecusta paper mill. This mill was one of the reasons for the existence of the rail line, and was the primary economic driver of Brevard and surrounding towns during the 20th Century. After the closure of the mill in the early 2000s, Brevard and Transylvania County reinvented itself as a destination for tourism, including for outdoor recreation activities. “Ecusta” is a name that honors the continuity of the impact of the rail line, as well as the many residents of the area whose lives have been tied to the name “Ecusta” for a lifetime. Ecusta commenced operation in 1939. The Ecusta plant closed in 2002 and the rail line has not been needed for freight service since that closure.
Interest in the potential for converting the rail line to a trail had been expressed even prior to the closure, but Transylvania County officials had been seeking an industrial user and made it clear that they want to preserve the rail line. In February 2008, plans were announced for the redevelopment of the 540-acre Ecusta site as Davidson River Village, a residential, commercial, and green space village. This plan made it highly unlikely that there would be an industrial user in Transylvania County that would require rail service. At that point, a small group of rail to trail advocates began meeting to discuss a strategy for education and advoacy of railbanking the corridor. Soon after, in March 2009, about 30 rail to trail advocates from both counties came to an informal meeting in Etowah, NC. This group discussed strategies for exploring the possibility of developing a multi-purpose public path connecting our communities.
An even smaller group was formed to become a steering committee and began to meet monthly to try to answer the many questions surrounding the creation of the Ecusta Trail. This committee established contact with Norfolk-Southern Railway (the current owner of the unused line), with elected officials, and with Rail to Trail experts, including the developers of the Virgina Creeper Trail. In April, 2009 an online petition drive was launched to measure the level of support for the Ecusta Trail. Over 1,000 supporters have signed the petition and expressed strong support. In May 2009, The City of Hendersonville responded to the petition by passing a resolution in support of the development. The Town of Laurel Park and the Henderson County Chamber of Commerce also passed resolutions of support. The Steering Committee has continued monthly meetings and identified the need for completing a Feasibility and Economic Impact Study as a prerequisite for moving the trail forward. The City of Hendersonville has agreed to take the lead in preparing this study.
In the fall of 2009, the steering committee agreed that we should establish an organization that can build support for the Ecusta Trail and formed a nonprofit corporation, Friends of Ecusta Trail. The mission of this organization is to bring together people to build the Ecusta Trail, a rail-to-trail project, and to promote the development of a network of multi-use trails in Henderson and Transylvania Counties to connect our communities for recreation, active transportation and economic development.
Over the next 10 years, Friends of the Ecusta Trail helped organize events and trips to regional rail trails where community and political leaders were able to meet with landowners, volunteer groups, law enforcement and other community and political leaders to ask questions and understand the process and benefits of developing a rail trail. Over that time, support for the idea continued to expand as the City of Hendersonville, Town of Laurel Park, City of Brevard and Henderson County all voted to support the Ecusta Trail.
In May 2019, the owner of the corridor informed Friends of the Ecusta Trail that they were ready to move forward with a sale of the corridor. Friends of the Ecusta Trail approached Conserving Carolina with the idea of partnering to leverage the organization's extensive expertise in preserving land in our region. In July of that year, Conserving Carolina successfully won a Federal Highways Administration grant to cover the vast majority of the anticipated purchase price of the corridor.