(Editor’s Note: This summer-long series on Lebanon County’s recreational parks first appeared on Lebanon Sports Buzz in 2014)
BY JEFF FALK
CORNWALL/MOUNT GRETNA/COLEBROOK – While winding its way through the heart of Lebanon County, Lebanon Valley Rail To Trail has apparently warmed its way into the hearts of Lebanon Countians. The fact that it has the ability to strengthen the heart muscle is simply an added bonus.
In many ways, Lebanon Valley Rail to Trail is one of Lebanon County’s greatest natural resources. But there’s only one problem – it’s man-made.
Or more accurately, man re-made.
Not only does Lebanon Valley Rails to Trails capture local natural beauty like no other tool, it might be Lebanon County’s greatest example of ‘recycling’.
“It absolutely does capture the beauty of Lebanon County,” said John Wengert, the president of Lebanon Valley Rail to Trail board. “You might drive by it in a car and not know what’s out there until you walk through it. Fields, woodlands, wetlands. And we did a good job of preserving the railroad history. We tried to incorporate the history into it.
“It’s a place that people can go easily, just to get out and do something as a family, or as an individual,” Wengert continued. “It’s a lot of different things to different people. It’s got a broad allure. It’s not like a baseball field. If you don’t have kids playing baseball, you’re not going to go there.”
Built upon an abandoned railroad bed, Lebanon Valley Rail to Trail stretches from Elizabethtown in the south to south Eight Street in the city of Lebanon to the north. Currently, the trail encompasses 15 miles of the Lebanon County country-side, then runs another five miles into Lancaster County.
But there are plans to extend Lebanon Valley Rail To Trail north, through Lebanon, through Jonestown and past Lickdale. For his part, Wengert has very little difficulty imagining a continuous trail from Pine Grove to Columbia, which would cover some 50 miles.
“We built the first section in 2000. It was five miles, from Colebrook to Route 72 (in Mount Gretna),” said Wengert. “Since then, there’s been four extensions. Every couple of years we’ve extended it both ways. Currently we’re working on Phase Five, Eighth Street (in the city) to Chestnut Street. Everything’s exciting. Then we have to figure out how to get from Chestnut Street to Union Canal (park in North Lebanon) .
“It’s limited in the respect that the furthest we could go to is Swatara State Park, just above Lickdale, and then we’re done,” added Wengert. “That would make it from one county (Lancaster) line to the other county (Schuylkill) line. However, there’s a lot of potential to connect to north-and-south trails. I don’t think there’s a limit as to how much can be branched off of it.”
The former railroad line was first abandoned in the late 1970s. Wengert, treasurer Todd Dissinger and the rest of the LVRT board picked up the ball in 1996. They’ve been running with it ever since.
“One day Todd and I were at the (Lebanon) YMCA talking about this idea,” said Wengert. “He and I just decided to work on it. That’s where it started. The whole thing started with that conversation. We didn’t get anything open until 2000. It’s hard to keep people coming to meetings for four years when there’s nothing going on.
“It says a couple of things,” Wengert added. “Those people were confident in our vision. The first phase wasn’t hugely popular. But the level of support got the state’s attention. They like to give money to groups who can raise money. And there’s a lot of competition for state grants.”
Initially the railroad bed was built in the 1870s by Robert H. Coleman, and was used for that time’s revolutionary transportation for 100 years. The railroad was operated by the Cornwall-Lebanon railroad to the south and by the Tremont portion of the Reading railroad in the north.
“You have to clear the right-of-way of vegetation, over-growth and trees,” said Wengert of the transformation from rail to trail. “It has to be 30 feet wide. You have to grate it down and then put stone in. You have to have drainage for water run-off. With bridges, there’s decking an railing, and that’s pretty expensive. At access points you need parking lots, signage, gates and sometimes picnic tables. And there’s engineering involved.
“Everybody (board members) who’s doing it, is doing it on a volunteer basis,” continued Wengert. “Basically, we have the same board members since the beginning. We joke around about it: ‘We didn’t realize it was a lifetime commitment.’ You have to have a lot of patience. These phases take three times longer than you think they’re going to take. We have a lot of stuff in the fire. Everything gets done, it just takes time and patience.”
The Lebanon Valley Rail to Trail is employed for a myriad of outdoor activities. Everything from walking, to running, to bicycling to horseback riding. Some local scholastic cross country teams – like the Cedar Crest boys and girls – actually use it for practice and training.
“It gets people enthusiastic about different things,” said Wengert. “Mostly Lebanon County residents use it. The biggest age group of users is between 30 and 40, but there’s all ages using it. Most people who use it, use it twice a week. And the number one activity is walking, and biking. There are a lot of outside people who come in to use it, and the majority are from Lancaster County. ”
To date, more than $3 million has been spent to convert the rails to trails. A sum of $600,000 of that has come from private funding, while the rest has resulted from federal grants through the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and state grants through the Department of Natural Resources.
“Our vision back then was to get done what we have finished now, Lancaster County to Lebanon city,” added Wengert. “We didn’t even think about the northern part then. Once people used the existing trail for a few years, the popularity took off and everyone was looking at the northern extension. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s feasible. It’s going to take ten years, realistically. There’s going to be a stand-alone in Jonestown in 2014.”