CLAY — Volunteers are scrambling to assemble rail bikes and small passenger cars to keep pace with visitor demand to ride the rails of a 113-year-old railroad line severely damaged during the June 2016 floods.
In the fall of 2015, the Buffalo Creek Recreational Trail was nearly complete, following the Elk River from Clay to Dundon and then extending upstream along the route of the former Buffalo Creek & Gauley Railroad far into the remote and scenic Buffalo Creek Valley.
“At that time, we had 18 miles of trail open,” said Mitch DeBoard, who, as president of the Buffalo Creek Watershed Association, had pushed for developing the trail for years.
The idea was to bring ecotourism to Clay County by providing a 22-mile-long trail between Clay and the former mining boomtown of Widen for use by hikers, bicyclists, anglers, horseback riders, railfans and history buffs.
But just before the finishing touches to the trail could be applied, an event took place that derailed the trail’s completion and washed out its grand opening: The June 2016 flood.
“The flood wiped out most of the trail and two of the bridges, including all of the superstructure for one of them,” DeBoard said.
The tracks for the rail line were covered with silt, uprooted trees and other debris far up Buffalo Creek from Dundon. Eighteen miles of open trail went back to zero.
While trail developers had plenty of justification for throwing in the towel at that point, they opted instead to change direction a bit and again move forward.
After clearing debris from the railroad line’s right-of-way using mainly donated labor and loaned equipment, developers of the Buffalo Creek Recreational Trail decided to repurpose the project as a “rail-with-trail.” The move allows recreational trails to be developed alongside active or semi-active railroads.
The designation opened the door to the possibility of eventually rebuilding the hiking, biking and equestrian trail while operating an excursion train along the line.
The Clay County Business Development Authority, of which DeBoard is president, took the concept a step further by adding rail bike rides to the excursion train trips. The 2.5-hour trips are now offered at 9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., Thursday through Monday, along a 6-mile stretch of track between Dundon and the town site of Adair.
After receiving a favorable response to a social media posting this spring on the possibility of providing rail bike rides on the Buffalo Creek line, “we were pretty sure people would try them,” DeBoard said. “But we’ve been surprised by just how strong a response we’ve had.”
Since opening two months ago, more than 1,300 people from more than 20 states, plus one man from Australia, have ridden the rails on the Buffalo Creek line.
“This is with no promotion, except for social media, local television and a piece in the West Virginia Explorer,” DeBoard said.
The nearest location where similar rail bikes are available for public use is in the Adirondacks of New York, according to DeBoard.
The excursion train’s two passenger cars now in use, built by DeBoard and associates and towed by a donated speeder car, seat a total of 16 to 18 people, depending on size and familiarity.
On Friday, DeBoard was completing the assembly of two more 10-passenger excursion cars and two additional four-seat rail bikes, all of which will be added to the Buffalo Creek sightseeing fleet during the coming week. The new rolling stock will bring the total number of available rail bike seats to 18 and passenger car capacity to 38.
“We’ll be ready for a 50-person school group that’s coming next week,” DeBoard said.
Rail bike riders make use of either four-person or two-person bike configurations, and quickly learn to pedal as a team to make the ride more an adventure than a challenge. Rail bike riders travel within sight of the speeder car, where Bruce Gill serves as tour guide and is prepared to connect the bikes of anyone too tired to continue pedaling to a passenger car.
The recumbent rail bikes, which can travel at speeds of up to 12 miles per hour, “are not recommended for couch potatoes,” Gill said.
“They work the glutes more than the quadriceps,” said Carla Kennedy, a Charleston native now living in Cincinnati, and among riders on a Thursday trip along the Buffalo Creek route. “This is a great way to take in the scenery, which is gorgeous.”
“It’s been a blast,” said fellow rider Brenda Brogan of Charleston, as she reached the 6-mile turnaround point at the town site of Adair, “but it’s also a medium to hard workout.”
The stop at Adair offers riders and passengers an appealing swimming hole and a short hike to a picturesque cemetery with hand-etched fieldstone markers dating back to the 1880s, plus the final resting place of a Confederate Civil War veteran.
For rail bike riders, the one-degree grade on the 6-mile trip back to Dundon makes pedaling easier and faster.
Points of interest brought to the attention of riders and passengers along the trip included a battered rail car that overturned and came to rest in Buffalo Creek during a 1980s derailment; dozens of water-eroded caves, including one in which bats can be seen sleeping; the town site of Avoca and a flock of wild turkeys crossing the tracks just in front of the speeder car.
“We saw a bear when we were fishing up here a few weeks ago,” said DeBoard, “and when the water level in the creek gets low, otter come up from the Elk to catch fish.”
DeBoard said that during his childhood, when coal mines were active in the area, Buffalo Creek’s water ran dark with coal sediment and supported little aquatic life.
“Now it’s filled with brown trout, rainbow trout and smallmouth bass,” he said, and gets little fishing pressure due to the absence of roads. “Someday, we will be able to drop fishermen off in the morning, then pick them up later in the day,” he said.
Converting a hay field several miles upstream from Dundon into a campground is also under consideration.
“Hopefully, by next year we can start building a bike path along the trail,” DeBoard said, and also possibly link 9 miles of trail that are open on the Widen end to the 6 miles now open between Dundon and Adair.
A mile-long haunted train ride is planned for Oct. 25-27, with rides starting at 6 p.m.
“We’ll keep running as long as the weather lets us and the reservations keep coming,” said Gill. “We’ve already had people make reservations in November.”
The popularity of the rail bike and excursion car rides “is one of the best things that’s happened here since the flood,” said Clay County Commission President Greg Fitzwater.
“If we can keep things growing, maybe we can get some B&B’s to open and get people from outside the area to look at some of the property we have to sell and consider buying it and moving here,” he said.
Clay County lost an estimated 400 residents following the 2016 flood, according to Fitzwater. While coal was once a mainstay of the county, no mines currently operate within its boundaries.
Fares for rail bike rides or excursion car seats on the 12-mile round trip on the former Buffalo Creek and Gauley Railroad line are $25 for adults and $15 for those 12 and under. For reservations, call 304-618-7992. Trips are made Thursdays through Mondays at 9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.