towpath nears completion, uniting residents and neighborhoods while attracting the talent class

Interstate highways have been a boon for travelers, allowing motorists to go vast distances in mere hours instead of days. But sometimes it's the scenery – not the speed – that's most gratifying. That's precisely why the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail is so popular, attracting some two million visits per year.

Following a route that was scratched out some 177 years ago -- one that stretched from New Philadelphia to Cleveland's lakeshore -- the Towpath Trail finally is reaching the end of a very long revitalization process, with just six miles remaining on the journey. When finished, the 110-mile pathway will provide a scenic corridor for hikers, bikers, and slow-speed travelers that outshines by a longshot our system of concrete-clad super-highways.

The original Ohio & Erie Canal once spanned the state from the mouth of the Cuyahoga River to the Ohio River at Portsmouth, serving as the state's main transportation corridor. Proposed by George Washington in 1787, it came to fruition in 1833 when the first barges made their way downstream thanks to the land-bound horses and mules that pulled them. The beasts of burden are long gone, but that well-worn pathway now lives on as the beloved Towpath.

Thanks in large part to the National Park Service, which early on saw the benefit of preserving land and converting pathway to parkway, serious efforts to extend the trail began. Now, some 36 years since the undertaking began, the final pieces of the puzzle are coming together. Current estimates place completion of the Towpath Trail at 2015.

The final leg of the race is being run largely by the folks at Ohio Canal Corridor, which is responsible for the path's final push through Cleveland to the lakefront. While small compared to the overall trail, that last segment has proved to be particularly challenging to assemble.

"Because the original towpath is gone, there is very little public ownership of the properties," explains Dan Rice, president of the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition, which shepherded the trail's progress in Summit, Stark, and Tuscarawas counties. Locally, he says, the trail is being developed through a combination of private property easements, purchases, and route planning.

Property rights aren't the only sticking points. "That section of the trail offers unique challenges," Rice admits, referring to a slew of environmental issues. Some of the areas are sensitive from an environmental clean-up standpoint, requiring a series of alternative path routes.

"It's a challenge to build a trail through a valley that's had a century or more of heavy-duty use," agrees Tim Donovan, Ohio Canal Corridor's executive director.

Four-Stage Approach

Currently the trail stops at Harvard Avenue, but the Cuyahoga County Engineer's office, in conjunction with other agencies involved with the Towpath Trail development, has reduced the ultimate goal into four bite-size segments. Each stage is being attacked concurrently.

Stage One, a span of about three-quarters of a mile, runs from Harvard to Steelyard Commons. Of particular concern is the site of the old Harshaw Chemical Co., a plant that collaborated on the Manhattan Project. The Army Corp of Engineers currently is in the process of site remediation.

Stage Two runs through Steelyard Commons and is largely finished, connecting the area with Tremont to the north. It was completed by the shopping center's developer but awaits a "greening-up," says Stanley D. Kosilesky, chief deputy engineer of the Cuyahoga County Engineer's office.

Stage Three goes from Steelyard Commons to an area in Tremont currently designated as Literary Trailhead. Completion is estimated for 2013.

Stage Four, which extends the trail from Tremont through the West Bank of the Flats to Canal Basin, the end of the line, will likely be one of the first of the unfinished stages to be completed. Estimates place that date at 2014.

State and federal grants from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Clean Ohio Fund have helped officials assemble the final parcels of land.

Happy Ending

Canal Basin Park, a new 24-acre park that sits near the original terminus of the Ohio & Erie Canal, will make a fitting capstone for a project as grand and long-awaited as this one. The park not only will connect cyclists and pedestrians to the Towpath Trail, it will connect them to all of Cleveland's historic neighborhoods via various trail loops and access points. When it comes to attracting the highly mobile talent class, access to bike paths and parklands is no longer an amenity -- it's a necessity.

"The benefits of a trailway and greenway network include providing recreational opportunities, promoting healthier lifestyles, and recruiting and retaining businesses," explains Dan Rice.

Ohio Canal Corridor's Tim Donovan takes it a step further: "It's my hope in the future that the towpath will help repopulate some of the neighborhoods that are within the access points to the trail, or some of the connector trails, which are in the heart of the city."

Want to help? Become a member of Ohio Canal Corridor, which receives no cut of the aforementioned grants.

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Photography by  
Bob Perkoski
- Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail Beneath Interstate 80 near Peninsula
- Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail Beneath Interstate 80 near Peninsula
- Towpath Trail Bridge in Peninsula
- Towpath Trail at Thornburg Station
- Cleveland Metroparks All Purpose Trail near the Leonard Krieger CanalWay Center 
Cleveland Metroparks All Purpose Trail near the Leonard Krieger CanalWay Center 

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