by Jan Bridgeford-Smith
This is a love story. It starts with abandonment and ends in transformation. The tale concerns a small army of Ontario County residents, and their desire to embrace a national movement with roots in the 19th century. This is a story of landscape and legacy, the Native American proverb in action: We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.
Ontario Pathways, a private nonprofit corporation with a Canandaigua address, came into existence in 1994. That year, a small group of residents with a shared love for the outdoors, secured one of the first grants awarded by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national organization dedicated to a simple, enormous mission: create a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors to build healthier places for healthier people. The two rail corridors in Ontario County selected for development were last owned by Penn Central.
From the Ancestors
Given the time, cost, and labor involved building the infrastructure needed for trains, it’s remarkable how ubiquitous rail lines were in mid-19th century, rural New York. Communities of all sizes across the Finger Lakes region were accessible by rail. Trains opened up new markets for every endeavor from apple farming to tourism to manufacturing to health spas.
In Ontario County, the first charter to establish a route between Canandaigua and Watkins Glen was issued in 1845 to the Canandaigua and Corning Railroad Company. By 1852, the Sodus Point and Southern Railroad was issued a charter to develop a route between the hamlets of Stanley and Sodus Point. Two decades later, that line was completed and the trains were operating. But while the rail system was astonishing for the sheer number of locations it served, the way in which it developed – through dozens of small, regional lines owned and operated by local companies – guaranteed a dizzying array of mergers and consolidations to make the trains profitable, or at least solvent.
By the mid-20th century, boarding platforms and train stations that once bustled with people and stuff were defunct. Though weed-choked tracks and rails remained, and cargo trains still rattled through towns and villages once a day or week or month, the overall system was moribund. By 1970, Penn Central, which was the consolidated rail company that owned two corridor routes serving Ontario County – Canandaigua to Watkins Glen and Stanley to Sodus Point lines – gave up the ghost. At last, completely abandoned, tracks and rails were removed in 1974. It would be 20 years before the rail beds would hum again with activity.
For the Children
What did it take to develop a trail over the bones of an abandoned rail line, and then maintain it? The answer is simple though hackneyed: “It took and it takes a village,” evident in the long list of contributors and the many volunteers highlighted in the organization’s newsletters.
Unlike most other rail-trail endeavors, usually developed and managed by a municipal or county government, the current Ontario Pathways (OP) trail is owned and maintained by an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization. OP, from its inception, has relied on dedicated volunteers. There is no paid staff. Though it took hundreds of hours of time to write grants, raise money in the community, negotiate land sales and secure cooperation from private landholders for easements, putting together the parcels of old railroad land to establish the current trail was just the beginning.
Sustaining a 25-mile trail with hundreds of users and seasonal weather fluctuations requires constant vigilance. Routine maintenance to keep trails cleared is accomplished every Wednesday between late April and early November. A work crew of volunteers ages 12 and beyond takes to the trail cutting back limbs, clearing brush and performing any other task that can be tackled with gas-powered sickle bars and pole saws, loppers, pitchforks and rakes.
One Saturday per month, another volunteer crew assembles to take on larger tasks like drainage improvements, trail resurfacing, rebuilding of stream banks and containment barriers, and installation of gates (motorized vehicles are restricted), signs and shelters. Some volunteers complete restoration projects of historical artifacts such as a railroad crossing sign at Wheat Road near Clifton Springs. Oh yes, there is also 50 miles of mowing from spring through fall and, recently, winter trail grooming in designated areas, to the delight of cross-country skiers and snowshoe enthusiasts. In late October, that verge interval when fall feels over but winter has not quite come, the trail provides the setting for the annual Pumpkin Walk fundraiser. It’s a labor-intensive labor of love that’s attracted growing crowds every year and draws on support from dozens of other community organizations and businesses across Ontario County.
Marked, level, and safe, the OP trail is tranquil but not isolated. It’s popular with birders and hikers, school classes and scouting groups, those who want a brisk jog, a leisurely stroll, a ramble with their dog, or a trek with their camera. Chris Sophoclides, who’s been a volunteer with Ontario Pathways and trail user for almost a decade, told me there’s a sense of community pride and ownership when it comes to the trail; sentiments reflected in the low volume of litter left by trail users, the widespread support the organization enjoys across the county, the cooperation of property owners adjacent to the trail, the reliability of volunteers, and the absence of criminal activity.
When I asked Chris what he finds compelling about Ontario Pathways he pointed out the trail is a resource for anyone who cares to use it, and it offers an easy, accessible activity that connects people with the natural world and each other. It’s a visible reminder of what can be done with collaboration and cooperation, a legacy of stewardship that gives back to future generations a carefully tended, small piece of their borrowed land.
For more information, to donate or volunteer, visit the Ontario Pathways website at ontariopathways.org.
Like a challenge? Check out the OP’s Wegmans Passport Series. The collaboration is an initiative of Wegmans’ Eat Well/Live Well program. Get your passport book from the customer service desk at the Wegmans store in Canandaigua, Geneva, or Newark and take to the trail. You fill your book by taking rubbings at marked posts along the trail. Completed passports are entered in a drawing that features a grand prize of a Wegmans gift certificate. Yum.