The American Tobacco Trail is a recreational rail-trail located on an abandoned railroad corridor of the Norfolk Southern Railroad. Constructed in 1906, the original railroad traveled from Duncan to Durham near the New Hope River, transporting tobacco leaf from farming communities in Wake, Chatham and Durham counties for processing at the American Tobacco Company in Durham.
Construction of Jordan Lake in 1971 necessitated moving a section of the railroad corridor (from Bonsal to southern Durham County) several miles eastward, onto higher ground. Railroad traffic decreased after this time due to competition from interstate trucking. One of the last major uses of the railroad was to haul materials for the construction of the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant near New Hill. With the railroad no longer in use, the tracks were removed in 1987
Local residents began using the rail corridor as an informal recreational trail, and in 1989, a group of citizens organized the nonprofit Triangle Rails To Trails Conservancy to promote the development of the corridor into a managed rail-trail. The N.C. Department of Transportation purchased the corridor from the railroad company in 1995 and subsequently leased the corridor to the counties to be developed and operated as a recreational trail open to the public.
It was officially named the American Tobacco Trail to reflect its historical roots, and planning and construction of the trail began. The trail is being built in sections, the first of which opened in 2001 in downtown Durham. Wake County opened its first, 3.75-mile section, from New Hill-Olive Chapel Road to Wimberly Road, in 2003. Wake County opened Phase II of the American Tobacco Trail in July 2005, extending the length from 3.75 miles to 5.5 miles. In 2006, the remaining one-mile section in Wake County was completed to fully extend Wake County's portion of the trail to 6.5 miles. Additionally, Wake County added a trailhead that accommodates 45 vehicle and 10 horse trailer spaces. Two restroom facilities were added to New Hill and White Oak trailheads.