When the Illinois Central railroad was shut down, the abandoned roadbed threatened to become an impenetrable jungle. But today, 41 miles of the old bed is a well-cared-for pathway for bicycling, jogging, walking and skating, with an adjacent horse-riding trail part of the distance.
This is the Longleaf Trace Rails to Trails, which stretches from a western gateway in Prentiss (Jefferson Davis County) to an eastern gateway at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) in Hattiesburg and has provided new exercise venues, the opportunity for families to join together in outdoor exercise and financial benefits to communities and businesses.
On a day when the weather is fine and flowers — some planted decades ago by people who lived along the railroad — are blooming beside the trace, a spectator would have difficulty finding people who show the hard-at-work, sometimes grim determination found in gyms. And the cyclists and skaters, joggers and walkers here are still exercising aerobically, moving continuously and raising their heart rates.
James Moore, who has owned Moore’s Bicycle Shop in Hattiesburg for 20 years, caters to recreational cyclists and he says that, if not for the trace, most of them wouldn’t go riding at all. Among these are Baby Boomers, people in their 50s and 60s.
(Moore contrasts his customers with what he calls “hard core” cyclists, on expensive bikes, for whom the surface and surroundings make no difference. “They’re going to ride anyway.”)
“The trace offers a challenge at every level,” according to Moore. “You can ride 40 miles or take an 80-mile round trip. Or just go a mile. It’s paved. It’s completely flat. There’s no traffic and it’s a wonderful environment.”
The New York Times cites health experts in suggesting that any amount of exercise has some health benefits — improving mood, burning calories, keeping joints supple and strengthening bones — as compared with no exercise at all.
Moderate exercise includes walking briskly (three to four miles an hour) and cycling (up to 10 miles an hour).
Moore cited the case of an elderly man who came into his shop. He had had heart surgery and, “probably weighed 300 pounds.” His doctor had told him to “exercise and lose weight or you’re going to die.”
The man had tried cycling on a regular bicycle but that didn’t work for him, particularly the seat. He bought a recumbent bike, which has a seat the size of the seat of a kitchen chair, a back rest and is low and long instead of high and short. When pedaling, one pushes back against the seat back. It’s particularly good for people with back and neck problems.
There are also three-wheel recumbent bikes that offer stability while biking. Moore mentioned a 75-year-old grandmother who bought one because she was afraid of falling and breaking a bone.
Then there’s the 70-year-old woman who brought a group of roller-blading friends from Missouri. And the 80-year-old man who challenged himself to go 80 miles on the trace on his birthday.
The trace attracts local folks, cyclists, walkers, joggers and skaters from other parts of Mississippi — Prentiss Mayor Charles Dumas said, “There has been a big draw from people in Hinds and Rankin counties” —and from out of state, all of them exercising…and many don’t even realize it.
Moore said, “If I drive out and look at any of the parking lots along the trace, if there are 10 vehicles in a lot, three states will be represented, and six different counties.”
The trace has given many people the chance to spend time on bicycle rides with their families, Moore said.
“We see a lot of people out on bikes who haven’t been on one in 30 years. Now that we have a good place to ride, people are coming in and getting their bikes fixed.”
In terms of business since the trace opened, Moore said that there’s “no comparison. Our business has doubled.”
“Ten percent of that increase might be because we moved from an out-of-the-way location to the shop now on Hardy Street, across from the zoo, but 90% is due to the trace.”
Moore said that the average person visiting the trace from out of state will stay in Hattiesburg for three days and spend money on motels, restaurants and gas.
In Sumrall, one of the small towns along the trace, Heath Sumrall has built, from the ground up, a replica of a railroad depot and he rents golf carts and sells ice cream and snow cones to the cyclists, joggers, walkers and skaters. He’s working toward renting bicycles in the future.
John Curly, who owns a boarding stable in Bassfield, a mile from the trace, has seen his business increase. He also has an RV site and an air-conditioned bunk house. People who bring their horses tend to stay several days.
“The Longleaf Trace has been a tremendous asset to the city,” Dumas said. And councilman Porter Hudson believes that “the trace has had a positive economic impact.”
On many days when the weather is good, for instance, the bicycle rack outside Sumrall’s Lau-Tori Restaurant is full.
Moore was asked to open a bike rental shop at the USM gateway and he operated it for a few months before turning it over to the university, which now runs it.
Not only does USM encourage its students to use the trace for exercise, but there are some 1,500 student apartments off the trace, and many of the students who live there use the trace to ride to the campus.
Most of the Longleaf Trace opened in 2000 and the final portion was finished in 2004. Altogether, it’s a $5-million joint venture involving individuals, business and government entities. There are 37 sponsors at various levels of support. Among the major sponsors are Georgia Pacific Corporation, Fairchild Construction Company, Warren Paving, Inc., Tatum Development Corp. and Mississippi Power Company.
These Rails to Trails projects have opened all over the country because the railroads cut through mountains and forests and left wide, flat paths. The Longleaf Trace is 10 to 14 feet wide.
Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at email@example.com.