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How Ontario Pathways Came to be

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How Ontario Pathways Came To Be
By Betsy Russell

       In 1978, I had just graduated from nursing school and started my first job as an RN at the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison.  It was also the year I met my husband, Greg, and got my first introduction to a rail-trail.  Little did I know at that time that the state of Wisconsin had more miles of rail-trail than any other state in the U.S.  We bicycled only one of them, the Elroy-Sparta, but it turned out to be “the grandfather of rail-trails.”  One of the very first rail-trails ever created in this country, the Elroy-Sparta left a lasting impression on us.  It was beautiful, rural, and unique.  It had three huge tunnels that stayed a consistent 50 degrees, winter or summer.  The pedaling was easy and we had a great ride.  It was the first time either of us had ever had a true “off-road” bicycling experience.  It made us realize how much we disliked competing with cars, noise and fumes on the roadways.

        Now, fast forward to Canandaigua, NY thirteen years and two children later.  Greg was teaching history at Palmyra-Macedon and I was a full-time mom.  Everyday I made it a point to take the kids outdoors.  We spent many hours on the trails at Finger Lakes Community College and Ontario County Park.  By the time the kids could ride their bikes independently I was looking around for places they could do it more safely than the streets.  The memories of that ride on the Elroy-Sparta almost 13 years before kept coming back along with the thought that we must have something similar nearby.

We knew about the Erie Canal trail but were hoping to find something closer to home.  The only other bike trail we could find nearby was the Outlet Trail in Penn Yan.  
       One beautiful, crisp October day we packed up the kids and our bikes and headed to Penn Yan.  We took two cars, parked one at the east end of the trail in Dresden, and then started out uphill in Penn Yan.  We chose the downhill grade, which on that trail is considerable.  There were waterfalls and old mill sites to explore and we got to coast practically the entire way.  This was heaven!  It is not often that you find something that adults and kids enjoy equally but this was one.  
       The trail was beautiful, fascinating and free.

       After that outing, Greg and I could not stop talking about how special these kinds of trails were.  They were not just for hiking, but bicycling, cross-country skiing and they were even used by the occasional horseback rider.  We wondered why there was not one in our area.  As soon as we got home, we pulled out the New York State Gazetteer.  All of the railroad lines in Ontario County were there and it was clear that most of them were already abandoned.  We set out immediately to explore where these lines were and what kind of shape they were in.  To our great surprise and delight, the line coming out of Canandaigua to the southeast had several Penn Central “For Sale” signs on it.  The signs looked like they had been there awhile.  Some of them were almost entirely overgrown.  We quickly scribbled down the phone number and that same day in October 1992, I made what was the first of many phone calls to the Penn Central real estate division.

       The news was good and bad.  The good news was that the property was indeed for sale.  Penn Central was selling all the property it had across the state, going county by county.  They informed us that they had been trying to sell the property for nearly 15 years.  They had offered it by turns to the state, the county, and the individual municipalities and last, to the adjacent landowners.  They went through this cycle several times in that 15-year period.  They much preferred to sell it whole, owner take all in each county rather than selling it off to individual landowners.  It was far more costly for them to market in tiny, individual parcels.

       The bad news was that this time the property was being auctioned off county by county “very, very soon” but they would not say when.  The asking price in Ontario County was $100,000 for everything, including many little disconnected pieces lying all over the county.  The cost to buy the individual parcels would have been even higher.  This was Penn Central’s last push to get rid of their railroad property.  They were getting out of the railroad business.  The auction was final.  The property was going, going and soon to be gone forever.

        It was a good thing we were very naïve about what we were getting into.  In Greenways for America, one of the first books ever written about the creation of rail-trails, there is a quote that says something like this; ‘There are not many endeavors as difficult as this.  It takes a hard-core bunch of screwballs to tackle a rail-trail.’  We were about to find that out.

Ontario Pathways: The Early Years

      In the fall of 1992, after finding several Penn Central “For Sale” signs on an abandoned railroad line leading out of Canandaigua, I called Penn Central to try to find out what the status of the property was.  I spoke to a man who headed up the real estate division.  He explained that the property had been for sale for over 15 years and there soon would be an auction of all the remaining abandoned railroad property in Ontario County, highest bidder taking all.  Of course, if they could first find someone crazy or naive enough (or both) to buy the entire property for $100,000 that would be preferable to them.  But he cautioned me that there was very little time to act.  Penn Central was already holding auctions in Ohio and would be moving through New York State very soon.  He refused to say how soon he was talking about.

