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American Tobacco Trail & North Carolina’s Tobacco Industry

My first memory of the American Tobacco Trail or ATT was at the American Tobacco Campus. The ATT crosses 22 miles through Durham, Chatham, and Wake County and allows for hunting, hiking, and site-seeing. I live near the Apex section of the trail and grew up exploring it with my family. My family and I took many day trips to the ATT campus, in Durham, NC when we first moved to North Carolina, as we had heard about the history of the tobacco industry and how crucial it was to build the place we now called home.

It was a warm, summer day as we walked through the busy paths lined with restaurants, a museum, and across the street, the Durham Bulls Baseball stadium. In between the two walking paths was a gigantic deep fountain that rushed loudly with water. Up ahead in the distance was a tall white water tower. Part of the buildings had the original building pieces of old tobacco factories that once stood in their place, giving the trail a combined old-fashioned and modern theme.

The American Tobacco Trail, a Piedmont tourist destination, runs along the railroad line that was originally built for the American Tobacco Company to transport tobacco from regional farms into the city from 1920-1974, until the construction of Jordan Lake, which rerouted the line. The American Tobacco Company was created by James B. Duke. In 1992, Charles Flink, a landscape architect developed the plan for the American Tobacco Trail. Each county then added their section to make one connecting trail. Tobacco became an important part of North Carolina culture and even today still plays a big role in the economy, employment, and now tourism. The trail is a major tourist attraction, bringing hikers, hunters, families, and more. North Carolina is the biggest producer of tobacco in the country with an annual farm income of over $500 million. The largest tobacco companies in the country have their headquarters located in North Carolina due to its soil that is good for growing air-cured tobacco.

I spoke with Christina Sorenson, The American Tobacco Trail park manager, who has held this position for 12 years about her role at ATT, the impacts of COVID-19 and climate change on the trail, and the trail’s impact on the tourism industry. According to Christina, the trail hosts races, 5ks, and marathons that bring tourists.

The trail is most commonly used today by local high school and college track teams, military trainers, and families, as well as international tourists.

“We have had folks from China, Canada, and Australia, come for the marathon races. These races raise money for local charities and serve restaurants and hotels for runners from out of town,” says Christina.

The increase of tropical storms over time, as we learned from NC Warn, is a major climate change issue for the Piedmont region. They also negatively impact the trail physically and economically.

“With more storms- especially large tropical/hurricane-like events- the granite screened surface is impacted by erosion and sometimes repair projects are quite expensive and take time to mend,” says Christina.

In the Wake County section of the trail, a new project is underway where there is a redesigning of the White Oak and New Hill Trailheads, that is set to unfold in the next five years.

The American Tobacco Trail has played such a big part in my life, from my first time in NC to my middle school field trip, to prom pictures, etc. The ATT is a huge part of the Piedmont NC culture. Whenever I visit, I can feel the history of North Carolina that lies beneath me.


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