A History of the Rivanna Trail

by Fran Lawrence

There was a rising interest in urban trails in the area during the 1980’s. In an attempt to increase interest in a circular trail system that would include the Rivanna River as well as Meadow Creek and Moore’s Creek, Satyendra Huja, who was then head of the City’s planning department, sponsored a foundational and inspirational “boat ride” in July of 1989. The trip began at Pen Park and ended at the Woolen Mills Dam, with Mr. Huja pointing out where the trail needed to be as he floated down the river.

The May 27, 1990 Sunday New York Times published an article, “Walking in Jefferson Country”, that talked about Charlottesville’s “gracious streets and country trails”. This article was circulated by a number of folks in the community who were interested in developing our trail system. In the cover memo, it was noted that Charlottesville’s trail system was “world-famous” even though there wasn’t one! This memo was shared with Mayor Bitsy Waters; members and members-elect of City Council; Cole Hendricks, the city manager; members of the planning commission; Mr. Huja, the Director of city planning; and Francis Fife, a former mayor and city counselor, and a well-known advocate of walking trails.

The memo listed what needed to be done, which included planning a city-wide trail system, developing a distinctive logo for marking the trails, obtaining rights of way, completing the first phase of Riverview Park, purchasing land for a Riverwalk location, designing the center portion of the trail along the CSX right-of-way to connect the University of Virginia with the Woolen Mills, and connecting to Monticello and Ashlawn/Highland. Interestingly, while many of these things have occurred, some have yet to be realized.

The Rivanna Trails Foundation was incorporated on September 15, 1992. The initial Board of Directors included Robert Barbie, Thomas Blue, John Conover, Betsy Dalgliesh, Francis Fife, Charles Gleason, Winx Lawrence, and Michael Van Yahres. The incorporator and counsel was Fran Lawrence. Other early board members included Lisa Drake, Charlie Gleason, Matt Kayhoe, Dede Smith, Eben Smith, Brantley Womack, Jeff Wilbur, John Holden, and Art Kiser.

Once organized and incorporated, efforts were expended both in putting trail on the ground where there was access, and attempting to obtain the easements needed to complete a circle around the city. Both the city and county governments, as well as the University, put their support behind the effort and offered property and parks for spaces across which the trail could be located. The City proceeded to construct a paved trail along the Rivanna River from the Woolen Mills to Free Bridge.

Meanwhile, members of RTF went out to look for additional land upon which to locate the trail. A number of significant landowners and businesses offered access, including VDOT, Security Storage and Van Lines, Virginia Department of Forestry, Lynch Roofing Company, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Christian Aid, Cosner Brothers Body Shop, Virginia Glass, and many others.

Also at this time, Lane and Rebecca Kneedler granted RTF a permanent easement on property they owned along Meadow Creek, which provided a critical link to the trail system.

Over time, it became obvious, notwithstanding the generous Kneedler grant, that it would be very difficult to obtain permanent deeded easements, and the board developed a form for “consent.” With the exception of lands owned by the city, county, university, and certain prominent local individuals and businesses, the entire trail system is built on these consents.

Central to the success of the trail system are the “Second Saturday” workdays where volunteers “put trail on the ground”, build bridges and other structures necessary to navigate the various terrain, and perform routine maintenance. Major engineering undertaken by volunteer labor included the initial bridges across both Moore’s Creek and Meadow Creek.

It was noted during the initial construction phase of the RT that while the City spent more than $1 million on its first mile of trail at Riverview Park, the RTF built its first mile of trail for about a dozen Carters’ Mountain apples and a pint of Irish whiskey - the volunteers' “compensation" for the day. Official "trail adopters", Eagle Scout candidates, school groups, United Way Day of Caring volunteers, UVa student clubs, and countless other individuals and organizations continue to give their time and labor to improve and maintain the trail.

By 2005, the loop was mostly complete, and the first Loop de Ville was held to celebrate the twenty-mile main loop.

Continuing to the present, work parties continue to be held on the second Saturday of each month, with mowing and trimming, repair of bridges and boardwalks, improvements to signage, and reroutes to improve drainage or reflect changing easements, all part of the regular maintenance needed to keep the trail open. There are connections yet to be completed - such as at the Greenbrier and Ivy Road railroad crossings - and some of the things hoped for in the initial goals are still ahead of us, such as a connection from downtown to Monticello.

With the initial Loop essentially complete, the RTF has shifted from creating a new trail to maintaining an existing trail, and to being an advocate for a broader network of trails throughout the Charlottesville area (including the proposed Three Notched Trail). One thing that has remained unchanged since that visionary boat trip in 1989, however, is that the Rivanna Trail exists only because of countless volunteers, generous donors, and willing landowners. We thank them all for their vision and continued support.