A steady traffic of joggers, cyclists, and parents pushing strollers crossed an old railroad bridge over Chester Creek Sunday afternoon.
Lured by balmy weather, they walked, ran, and pedaled from the bridge to the rest of the 2.8-mile Chester Creek Trail, a ribbon of asphalt largely through wooded areas in Middletown with a view of the creek plashing against its boulder-strewn course.
"It's just beautiful scenery," said Margo Nolen, as she walked with her husband, Glenn and daughter, Margo, where the trail intersects with Mount and Pennel roads. "It's easy to stay on the trail."
It's a scene long awaited by groups like Friends of the Chester Creek Trail, which pushed for 23 years to make the trail a reality. Though the pathway became accessible in November, this weekend marked its official opening and served to spotlight a renewed effort to grow the network of trails in the region.
"I think more and more these trails are really being seen as bringing back and rejuvenating suburban communities that have been cut off by roads and highways," said Sarah Clark Stuart, chair of the Circuit Trails Coalition, an organization building a network of trails that one day will provide a contiguous web of backways through the region.
Two more segments of the network are scheduled to open soon. On April 22, Bartram's Mile North and South, a 1.1 mile section near Bartram's Garden, will debut, followed by the K&T Trail along the Delaware River in Philadelphia on May 15. The Circuit Trails currently include 320 miles of noncontiguous segments. Typically each year sees an additional 10 to 15 miles added, but Clark Stuart said her organization is calling for 20 miles of trails every year between now and 2025. That would bring the project much closer to its goal of 750 miles of trails over nine counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Among the proposed trails are segments that would expand the pathway south and north from the Chester Creek Trail. The southern segment already has $416,000 set aside for engineering and design, Clark Stuart said.
Most paths don't have quite so long a gestation period as Chester Creek Trail, Clark Stuart said. Its route follows the unused Chester Creek rail line. Turning defunct rail routes into trails is commonplace now, but at the time it was uncharted territory, said Barry Pinkowicz, president of the Friends of the Chester Creek Trail.
"I think it was quicker to build the Blue Route," Pinkowicz joked. "Nobody had ever dealt with SEPTA for a trail."
Today, unused railroad rights of way make up about 75 percent of the Circuit Trails miles.
Construction on Chester Creek Trail began three years ago, he said.
Trail proposals frequently face resistance from people with property near them. They worry about the trail bringing bad elements to their communities, but in fact trails have been shown to increase property values.
Another obstacle is money. The Chester Creek Trail cost $6.5 million, and included the removal of remaining railroad ties, building a new embankment shored up with boulders, and doing some work on the railroad bridges. The projects rely largely on local money, Clark Stuart said, but also some state and federal funding. One of the federal sources, Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants, was among the items singled out for elimination in President Trump's budget.
One of the people walking through Sunday was Mark Palouian, joined by his mother, Jane Strickland, and 3-year-old son, Robert. Palouian, of Aston, used to fish regularly in Chester Creek.
"I've been watching it come along through the years," he said of the trail.
His mother was pleased with the results.