On June 15, Kentucky’s newest rail trail will open between West Van Lear to Royalton along the former Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Dawkins Subdivision. The 18.5 mile Big Lovely Mountain Rail Trail will be open to pedestrians, cyclists and equestrians. One of its highlights is the 662-foot Gun Creek Tunnel and several trestles.

The Dawkins Subdivision was once part of the Big Sandy & Kentucky River Railroad (BS&KR), owned by the Dawkins Lumber Company, who in 1912 constructed track from West Van Lear to Riceville. The BS&KR was extended to Carver in 1919-21, which included the Gun Creek Tunnel. The BS&KR had hopes of extending its line into Breathitt County but the company went bankrupt in 1929, leaving the BS&KR to be acquired by the C&O in 1933.

Times were bleak for the railroad, and only two mines were active along the route in 1940 that produced less than 400 cars per month. But the C&O, flush with cash and hopes of richer coal seams in Breathitt County, began work on a 15.5 mile extension in 1948 that included a 1,555-foot tunnel. By 1953, there were seven active mines that produced more than 2,000 cars per month and over 75% of the tonnage was coming from two mines in Breathitt County.

The C&O eventually became a part of CSXT, and the Dawkins Subdivision was sold to R.J. Corman in 2002. But with coal in short supply on the line, the last train operated over the rails in 2003. R.J. filed an abandonment petition for the Dawkins Subdivision on November 6, 2004.

The story of the railroad could have ended there, but the Kentucky Rails to Trails Council sought to railbank the alignment for future trail use. The right-of-way was secured for $500,000 in 2006, with an additional $500,000 granted from coal severance funds and $2 million from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. And after several years of planning and construction, the first phase of the Big Lovely Mountain Rail Trail will open in just a little over two days! The following photographs are from 2009.