In decades past, the Illinois Central railroad line that ran between Covington and Slidell was a thread that tied St. Tammany’s towns together.

Carrying loads of timber and people, the train provided an economic pipeline through which residents in Covington, Abita Springs, Mandeville and Slidell could reach markets on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain and beyond.

The railroad line was abandoned in the late 1980s, however, after which the corridor could have been left to be reclaimed by weeds, swamp and pine forest.

Today, though, the 31-mile Tammany Trace — built on that abandoned rail corridor — is one of the parish’s main lures, drawing some 300,000 visitors per year and appearing at the top of lists of why St. Tammany Parish’s quality of life is so high.

On many mornings, the steady hum of cyclists spinning through the trees or joggers’ footsteps clapping the ground are joined by the sounds of various local wildlife, including deer, rabbits, birds, snakes and turtles.

The paved asphalt trail stretches from Covington through Abita Springs, Mandeville and Lacombe before ending just west of Slidell. In addition to those municipalities, it passes through pine forests and neighborhoods, past swampy, lily pad-covered ponds and over too many creeks and bayous to count. The “trailheads” in each of the Trace’s municipalities are hubs of activity, featuring concerts, farmers markets and other community gatherings.

This weekend, the parish is celebrating the Trace’s 20th anniversary with a series of celebrations commemorating its creation two decades ago and its impact on the parish. After events Saturday in Covington, Abita Springs and at Koop Drive in Mandeville, the schedule Sunday includes music and brunch in Mandeville, wildlife and outdoor activities at Camp Salmen near Slidell and a concert at Heritage Park in Slidell.

Eyesore or opportunity

The Trace has become such a part of north shore life that it seems almost inconceivable that it might not have happened — but, in fact, political opposition and a tight time frame nearly derailed the project.

That would have been a disaster for the parish’s rapidly growing population, according to Kevin Davis, now the director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, but at the time a St. Tammany Parish police juror and later the first parish president.

Davis was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Tammany Trace, but in some cases, he had a tough sell, he said.

After the railroad notified authorities of its intention to abandon the line, Davis, who represented a Slidell area district on the Police Jury, set to work trying to figure out what could be done with the corridor that stretched from Covington east to Abita Springs, then south to Mandeville and then east again through Lacombe and on to Slidell.

“The parish was developed because of that railroad. There ought to be some way to save it,” Davis recalled. He first checked to see if he could prevent the abandonment from happening. That was a dead end, so Davis — along with consultant Bill Oiler and some others — began to research other options.

One of those ideas was that the parish could run its own train on the tracks as a tourist attraction.

“We found a train in New Orleans and met with some railroad enthusiasts,” Davis said. But that idea died, too.

A vision born

Finally, Davis realized that the line could be used for a “rails to trails” project, part of a national campaign to turn abandoned railway corridors into walking or cycling paths. He went to Pinellas County, Florida, where a similar trail had been constructed, and was impressed by what he saw.

“We came back and said, ‘This is something we need for us,’ ” he said.

But some were skeptical, Davis recalled, including the parish’s legal counsel and some of his colleagues on the Police Jury.

“I said, ‘Members, if you just have faith in me, we can pull this off,’ ” Davis said. “I just pleaded, and they said, ‘We are going to go with it.’ ”

Meanwhile, Davis had learned something unusual about the line: Unlike most other rail lines, where the land under the tracks remains the property of individual landowners, the Illinois Central line had a single owner. The railroad had sold it to local businessman Richard Blossman.

Davis was able to persuade Blossman to sell the corridor to the parish for less than its appraised value of $2.4 million. Blossman would get $1.4 million in cash, and the remaining $1 million would count as a donation to the parish.

The deal with Blossman was struck in late summer or early fall of 1992, but Blossman set one condition: The deal had to close by the end of the year. That left Davis with another conundrum: where to get $1.4 million to buy the land?

For that, Davis turned to the federal government. He thought he could get federal highway dollars, but that money would have to come through the state — no easy task. In this effort, Davis had help from fellow Police Juror Steve Stefancik.

“During Christmas vacation, I took some extra days off, and I was in Baton Rouge every day,” Stefancik said. One day, parish officials were able to get all of the officials who still had to approve the project in one room and convince them it was a good idea.

Once the check was in hand, one official told Davis he had never seen anything move through the state’s red tape that fast.

“We left there about 3 p.m. on Dec. 30 and called a press conference for 5 o’clock” to announce the deal, Stefancik said.

Selling the idea

Once the land had been purchased, Davis wanted to get the community to buy into the project.

“The public was skeptical,” he said. They said, “ ‘People will steal our stuff. It’s going to create all kinds of issues,’ ” he said.

Some suggested that the many street crossings would be dangerous for cyclists or joggers.

“There were a couple of meetings where I thought they would throw tomatoes at me,” Davis said. But he was persistent, and the support started to come around.

One of those early supporters was developer Bruce Wainer, who still serves on the board of the Tammany Trace Foundation, the nonprofit group that oversees the Trace. Wainer described Davis’ vision for the Trace as “brilliant” and said he was “excited.”

In those early days, the foundation hosted fundraising dances, Wainer recalled. One of the first events was held at Abita Park, and despite freezing temperatures, it was very successful. Other fundraisers included a series of dances at Pelican Park called “Dancing on the Trace,” plus horseback-riding events and hayrides, Wainer said.

“It was in its infancy, and we were searching for funding,” he added.

Wainer envisioned the Trace as more than just a paved path. “We started focusing on the cultural aspect of it,” he said. The Trace could be a way to “promote the arts” with concerts and events, he said.

In September 1994, the Trace’s first section, an 8.5-mile stretch from Mandeville to Abita, opened with a bike ride. It wasn’t paved yet, but it was the first public look at what would become the current version of the Trace.

A big impact

The Tammany Trace is not a mountain or a waterfall or a historic landmark. Nonetheless, it draws people to the parish and has a marked, though anecdotal, impact on the parish’s economy, according to St. Tammany Economic Development Director Don Shea.

“When there is an event at the (Covington) trailhead, the businesses along Columbia Street do better,” he said. “Same thing in Abita and Mandeville — farmers markets and art sales go there,” he said.

What’s more, the Trace doesn’t just lure visitors. It attracts people who may become residents.

“We are trying to promote this place as a good outdoorsy lifestyle,” Shea said. “The Trace is the spine of that.”

It doesn’t come completely without costs, however. The parish spends about $960,000 per year in maintenance on the Trace, which is funded by a 2-cent sales tax for maintenance on parish roads.

Another $165,000 in administrative costs is funded through cell tower leases, according to a parish spokeswoman.

Not surprisingly, there are plans or discussions to extend the Trace, both on the eastern end into Heritage Park in Slidell and west from Covington and then down the La. 21 corridor toward Interstate 12, though without a railroad corridor to follow, other possibilities will have to be explored, such as utility rights-of-way, Wainer said.

The idea of a paved path is no longer as controversial as it was in 1992, however.

For Davis, Stefancik and Wainer, this is not a surprise.

“It’s doing just what I hoped it would do,” Davis said. “My hope was that it would be the community’s trail.”

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.