Elkhorn City, Kentucky

Elkhorn City, KY
Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River

In early April, nearly 60 people gathered at The Breaks Interstate Park high in the mountains on the Kentucky-Virginia line for a Your Town workshop focused on designing trails along the Russell Fork River. This region is the core of Appalachia—magnificently beautiful, with seemingly endless folds of lush mountains and rushing rivers but poor and environmentally abused by decades of timbering, coal mining, methane gas mining, and other depredations. Yet residents have a strong attachment to the region, the Russell Fork River, and the mountains, and a number are returning there to retire. Community pride in Elkhorn City is palpable. 

The Elkhorn City (Kentucky) Area Heritage Council, an advocacy organization that celebrates the community’s heritage and seeks to revitalize the region on the basis of its heritage assets, organized the workshop. Peggy Pings, with the Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance program of the National Park Service, oversaw the workshop’s organization and is working with Elkhorn City to establish a hiking trail along the river. The workshop had very special assistance from the 606 Studio in landscape architecture at the California Polytechnic Institute in Pomona, California. Three graduate students who had chosen to work in Elkhorn City used the vehicle of the Your Town workshop to gather data, involve citizens, and build networks for a comprehensive watershed greenway plan. 

The workshop’s keynote speaker was Grant Jones, founder of Jones & Jones in Seattle. Grant provided an inspiring talk on the importance of understanding landscape components in doing good planning. He offered examples of successful landscape inventories and projects in both Washington State and Kentucky. Other featured speakers included Jeffrey Hunter, Tom Horsch, Al Fritsch, Mark Dennen, and Joanna Hinton. 

Participants were offered field trips that took us to points of access and beauty along the Russell Fork River. Most local participants are familiar with the river, either through hiking, kayaking, canoeing, or tubing; but for the outsiders, the field trips were real eye-openers to the potential of the river corridor for recreation and tourism. The small group sessions focused on this potential, and the final designs lay out a blueprint for a comprehensive plan. 

With bluegrass musicians to entertain us each evening, weather that changed from snow flurries to brilliant early-spring sunshine, deer grazing near the door of the meeting room, and good spirits and camaraderie, the Elkhorn City workshop was thoroughly stimulating. The workshop brought together Kentuckians and Virginians who share the same resources but seldom communicate, much less plan together, and participants agreed to continue meeting every month hereafter. We look forward to hearing about the Russell Fork Greenway that will result from their good work.

In 2011 the Elkhorn City Area Heritage Council held follow-up workshop to 2005’s Your Town. The productive gathering focused on the city’s whitewater rapids project, and its cultural assets that might be leveraged to turn Elkhorn into a year-round destination for any traveler.

-Excerpted from Your Town: Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, Update, Spring, 2005