Making connections: Popularity of recreation trails spurs call for overseeing authority, linking facilities (2024)

Norm Whelland, 81, of Williamsburg sets out for a 40-minute walk on the Lower Trail at Gannister Station outside of Williamsburg on Wednesday afternoon. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

Blair County’s intertwined trail systems are generating increased interest from outdoor recreation enthusiasts, leading the county commissioners to discuss the establishment of an authority while community organizations push for a connection between Duncansville and the Lower Trail in Williamsburg.

The creation of the Lower Trail was the beginning of the trail town concept in the area. Karl King, a founding member of Rails to Trails of Central Pennsylvania, said it was in the mid-’80s that a man promoting rail trails arrived in Williamsburg.

“We hadn’t heard of it at the time, so we began looking at a potential trail along the Allegheny Portage Railroad, but that never came to be,” King said.

Dean Lower stepped in and provided the funding to purchase an abandoned railroad property that stretched, in part, from Williamsburg to Water Street near Alexandria, King said.

“In 1989, we began construction with funding through the American Industrial Heritage Project,” King said. “We developed the first 11 miles of the trail that way and, I think in 2005, we added another five miles or so to take it from Williamsburg to Canoe Creek.”

Making connections: Popularity of recreation trails spurs call for overseeing authority, linking facilities (1)

his Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

Lower Trail’s most recent development came in October 2021, when PennDOT helped with the construction of a connector linking it to Canoe Creek State Park, King said. The connector is a short tunnel running underneath Route 22, allowing riders and hikers to safely cross the highway.

Future trail development in the county’s existing trail towns of Williamsburg, Hollidaysburg and Duncansville have “huge potential” to provide an advanced quality of life for both residents and visitors, said Mark Ickes, executive director of Explore Altoona. Hotel tax revenue is used by the organization to market the county’s recreational activities, chief among them hiking and biking.

“Outdoor recreation, and trails specifically, continue to be an extremely strong component among this vast variety (of activities) and have huge potential moving forward,” Ickes said.

King said Rails to Trails has been moving Lower Trail toward Hollidaysburg and Duncansville, with its westernmost part ending at Canoe Creek and that they would like to provide connections to those communities. The trail could potentially connect to Foot of Ten and “on up to the Allegheny Portage Railroad site.”

“So we could feasibly develop a 57-mile trail through that area,” King said. “Right now, the Lower Trail is 17 miles or so, but we could extend it beyond 50 miles, and a long distance trail would be an attraction for people to come here.”

Making connections: Popularity of recreation trails spurs call for overseeing authority, linking facilities (2)

King

Rails to Trails of Central Pennsylvania board member Jennifer Barefoot said that the county created a 10-year plan in the ’90s that looked at trails and included an outline on how they could all connect.

Barefoot said that if the Lower Trail were connected to Duncansville, those trails could be extended to the Trans-Allegheny Trail system that runs to Pittsburgh.

“We have some of the areas already secured and some where we have hit roadblocks,” Barefoot said. “Anybody that is a landowner could say, ‘this is my land and I don’t want to use it for that purpose.'”

Another obstacle Rails to Trails faces is “that so many people don’t realize that the Lower Trail is privately owned,” Barefoot said.

That means it has to go through different municipalities to apply for certain funding, but then the municipality would control any money received.

Making connections: Popularity of recreation trails spurs call for overseeing authority, linking facilities (3)

A bicyclist finishes his ride on the Lower Trail at Gannister Station outside of Williamsburg on Wednesday afternoon. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

“Money is a big issue,” Barefoot said. “We’re maintaining a 17-and-a-half-mile trail with private funds and what grants can be secured. It’s coming up on 35 years and people still use the trails and they think taxes are paying for the maintenance.”

King, who helped start Rails to Trails of Central Pennsylvania in his mid-30s and is now approaching his late 70s, stated that “right now we’re a volunteer organization and we’re all getting older.”

“We’re owned by a nonprofit organization, all volunteers,” King said. “We make the trail available free of charge to the public.”

Being federally recognized as a part of the September 11 National Memorial Trail, which runs from the Pentagon to Shanksville and up to New York City, has enabled the group to apply for federal grants, Barefoot said.

“Now that we’re a part of federal trails, it would be really advantageous for the county to connect the trails,” Barefoot said.

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Ickes

King said the idea behind the September 11 Trail is to provide an opportunity for people to explore trails, not necessarily from a recreational standpoint, but from a commemorative standpoint on the resilience and fortitude of the United States.

“These are places that show the resilience of the American people over the years,” King said. “In the meantime, being a community site, it also serves as a recreational facility for people who just want to go out and explore a little bit of the countryside.”

King, Barefoot and Ickes agree that what would help efforts to expand trails in the county and beyond would be the creation of an authority.

“That’s really what’s necessary to keep up with what’s happening in surrounding counties,” King said. “Cambria has a conservation recreation authority that focuses on their trails, Centre has a council of governments that focuses on their trails and, I think with the exception of Antis Township working on some of the trails they have, there is really no government agency in this area that is focused on the development of trails,” he said.

Ickes said that both Cambria and Somerset counties have had “very aggressive trail efforts” that Blair County could model itself after.

“Somerset has been very active within the Allegheny Passage and 9/11 Trail,” Ickes said. “Cambria does an excellent job with the Ghost Town Trail.”

Having an authority would “help us out tremendously,” Barefoot said, because Rails to Trails could go through that and “not have to jump through all these hoops.”

King said that having some kind of organizational structure could also mean having staff devoted to maintaining and developing trails full time, creating a boon for the county.

“I think it’s been shown that trails, particularly long distance trails, attract people to the area,” King said.

“We’ve received a number of comments from people outside the area who speak to how nice and how maintained the Lower Trail is and we feel, if it could be expanded, it would draw even more people to the community.”

Mirror Staff Writer Rachel Foor is at 814-946-7458.

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Making connections: Popularity of recreation trails spurs call for overseeing authority, linking facilities (2024)
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