Singing River Trail a Merger of Native American History and Smart Technology

Native Americans called it the “River that Sings” and many tribes were said to use the Tennessee River to “sing” their dead into the afterlife.

Two hundred years was not that long ago in the grand scheme of history and, in 1819, Creek and Cherokee tribes lived up and down the river leaving behind a rich legacy in places where rockets and genomics, missiles and cyber security now dominate.

The past and the future are coming together in a historical and high-tech way as the Land Use Committee of Huntsville’s Launch 2035 debuts the first quarter-mile of North Alabama’s 70-mile-long Singing River Trail along Governors House Drive in Huntsville.

In what is one of the most ambitious legacy projects Launch 2035 has undertaken, the Singing River Trail project hit a major milestone last month debuting a $225,000 master plan funded by municipal and county governments, regional businesses, and congressional officers. The plan by Alta Planning + Design lays out a 70-mile bike-hike-walk trail that will physically connect Huntsville to Madison, Athens, and Decatur.

Fully embracing the Native American heritage, the plan reveals a route starting at Bob Wallace Avenue in Huntsville. It will follow Madison Boulevard and bear south at Zierdt Road to Triana, crossing over County Line Road to Mooresville. Another leg will bear north off Madison Boulevard toward Belle Mina, and dip south to the river at County Road 6 crossing into Decatur. On the Decatur leg, it will turn north along U.S. 31 toward Athens.

Although it is expected to shift in some places, especially along U.S. 31, the master plan reveals a trail that will offer estimated economic benefits of $10,890,000; transportation benefits of $866,000, and health benefits of $1.4 million.

It will also offer $23,631,000 in indirect economic spending; $7,079,000 in earnings from direct economic spending; and provide approximately 900 temporary and 100 permanent jobs per year.

“We see the master plan as the first milestone in this legacy project,” said John Allen, CEO of Huntsville’s Committee of 100, the backbone of the Launch 2035 effort to forge a coalition between city and business leaders in Madison, Morgan and Limestone counties. Their purpose is to build an economy that is inclusive of communities across the entire region that benefits the entire region.

“Land-use planning is one of the three legs of the stool on which Launch 2035 has its focus. If you look at Huntsville regionally, the Tennessee River passes through all three counties and four major cities.”

Joe Campbell, legal counsel for Huntsville Hospital, is on the Launch 2035 Land Use Committee. He had been working on a connectivity idea for the Huntsville and Decatur campuses of Calhoun Community College.

They had discussed a trail or bike system that would connect the two campuses, making him the perfect person to spearhead an expansion of that concept to include the bike-hike-walk trail that connects the entire three-county region.

“I have been amazed at the response,” said Campbell. “Everyone we talk to says ‘Yes’.”

One of those yeses is the Smithsonian Institute.

“One of our law partners came to our firm from having worked for the Smithsonian institute,” Campbell said. “Upon talking to her, she put John and I in touch with Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

“She mentioned they have a storehouse of American Indian artifacts and said if we were to do a Native American museum along the trail, there was a chance the Smithsonian would be interested in loaning us all sorts of exhibits for it.

“John and I were stunned to be honest, when we met with him, thinking we needed to convince him that what we wanted to do would be beneficial to the museum. But instead, his response was that this may be the kind of venture the Smithsonian had been looking for. They have been wanting to take the Smithsonian outside of the four walls of their building and take it to the people!”

Campbell said Gover brought up possibly incorporating the Trail of Tears into the project.

“He suggested we set it up as a smart trail. Pinpoint sites that were part of the Trail of Tears, that were heavily populated villages along the way, or that held historical significance,” Campbell said. “If we do that, the Smithsonian would provide exhibits and facts from those events.”

Campbell said he and Allen came away excited about the possibilities, able to envision a technologically advanced digitally-enabled walking and biking trail where people are listening on their headphones to historical recordings that tell the story of the area at different locations, along with signage and exhibits where they can stop and take in what occurred there.

Another consideration is to have sensors and other technology that warns walkers and riders. For example, because of recent rains, a specific route through the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge was too wet. It would then recommend a different route. This would be helpful to people planning out a 20- or 50-mile route.

Allen agrees that in terms of funding, nearly everyone they talk to loves the idea and they already have sponsors in all aspects of business from Huntsville Hospital to the TVA and Rotary, banks, colleges, and more.

“The trail also has health benefits that are part of our workforce retention programs,” he said. “It’s not just something our community has to have as an amenity to keep workers here, it’s something to do that’s cool, attractive and a magnet for our talent pool.”

The city was about to authorize the building of a new car bridge and Campbell said they stepped in and negotiated putting in a bike lane.

“They did it and will consider it for any future roads as well,” Campbell said.

“When you look at the economic impact, you realize how it will change the dynamics of communities along the route,” he said. “For instance, I pitched the idea at a quality of life panel at a chamber leadership meeting and afterward, a commercial developer on an economic development panel wanted to talk to me about the restaurants they’re trying to bring in. He wants to discuss where the trail will run because for some clients, it may be more feasible to locate on an off-road location you can access by bike or walking than along a five-lane high traffic area in town.

“I did a presentation to the Rotary Club about it and they have taken us on as their five-year project.”

Allen said the question became, ‘How are we going to manage that from a municipal perspective?”

They started with looking at other successful trails as a baseline for what the Singing River Trail could be.

One of those is the 62-mile Silver Comet Trail that runs from Smyrna, Ga., outside Atlanta, to the Alabama state line where it connects to the Chief Ladiga Trail, winding for 33 miles through the countryside to Anniston.

They have also studied the Razorback Regional Greenway, a 38-mile off-road shared-use trail in northwest Arkansas; and the Wolf River Greenway Trail from Memphis to Germantown, Tenn., which is a little over seven miles.

Decisions about the trail’s width, whether to pave it or use crushed gravel, who will maintain it, and providing security are all still in the planning stages.

“We’ve had the National Park Service at the table talking about these things,” said Campbell. “But you know different parts of it will be under different jurisdictions so each community will be responsible and will have to step up.

“Right now, our target is to get it on the ground.”