As Lamoille Valley Rail Trail nears completion, northern Vt. towns prepare for tourists
On a recent Friday, Laurel Ruggles stands on a section of what used to be the Lamoille Valley Rail Line from St. Johnsbury to Swanton.
She gestures to an old building with chipped paint and rusted shingles. The interior is dusty, and it doesn’t have a sign. In the 19th century,this was the Danville Train Depot, and it was bustling with people coming in and out of the community.
With help from a state grant to restore the building, Ruggles hopes it will once again bustle, though not with train passengers but tourists, walking and riding along the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail.
"Already, there’s a water fountain, a bike pump and a newly paved path outside the building," she says.
Danville is one of many towns along the rail trail’s route, which crosses five counties.
Ruggles has a lot of hopes for the attention that the trail, and the welcome center, will bring to her small town. Already, she’s seen both new and familiar faces using the trail and says local businesses have leaned into the opportunity.
"The best thing is when you see multi-generations," she says. "You’ll see, and you can tell, it’s the parents and the grandparents and the little kids, some of them on training wheels. Just the whole family."
After decades of work, organizers plan to open the final segment by Feb. 1. They recently completed three other segments, which opened in December.
People have been snowmobiling on the route since the '90s, when the trains stopped running on the rail line.
That’s when the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, or VAST, first got involved.
Ken Brown is trail manager for the group and the former project manager for the rail rail. He says the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail is different from most VAST trails, because it’s in the front country, which allows people to easily access towns.
"It's an important trail for the snowmobiling community themselves, to be able to get to restaurants and connect different areas," he says.
After under two decades of building trail, VAST realized that if the trail network wanted to expand, it would require state funding and state resources. So, in 2019, the state took over the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail. That's although the state already manages three other rail trails — the Beebe Spur Rail Trail, Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail and Delaware and Hudson Rail Trail.
"This is a very different asset than a state highway or the interstate. It’s just a very different thing," says Jackie Cassino, manager of the Vermont Agency of Transportation's Statewide Rail Trails Program, which was created in the April of 2022. "We like to think of ... all of our rail trails as a linear park, and so it's a little bit different for AOT, but we’re really excited for it to open."
Cassino says the trail is more than just a roadway. It has implications for art, accessibility, health — and importantly, business.
Local businesses along the trail hope its completion will bring traffic to their towns, while maintaining the character of the Northeast Kingdom.
That includes Treehouse Vermont, a private lodging company in Morrisville run by Sandy Bender. Her rental property is about a mile from the trail.
Bender serves mainly out-of-staters and people from Chittenden County. She often encourages guests to visit the rail trail.
"When people come here, they're also dumping quite a bit into the economy from going to the restaurants around or buying stuff — they buy a lot of stuff," she says.
Bender's only apprehension about the trail is that more attention on the area may cause more development.
"People come here because it's beautiful, and it's a certain lifestyle, and then they try to change it into what they left," she says.
"When people come here, they're also dumping quite a bit into the economy from going to the restaurants around or buying stuff — they buy a lot of stuff."Sandy Bender, owner of Treehouse Vermont
Gillian Sewake, director of Discover St. Johnsbury, an organization focused on community planning, says she expects the trail will have an impact on the Northeast Kingdom. She says her group is part of a regional network of towns in the Northeast Kingdom working with the Northeastern Development Association to study the extent of the possible impacts.
"Expected visitation, how that visitation is expected to grow, and a profile of those visitors," she says. "I’m really excited to get those final results and be able to share that with our businesses and with the community, so everyone is prepared and we’re building up the infrastructure we need to support."
Some businesses have already begun to band together to create a more robust tourism industry.
Lamoille Valley Bike Tours owner Yva Rose and her husband started their electric bike rental company in 2016 with the intent of capitalizing off the rail trail.
"We looked for other businesses that were accessible by this trail, and to create tours that were going to bring people to their doorstep," she says. "It wasn't just a matter of benefiting ourselves. By starting our business, we said, 'What can we do to get more people into Vermont? What can we get to do to get more people on this amazing trail that is going to do wonders for our state? And what can we do to get other people into these businesses and benefit everyone in our community.'"
They partner with businesses in the area to offer brewery and restaurant tours, and work with a local kayaking company to encourage people to rent from them.
Rose says she's interested to see how the trail’s completion might open up even more opportunities for tourism and community development.
This story is a collaboration between Vermont Public and the Community News Service. The Community News Service is a student-powered partnership between the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program and community newspapers across Vermont.