A Trail Revolution  By Sue Freeman

There’s a revolution occurring around Rochester. A quiet, wonderful revolution, but a revolution none the less. Armies are bushwhacking their way through our lands, both private and public. Hold it, you say. You haven’t seen an army. No camouflaged soldiers wielding guns. No tanks, or cannons, or grenades.

Well, you’re right. This army wears Gore-Tex, often in bright colors. Their weapons are lawnmowers, saws, and pruning shears. They are your friends and neighbors. Their mission is to clear and maintain trails for the enjoyment of hiking, cross-county skiing, and bicycling throughout our communities. Other revolutions brought political and religious freedom and civil liberties. This one is bringing the freedom to wander through the woods and fields, to escape the hectic schedules of our lives, and to reconnect with nature.

Our trail revolution began long ago but gained force in 1980 with the establishment of a volunteer organization called Crescent Trail Hiking

A guided hike on the Victor Hiking Trails "Seneca Trail"

 Association, Inc. Setting a precedent for our area, the Crescent Trails group negotiated with private landowners and worked with government officials in the town of Perinton to develop a network of interconnected hiking trails. Within ten years they had built over 27 miles of trails and earned the honorable title of "Trail Town USA" for their efforts. It is a title bestowed by the American Hiking Association to communities that use trails to provide exercise for the body, stimulation of the mind and senses, and a personal connection with the community’s natural beauty and past history. Today, the Crescent Trails are used by young and old alike to exercise, to observe and study the natural environment and the animals who inhabit it, to play, and to rejuvenate themselves spiritually.

Crescent Trails and the other volunteer and government groups who have developed Rochester’s trails had a wealth of natural beauty and history to work with. Our area is blessed with a beautiful, hilly terrain, sculpted by glacial advances and retreats. We had forefathers with vision who set aside major tracts of land as community parks. The Erie Canal and its towpath wound through our neighborhoods. And finally, our region is crisscrossed with a network of railroad beds which once transported agricultural products to market but now lay abandoned. Each of these factors left us the raw materials for a revolution. Add the willingness of area citizens to volunteer their time, efforts, and land, and the revolution sprang to life.

In the early 1800s Jesse Hawley sat in the Canandaigua jail, imprisoned as a debtor. His business forwarding freight from the fields of Central New York to the markets in New York City had failed because of the difficult, dangerous, and costly land and water route available to him at the time. Hawley used the maps in the jail to envision a waterway connecting Lake Erie to the Hudson River. He drew up elaborate, detailed, and amazingly accurate plans. Governor Dewitt Clinton became champion of Hawley’s plans and, under much criticism, brought the project to fruition. Once in operation, the Erie Canal was an immediate economic success. It reduced the cost of transporting one ton of freight across the state from $100 to $10 and decreased the time from 6 weeks to 10 days. Goods flowed steadily eastward and immigrants flowed steadily westward.

The canal boom waned as the Saint Lawrence Seaway opened, making it possible to transport huge shiploads of materials at even lower cost. To bring goods to the canal and later to ports on Lake Ontario, a network of railroads were built across Central New York. But, in the 1950s and 1960s the railroads fell on hard times as competition from cars and trucks skyrocketed with the building of the interstate highway system. The death knell for many of the railroads was hurricane Agnes which tore through the area in 1972, bringing floods, felling trees, and ripping up rails and bridges. The weakened railroads were not able to rebuild and many lines were abandoned.

All of this conspired to leave fodder for the coming revolution. As the decades passed, urban sprawl crept farther into the countryside. Farmlands disappeared into housing tracts and people commuted in their heated, air-conditioned cars from their heated, air-conditioned houses to their heated, air-conditioned offices; all nicely cocooned from the ravages of nature. But, people longed to be reconnected with nature and began to feel the need to save some natural lands from the steam-roll of progress. And, so the revolution began. Crescent Trails was one of the first in the Rochester area. It was quickly followed by volunteer groups from many other towns, each patterning their process after the Crescent Trail model. Victor Hiking Trails, Pittsford Trails Coalition, Friends of Webster Trails, Macedon Trails Committee, Ontario Pathways all began in the 1990s to preserve and protect private lands, the canal towpaths, and abandoned railways of our area.

