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VOL. 126 | NO. 243 | Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Clearing a Path

Group explores Shelby Forest for river trail additions

By Bill Dries

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The nonprofit group assembling a plan to restore parts of and add Shelby County connections to the Mississippi River Trail for bicycles and pedestrians talked about old unmarked roads and attractions at a Monday, Dec. 12, hearing in Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park.

Elder Willie Beard passes a magnolia tree on his morning walk along the Mississippi River at Martyrs Park on Monday. 
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The third and final public hearing by the Mississippi River Corridor – Tennessee (MRCT) drew a group of around 20 to the cafeteria at E.E. Jeter Elementary School.

MRCT, which is working with the University of Memphis, has identified 32 miles of paved pathways so far and wants to get the total up to 50 miles.

There are other parts of a river corridor trail system the group hopes will stretch between Minnesota and Louisiana.

The hearing at Jeter revealed some hidden or forgotten features of the landscape that made the option of a southern entrance more likely, which could cut the travel distance by five to six miles for those coming from Memphis.

The southern entrance would be where Ramsey and Island 40 roads meet.

“When you go west into the park, it’s a gravel road,” said Glenn Cox, vice president of MRCT. “First of all, that has to be a paved road to be part of MRT. Then there’s a connector that we’ve never seen before.”

Until Monday evening, MRCT and urban planners for the U of M weren’t sure any trace of the connecter was there, much less paved. A park ranger assured them it is still there under a lot of dense foliage.

“That connection is there, which we thought was going to be the most difficult part,” Cox said. “Everything north of that is already paved. What that would do is give you an option of coming all the way through Shelby Forest, the state park … and it’s pretty hilly. It would be for seasoned riders.”

The one problem zone identified involves restoring the long-washed-out Benjestown Road Bridge across the Loosahatchie River for bicycle and pedestrians. The restored bridge would connect Frayser directly to the state park.

What’s missing is not only a bridge, but a bridge and a stretch of road between Old Cuba and Benjestown roads and the southern section of Benjestown in Frayser that is a gap of about a mile.

“The pilings are still there,” said Diana Threadgill, president of MRCT. “But the neighborhood needs some community development in regard to bicycles and walking and jogging and such through there. We’re not going to really get into that until we can find some money for the bridge.”

Another obstacle is a landowner near Carrolton Road who has erected a sturdy metal gate across the road north of Carrolton and has told several bicyclers that he owns the road.

County Engineer Tom Needham and his staff said he owns his property next to the road but not the road itself. The road is a county right-of-way.

In clusters of two to five people, those at the meeting gathered around maps of the existing and possible bike routes in Shelby Forest and the surrounding area, helping University of Memphis city and regional planning professor Ken Reardon fill in the map with terrain features and landmarks.

Dr. O’Farrell Shoemaker pointed out his home when someone in the group talked about an old house whose gates were used in the filmed opening of the WHBQ-TV horror movie show Fantastic Features.

Shoemaker added the names of several film stars who stayed at the house while filming movies in Memphis during the 1990s, including Tom Cruise and Susan Sarandon, who were in town to film “The Firm” and “The Client,” respectively.

“Older Memphians know about this area. The younger ones don’t,” Shoemaker said of the forest as he talked of the area’s ability to “remove yourself from the everyday, hectic life of neighbors and noise and pollution.”

He pointed out heavily wooded areas he sees regularly as well as little-known places. Shoemaker and his wife own a large amount of acreage in the Benjestown and Chasen area.

“We see deer on average every day,” he said. “My wife yesterday saw 50 turkeys. I’ve got some great eagle pictures. You feel like you’re actually in a quiet place, a spiritual place. It’s like going on a vacation and you’re just a few miles north of Memphis. It’s an elixir of the soul.”

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