Trail of the Month: June 2016
“What German and Irish workers dug by hand 180 year ago is still here today.”
Like a virtual rolling history book, remnants of an early-19th century canal unfold along the Ohio & Erie Canalway Towpath Trail as it journeys 85 miles through an eclectic panoply of landscapes in northeastern Ohio. Down the pathway, adventurers will discover a series of canal locks, restored historical buildings, interpretive signage and, of course, the canal itself—a magnificent structure of well-worn sandstone filled in some areas with water, but for the most part dry with the haunting beauty of an ancient ruin.
“It’s a legacy project,” says Dan Rice, president and chief executive officer of the Ohio and Erie Canalway Coalition. “What German and Irish workers dug by hand 180 years ago is still here today.”
To preserve its rich history and the canal’s scenic natural surroundings, Congress designated a 110-mile corridor stretching from Cleveland to New Philadelphia as a National Heritage Area in 1996. Central to the corridor is the Towpath Trail, which today spans nearly that entire distance, missing about 6 miles of trail to be completed on the northern end of the route and another 10 miles on its southern end. Everything in the middle—from Cleveland’s Scranton Flats to Bolivar—is an open, continuous pathway largely of hard-packed, crushed stone. Trail advocates hope to have the trail finished end to end by 2020.
“The trail is close to completion in Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is,” says Nate Eppink, chief of community engagement for Summit Metro Parks, which manages 22 miles of the Towpath. “And it’s close to completion in Stark County, which is south of us. In Tuscarawas County, there’s a lot of work to do, but the cool thing about it is that there’s a lot of enthusiasm locally and regionally for the completion of the trail.”
The push for the trail’s development emerged in the 1980s and was championed by Ralph Regula, a Republican Congressman from Stark County, one of the four counties traversed by the towpath. In the early 1990s, momentum grew for the project when a 20-mile portion of the trail was built within Cuyahoga Valley National Park, one of the most visited National Parks in the country and a well-loved recreational escape for city dwellers in Cleveland and Akron.
“That’s when people really started to understand what we were doing,” says Rice. “Then they couldn’t open the trail quick enough. People were walking behind the pavers; it was like a parade. It spurred development because people started saying, ‘I want this in my neighborhood.’”
Most visits to the park include a trip down the Towpath Trail, which sees 2.5 million users annually. “It’s the most popular asset that we have,” says Pamela Barnes, the community engagement supervisor for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Barnes notes that one of the most photographed areas in the park is Brecksville Station: “You have the river, the towpath, a historical bridge and a new bridge all in the same place. There are also bald eagles nesting just north of there, and they had three chicks this year that will be fledging this summer.”
When the majestic pair was first spotted in the spring of 2007, Barnes says a wave of excitement rippled through the park staff. “It was the first pair of successful bald eagles that we’d had in 70 years. It was a huge victory.”
The eagle nest can be seen from the Towpath; it stands out for its sheer size among the trees full of great blue heron nests. The birds are making a comeback in large measure due to the recovery of the Cuyahoga River, which had become so polluted by the 1960s that it notoriously caught fire and spurred the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972.
“The water quality was so bad that there wasn’t a food source in it for them,” says Barnes of the Cuyahoga River, which winds along Towpath Trail. “Now, we have fish living there.”
The trail is perhaps defined as much by its surrounding bodies of water as by land: the canal, the Cuyahoga River, the Tuscarawas River, Lake Erie (one of the Great Lakes) and Summit Lake, over which the trail floats on a buoyed bridge.
“South of downtown Akron, the Summit Lake area is visually just stunning,” says Eppink. “An iconic image of the Towpath is when people walk, ride or run out onto this floating bridge. And south of there, it’s very remote, very rural. Over those couple of miles, you’ll see only a few people, and it feels more wild and natural there.”
In contrast, a bustling stop along the trail is the community of Peninsula, once a hub of canal activity and now a station on the popular Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, which offers tourist excursions within the park. Many visitors also like to bike the Towpath Trail one way and take the train back. In the charming village, travelers will find restaurants, art and antique shops, an old-fashioned candy shop and historical homes.
While embracing its past, the Towpath Trail is also moving toward its future. Although already touting an impressive length itself, the trail is fitting into even larger trail systems. Both the Ohio to Erie Trail, which will span 320 miles and connect trails across the state from Cleveland to Cincinnati , and the trail network being forged by the Industrial Heartlands Trails Coalition, spanning a whopping 1,450 miles in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and New York, are well underway. Like the extensive canal system which gave the Towpath its birth, these interconnected systems of trails are ushering in a new era of transportation in America.