It’s been 20 years since farsighted officials and individuals dared to dream of a 14-mile, multiuse paved trail along the Susquehanna River that would celebrate its beauty, rich transportation and industrial history, and draw visitors to its river towns.
Now, with a flurry of spring construction underway and the missing links falling into place, the reality of the Northwest Lancaster County River Trail is finally within sight.
By this fall, the public should be able to walk or bike 9 contiguous miles from the old Point Rock railroad tunnel on the northern edge of Columbia to Bainbridge’s American Legion Park in Conoy Township.
By the end of 2016, all 14 miles should be paved and open for perhaps the most unique recreational experience ever achieved here.
“It’s finally coming to a finish,” says Mike Domin, principal planner at the Lancaster County Planning Commission. The county has invested considerably in the trail.
“It wasn’t an easy process,’’ he said. “I’m just so excited for all those partners involved in the project who have stuck with it to make it happen.”
Because so many did stick with it and invested millions, hammers are falling right now on forms for a new pedestrian bridge to carry trail users across Chiques Creek, near Marietta.
Walls are going up on the Trail Services Building in Columbia’s River Park, the trail’s southern terminus.
Work also has begun on the truck bypass around the borough, whose shoulder will carry a short section of the trail under the Route 30 bridge.
And bids will be open in a few weeks to erect this summer a concrete walkway in the river under an arch of the Shocks Mill railroad bridge.
Here’s a section-by-section status report on the trail.
COLUMBIA TO MARIETTA
If trail users choose to start in Columbia, they will have a rousing sendoff.
The Trail Services Building now under construction in the recently renovated River Park will feature restrooms, trail information, information about the history of the river and Columbia, things to do there and a covered pavilion overlooking the Susquehanna. It should be finished in June.
To begin their walk, trail users will park in a designated parking lot, cross the railroad tracks and start walking in front of the old Penn Central passenger station on Front Street.
Bike rentals may be on-site.
Mary Wickenheiser, who served 14 years on borough council and is on a committee guiding formation of the information center, is giddy with what she sees as an infusion of new visitors to Columbia once the trail opens.
“Columbia’s past is in the river,” she says. “We need to tap the potential we have there, and I think we’re headed in the right direction.
“I think our best days are ahead of us.”
From the railroad station, the trail will follow the shoulder of the Route 441 truck bypass under construction. After about a quarter-mile, when the bypass starts to elevate to go over Route 30, the trail will split off and pass under the Route 30 bridge, near the active railroad tracks but separated by a fence.
In another 1,500 feet, trail users will pass through a 180-foot-long abandoned railroad tunnel cut through rock.
Once exiting the tunnel, users will find themselves on the existing Heritage Trail in Chickies Rock County Park. The trail follows a former railroad line that was active before Kerbaugh Lake was filled in in the 1940s. Before the railroad, iron furnaces here transported goods via the Pennsylvania Canal. The lake is now filled in and is a meadow.
The next landmark is the base of Chickies Rock. Just past the famous edifice, users will cross Chiques Creek on the pedestrian bridge now being built on abutments for an old trolley line to the top of Chickies Rock.
Once across the bridge, trail users will follow the current Furnace Road. Chickies Rock Outfitters, which runs a canoe and kayak rental at River Park in Columbia, has purchased a building here and plans to offer boat rentals at the nearby boat launch.
Entering Marietta, users can choose to continue on into the town’s iconic Front Street with its mix of historic homes, restaurants and taverns. They can get back on the trail at the Decatur Street trailhead.
Or, they can continue on through woods along the river around Marietta. However, several pieces of private property still need to be purchased or an easement secured for this section.
MARIETTA TO SHOCKS MILL BRIDGE
From the Decatur Street trailhead in Marietta, there is an already-paved 3.5-mile stretch of trail through East Donegal Township.
One of the biggest challenges on the entire trail has been how to get past the Shocks Mill railroad bridge. Initial plans were to tunnel under the railroad tracks, but Norfolk Southern was not keen on that.
Thanks to the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority, which took over the design and is paying for its construction to the tune of $415,000, a concrete walkway on pillars will be built under one of the bridge’s great arches. That will allow a connection to the Conoy Township portion of the trail. Construction will be done this summer when the river level is low.
SHOCKS MILL BRIDGE TO BAINBRIDGE
The 3-mile section between the bridge and Bainbridge’s American Legion Park will be paved in June, according to Stephen Mohr, a Conoy Township supervisor. It includes a portion of trail across waste authority land behind the waste-to-energy incinerator.
Much of the trail is built in the bottom of the old Pennsylvania Canal. The paving should be done by this fall.
American Legion Park itself is undergoing an upgrade, including improved parking and lighting. The Race Street spot also has a boat launch and a pavilion.
BAINBRIDGE TO FALMOUTH TERMINUS
This 3-mile section has an existing dirt trail along the mule tow path for the canal. There are multiple stone locks of the canal remaining and even an area where canal boats were put it dry dock for repairs.
The simple path with river views will remain. A separate paved trail will run in the bottom of the canal.
Conoy Township is seeking grants to pave this section of trail, which will include a 130-foot-long bridge across a stream.
The trail would end at Fisherman’s Wharf on Collins Road near Falmouth, about 1 mile south of the Dauphin County line. There is a public boat launch there and access to the Conewago Falls with its polished river potholes.
In the future, there are hopes of connecting the trail with the county’s Conewago Recreation Trail to the east.
When finished, there will be no other trail in the county like the Northwestern Lancaster County River Trail.
The Enola Low Grade in Solanco has its country charm. Various county rail-trails are heavily used.
But, as Domin notes, “There’s nothing that holistically involves the river, wildlife, historic towns and the history of the corridor itself.”
Says Jim Cowhey, executive director of the Lancaster County Planning Commission, “Lancaster County officials, municipal officials and citizens have worked for decades to realize an interconnected trail system that links all parts of the county. These links are important as they provide essential connections to the Susquehanna River and all it has to offer citizens and visitors to Lancaster County.”
Domin says, “We’ve had a lot of champions on this.”
One he singles out is the waste authority, which owns facilities near each end of the trail.
“LCSWMA believes in promoting land stewardship throughout the Susquehanna Rivertowns. These efforts not only protect native habitats and wildlife, but also bring people to recreate along the river, which is good for the economic vitality of the area,” says James Warner, the authority’s chief executive officer.
The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has invested heavily in the trail as part of its Susquehanna Riverlands Conservation Landscape.
The river corridor between Lancaster and York counties is one of seven natural areas in the state that DCNR is promoting and developing.
For more information about the trail, click here.