Teacher Provides a Lesson in Trail Building

Posted 09/25/14 by Laura Stark in Building Trails

A section of the Allegheny River Trail near Emlenton, Pa. | Photo by Tom Bilcze

Personable, kind, decisive: These traits made Jim Holden both a good teacher and a trail visionary. While a professor of computer science at Clarion University of Pennsylvania more than two decades ago, he recognized the importance of preserving disused rail corridors for public use.

“Jim was the key to starting something that became huge,” says Allegheny Valley Trails Association (AVTA) President Bill Weller, who first met Holden as a seventh grade student back in 1967 when Holden was his math teacher. Years later, Holden bought a farm near Weller’s family-owned tire shop in Franklin, and the two launched a lifelong friendship rooted in biking and running.

The “something” that Holden started was a regional system of trails that today is coalescing into a 270-mile network known as the Erie-to-Pittsburgh Trail. Franklin—population about 6,500—now rubs shoulders with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as one of only four Pennsylvania cities to be designated a Bicycle Friendly Community.

Jim Holden (front rider) and his friend Steve Schenck enjoying a bike ride. | Photo courtesy of Allegheny Valley Trails Association

AVTA began in 1990 when Holden, along with fellow university professor David Howes, co-founded the nonprofit group. The goal: to acquire local unused rail corridors for conversion to rail-trails. “Both Jim and I were avid cyclists,” says Howes. “In northwestern Pennsylvania, there were very limited areas for safe cycling. We thought it would be a terrible loss if these corridors went out of the public domain.”

As the organization grew, AVTA developed three rail-trails—the Allegheny River Trail, Sandy Creek Trail and Clarion Highlands Trail—that wind through 50 scenic miles dotted with trestles, tunnels and other railroad relics. “Building rail-trails is a very difficult thing to accomplish,” says Howes, “but Jim would never get discouraged. He was a perpetual optimist.”

Holden stayed active in AVTA until a sudden illness ended his life in November 2013. Filling Holden’s shoes has been difficult, says Weller. “When I go, I hope he’ll shake my hand and say, ‘Bill, you did a good job.’”

Republished from Trail Tales in the Fall 2014 issue of Rails to Trails magazine.

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