       I remember my insides seizing up and having a hard time actually breathing in and out.  Where to begin?  How could something like this take shape in such a short period of time?  Nothing could have prepared me for the amount of work that would be involved, for the fierce opposition that developed, or for the never-ending learning curve that often felt like an endless and out-of-control spiral. 

       Over the years, literally hundreds of people have helped make Ontario Pathways an accepted and wonderful part of our community.  I cannot begin to give everyone credit here.  Volunteers came forward to organize the first board of directors, donate hundreds of hours of legal work, fundraising, engineering expertise, financial counseling, hands-on labor, tools and in-kind services too numerous to mention.  They also provided me with much-needed, psychotherapy.  Friends old and new kept me propped up and moving forward when I really wanted to hang it up. 

       There was weekly pressure from Penn Central to hurry up and buy.  In retrospect, it is easy to see that they probably felt a housewife from central New York, with no organization, no money and no experience in building trails was a very unlikely prospect to succeed.  In their own self-interest, they put me in touch with the then little known Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC).  The RTC was a national organization helping trail groups, municipalities, and states across the country to rescue abandoned railroad property and convert it into recreational trails.  The RTC did not actually do the work for you but they gave you advice and access to their library of resources.  They were also going to start loaning money for critical purchases if no other sources of money could be found quickly enough to save a property.  Ontario Pathways ended up being the first trail in the country that received a loan from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

      Since I truly had no idea what I was doing, I just started picking the brains of anyone I thought could help.  My network of mentors grew exponentially in the first few months.  It included community leaders, businessmen, and lawyers, trail builders around the state and country, municipal officials, local, state and federal park officials and most important in this network were my neighbors, friends and family.  I used and abused them all and became guilt-ridden about it in the process.  People were both enthusiastic and skeptical and many times, I was the most skeptical of all. 

    It took a year and a half of intense work before Ontario Pathways actually purchased the railroad property.  The first thing that had to be done was to drum up interest in the project.  The very first meeting to draw out the public’s interest in creating a trail system was held in January 1993 at Wood Library.  About 45 people showed up.  I had prepared a slide show of all the possible places that trails might be developed in the Canandaigua area.  However, by the end of the evening, this very loose group of people would collectively realize that the opportunity to create a countywide system on the abandoned railroad property was the best choice to pursue.  It would create the longest and the most scenic trail but if it was allowed to go to the auction block this priceless opportunity would be gone forever.

       After the meeting was over most of the people in the room disappeared but a small and scrappy handful of individuals volunteered to start helping immediately.  In that moment, Ontario Pathways was unofficially born.  We immediately started to work researching legal matters, figuring out how to create an organization and finding ways to raise money.

       Almost simultaneously another organization was forming.  This one was made up of trail neighbors, or “adjacent landowners.”  Most of their “work” was done by one very negative and energetic individual who, under the guise of “private property rights” was determined to stop the trail project “at any cost.”  Over the next few years he attended, usually accompanied by several like-minded neighbors, almost every meeting we did in order to argue against the trail.  At least half of the work we did, in the early years, was to try to undo the damage the opposition did.  The inflamed passions of the trail neighbors created an atmosphere that was so ugly it caused one town official to comment, “I’ve never seen an issue as acrimonious as this one in all the years I’ve served in Ontario County.  It’s worse than all previous conflicts put together.”  That really helped lift our spirits.

       We soon learned that the physical boundaries of a rail-trail create most of the problems. The long, skinny property had nearly 250 neighbors and traversed eight different municipalities.  Many of these neighbors had innocently (and not so innocently) taken over their own adjacent pieces of the railroad and incorporated them into their own farms, yards and neighborhoods.  The abandoned rail property was being used to race dirt bikes, dump garbage and transport farm equipment.  One section had been turned into a very long driveway.  Many sections had become someone’s lawn.  Four neighbors had already purchased their adjacent sections in the late 1980’s from the Penn Central Corporation.  That left us with breaks in the trail that we would either have to detour or try to buy back.

      With so many municipalities to deal with, and with so vocal an opposition, we were continually being blind-sided by issues that would sap our energy, drain our coffers, and completely destroy our moral.  We endured three and a half years of nasty letters-to-the-editor from the trail opponents.  I dreaded opening the paper each day to read what might be there.  We were fortunate that our local newspapers were very supportive of Ontario Pathways in both their coverage and in their editorials.