Local government agencies also recognized the need to preserve our historic corridors and green spaces. Many of our county, town, and city parks have trails and the crews are constantly improving and adding to the network. A paved trail loop exists today where you can walk or ride a bicycle from Genesee Valley Park and follow the Genesee River into downtown Rochester, then loop back and follow the opposite bank of the river returning to Genesee Valley Park. On this route you travel past the University of Rochester Chapel, are treated to an inspiring view of downtown as backdrop to the river channel, and cross over the arched bridges spanning the Erie Canal. Riding this route we’ve seen college students sculling on the river, barges and cranes plucking downed trees from the river, and tour boats loaded with passengers out for a day’s voyage. Eventually this Genesee River Trail will extend to Charlotte. It already connects in Genesee Valley Park to the Genesee Valley Greenway.

The Genesee Valley Greenway is an abandoned

Rich Freeman paints a fresh blaze to mark the trail

railroad bed and canal towpath stretching for 90 miles from Rochester to Hinsdale in the southern tier. Its’ development is a joint initiative involving volunteers and government officials. Today 47 miles of this multi-use trail are open and more miles are cleared each year. This is the trail to travel if you want the feel of being far in the country without having to drive a long distance. It’s a haven for wildlife so you’re likely to see fox and deer. The trail offers rare views of water sculpted gullies and waterfalls as it snakes along the Genesee River which gradually gets smaller as you head south.

In the last few years, the Mendon Foundation, Monroe County Parks, and Victor Hiking Trails have opened the Lehigh Valley Trail stretching east-west from Victor to the Genesee River, in Rush. By utilizing the trestle framework which remains across the Genesee River, some day the Lehigh Valley Trail will also connect into the Genesee Valley Greenway. Imagine riding your bicycle on a safe path from Victor to downtown Rochester. Only the building of one bridge stands in the way of making this a reality.

What is a reality today is our segment of the Erie Canalway Trail. The New York State Canal Corp. is working to build a trail roughly following the old canal towpath from Albany to Buffalo. In the Rochester area, we already have an 85-mile segment open from Lockport to Palmyra. On any nice weather day you’ll find people walking, running, in-line skating, and bicycling on our towpath. A favorite trip of mine is a weekend trip where you bicycle from Rochester to Adams Basin, stay overnight in a Bed and Breakfast that overlooks the canal, then bicycle back the next day. No driving – just the perfect, low-cost, rejuvenating weekend.

The beauty of the trail revolution is the head of steam it now has pushing it. All over our area volunteer groups and government agencies are working independently and in cooperative efforts to build sections of trails. There is no overall master plan, no overarching authoritative body directing the efforts. But, it’s clear to all involved that the end will be far greater than the sum of all the parts. The rail beds converted to trails converge with the canal towpaths which link to the trails through our parks and private lands. It creates a network of trails available for all of us to enjoy on an afternoon’s stroll or a weeklong bicycling holiday. Today the segments of trail available are scattered across the region like jacks tossed from a child’s hand. With continued work and generosity from landowners we’ll be able to connect the loose jacks and achieve an interconnected trail network.

We’re building on our history and leaving a legacy that generations behind us will enjoy and admire for its foresight and vision. We’re winning the revolution. There’s much left to do and new recruits are always needed since there’s no such thing as a draft for the Trail Revolution. Contact a local trail group and offer your assistance or ask them about their guided hikes. Your spirit will soar as you head out on the trails to work or play.

Area Trail Groups:

Crescent Trail (585) 234-1621

Victor Hiking Trails (585) 234-8226

Friends of Webster Trails (585) 671-0258

Ontario Pathways (585) 394-7968

Friends of the Finger Lakes Outlet (315) 536-5147

Friends of the Genesee Valley Greenway (585) 658-2569

Finger Lakes Trail Conference (585) 288-7191)

Macedon Trails Committee (315) 986-2289

Mendon Foundation (585) 385-2330

Friends of the Canalway Trail (518) 434-1583

Trail Works (Wayne County) (315) 483-8325

Henrietta Foundation (585) 359-7073 

Penfield Trails Committee

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