As cyclists whizzed past and kayakers drifted below the bridge on a hot summer afternoon, the final link in the Schuylkill River Trail connecting Philadelphia to Phoenixville officially opened.

The Schuylkill Canal Towpath, a 13/4-mile stretch running along the border of Upper Providence Township, is ready for runners, bikers and walkers after 35 years of work to restore the canal.

"This is a gem that links our county to Philadelphia," said Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro at the ribbon-cutting on Tuesday attended by state and local officials and advocates.

The county, which had to overcome environmental and financial concerns to finish the long-standing project, is a model for others, said Bob Folwell, trails project manager for the Schuylkill River Heritage Area.

"This link was not an easy task," he said. "This is the toughest on-land mile ever" completed on the trail.

The Schuylkill River Trail was voted Best Urban Trail in the country in a USA Today and poll last week.

Sixty-five miles of the regional trail now are complete, with 125 to go.

"It makes sense for us to invest in it, it makes sense for us to make it even better, and we're proud to do that," Shapiro said.

The Schuylkill Canal was built in the early 1800s and was used to transport coal, as well as goods and crops, from Philadelphia to Schuylkill County. Mules pulling canalboats walked on the towpath - hence the name.

By the middle of the 19th century, the canal system had been abandoned. The state has filled in most portions, but stretches of water remain in Montgomery County and in Manayunk.

The canal is "a crown jewel of this part of the county," said State Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery).

The $1.8-million, two-phase project to create the towpath has spanned the governorships of both Tom Corbett and Tom Wolf, as well as two county administrations.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the William Penn Foundation provided funding above the county's $1.3 million.

"It's not every day when you get your county leadership, state leadership, local leadership, everybody - forgive the pun - rowing in the same direction," Shapiro said.