      When we went out to clear trail we were often followed by one or more opponents who would videotape us and then knock on other trail neighbor doors to scare them into believing we were out there working for the devil.  They attended our slide shows and municipal meetings to complain loudly about anything that might resemble the truth.
We were accused of making a trail for thieves and rapists, pumpkin stealers and “ cow tippers” (pranksters who actually push over cows), of bringing hikers who would strew trash, pervert children, start barn fires, sue innocent neighbors, drown in their ponds and generally ruin their privacy and way of life.  Sounds funny now, doesn’t it?  But it didn’t sound funny then.

       At the same time, we had a few neighbors who helped us monitor, clean and mow the trail, and some even became generous, dues-paying members.  But these same helpful neighbors didn’t want it known that they were supporting us because they didn’t want to suffer the wrath of their trail-opposing neighbors.

Since Ontario Pathways owned property in eight different municipalities, we had to deal with eight different town boards, eight zoning officers, eight planning boards and eight tax assessors.  We also had to try and answer to Ontario County who was being pulled into the fray by the angry opposition even though they didn’t want to be.  The rounds of meetings, letters, permits and defenses was never-ending and the opposition never lost an opportunity to take advantage of the situation.

       The adjacent landowners mounted a vigorous campaign to get the Department of Transportation to remove two of our main bridges over Rtes. 5&20.  It took over three years of effort to save the bridges from the wrecking ball.  The opposition then put pressure on the town of Phelps and Seneca to prevent us from using our own property.          The Town of Phelps caved into their pressure and arrested Ontario Pathways for holding an open house on the undeveloped trail property.  They tried to say that it was illegal for us to use the property for recreation when it was zoned for transportation.  Phelps took us to court and fortunately, due to excellent pro bono legal help, the case was dismissed after many months of legal research, court appearances and of course, publicity.

        At the same time, the opposition contributed to the lengthy and difficult struggle to win mandatory property tax exemption.  Ontario Pathways was clearly a non-profit, benefiting the general public, without expense to the taxpayer.  The organization was paying up to $7,000 per year in property taxes in the early years.  Once again, the towns caved into the demands of a few angry constituents and refused to grant the property tax exemption, although it was well within their authority to do so.  This time Ontario Pathways was put in the distasteful position of suing four townships in order to win the exemption.  It took two rounds in court over two years to finally win what became a precedent-setting case for privately owned trails in New York State.  Again, Ontario Pathways was saved by terrific pro bono legal work, without which it would have never survived.

      On the trail property itself, Pathways was met with many reminders of just how irate some of the neighbors were to have us there.  In the first several years illegal fires were set on the trail, kiosks were smashed, someone dug a 10 foot wide by 10 foot deep trench through the berm, some of the property was willfully clear-cut, human waste was left in places sure to be found by trail-clearing volunteers, benches were destroyed, snowmobiles, ATV’s and dirt bikes purposefully and continually defied trail regulations, garbage was dumped and cinders were stolen from the trail bed.  We were assured by trails across the country that this was a “normal” course of events during the creation of a rail-trail.

       In spite of all these obstacles, the first three miles of trail officially opened on National Trails Day, June 1, 1996.  Canandaigua Mayor Ellen Polimeni cut the ribbon.  Ontario Pathways held a fundraising event that day called a “Walk in the Wild.”   In addition to raising over $6,500 for the trail, OP was one of ten trails nationwide selected for a “Trails for Tomorrow” award.  The award was given to the trails that best represented the spirit of National Trails Day. It included $500 in cash, $2,000 in hiking merchandise and a free trip to Salt Lake City to receive the award. What a good feeling for a change!

      By 1997 Ontario Pathways was well on its way to becoming a familiar and important part of the community.  Mile by mile the pathway was cleared of garbage, ties and brush. Parking was established, gates were installed and bridges were built.  By 1998, the trail was finally free of debt. Loans from the Canandaigua National Bank and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy had been paid in full, the organization’s membership had grown and the voice of the opposition had softened to a whisper.  That same year over 100 people attended the “Grand Opening” of the trail in Phelps on National Trails Day and in October the first Pumpkin Walk was held with over 900 people attending.  Ontario Pathways had finally arrived. 

If you would like to contact Betsy, please email me at and I'll forward your missive to her.  

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