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Car-free Schuylkill bridges connect happy trails havens

The car-free Manayunk, Sullivan's, and Pencoyd Bridges connect hiking/biking trails on both banks of the river for thousands of outdoors lovers.

Linda McGrane of Philadelphia riding her bike on the Cynwyd Heritage Trail on Manayunk Bridge on Thursday, July 20, 2017.
Linda McGrane of Philadelphia riding her bike on the Cynwyd Heritage Trail on Manayunk Bridge on Thursday, July 20, 2017.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Linda McGrane, 55, who has been riding area bike trails since the 1980s, remembers years of pre-2015 Schuylkill crossings between Manayunk and Lower Merion as nerve-racking nightmares in heavy traffic.

"If I wanted to lead a ride from Philly to Bala Cynwyd, we'd have to go over the Green Lane Bridge," said McGrane, who leads group excursions for the Bicycle Club of Philadelphia, Suburban Cyclists Unlimited, and the Delaware Valley Bicycle Club. "That was our only option, and the Green Lane Bridge, which is narrow with no shoulder, was almost always terrifying."

When the rebuilt, rails-to-trails, pedestrians-and-cyclists-only, $5.7 million Manayunk Bridge opened in late 2015, McGrane said, river crossings between Manayunk and the Cynwyd Heritage Trail in Lower Merion suddenly became a pleasure.

"On a beautiful, sunny day, and even on a gray day, it's heartwarming to see so many people – riders, walkers, joggers, families, people walking dogs – enjoying the bridge and the views of the river," said McGrane, who affectionately calls the bridge "the Manny."

"I'm an occupational therapist and a gerontologist," she said, "so I think it's healthy for people to get outside and connect with Mother Nature. And there is something about riding a bike that is good for the body, mind, soul, and spirit."

Last year, 15 miles upriver from the Manayunk Bridge, another bike-and-hike nightmare vanished when PennDot's $9.2 million Sullivan's Bridge – which connects the Schuylkill River Trail at Betzwood Park to Valley Forge National Historical Park's 28 miles of trails – replaced the fenced-in, 4-foot-wide, rickety wooden boardwalk that had been attached to the eastbound shoulder of the Route 422 bridge. The new foot-power-only structure is 14 feet wide.

The boardwalk, too narrow to allow two cyclists to pass each other in opposite directions, was originally designated as a temporary replacement when the deteriorated Betzwood Bridge was demolished in 1995. "Temporary" turned out to be 20 years.

"It was nobody's idea of a good time to get across that thing," said David Engel, a Center City financial adviser who lives in West Philadelphia. "Anybody who was using it and then suddenly got to ride across Sullivan's Bridge experienced the same elation that I did."

Completing the recently opened trio of traffic-free, trail-connecting Schuylkill crossings is the rehabbed $5 million Pencoyd Bridge, a serene, pale-green beauty between Manayunk and Lower Merion, a mile downriver from the Manayunk Bridge. The Pencoyd and its adjoining trail and public gathering space were privately funded for public use by the developer O'Neill Properties Group in exchange for township permission to build 278 riverside Royal Athena rental apartments on the former Pencoyd Iron Works site in Bala Cynwyd.

The Penn Real Estate Group now plans to develop two hotels (more than 250 rooms) and a café on the former Pencoyd Iron Works site.

Chris Leswing, Lower Merion Township's assistant director of building and planning, helped negotiate public use of the privately funded Pencoyd Bridge and trail. He said he was delighted but not surprised by how a new riverside recreation asset is stimulating development on the former industrial site.

Leswing, who cut his community-building teeth turning West Philadelphia's Clark Park from a drug-infested wasteland into a neighborhood jewel, hiked two miles along abandoned SEPTA tracks in 2005 from Cynwyd station to the Manayunk Bridge and across the Schuylkill into Manayunk, ate lunch, walked back.

By 2011, Lower Merion's tireless terrier for trails had walked the walk with every government official he could find, and saw the charming Cynwyd Heritage Trail arise from the 30,000 hours that community volunteers spent clearing dumped bullet-riddled cars, decaying mattresses, and construction debris.

Montgomery County contributed $1.7 million; the township and the state, a combined $1.8 million.

Today, Leswing sees the Pencoyd Bridge as another vital piece in the region's trail-happy renaissance. During a recent tour of the Cynwyd Heritage Trail, which connects to trails running through parklike West Laurel Hill Cemetery, he pointed out a long-closed gate on Righters Ferry Road that Lower Merion Township worked with the cemetery to reopen.

Seems like a small thing, he said, but it isn't. "The open gate creates a loop between the Manayunk Bridge and Pencoyd Bridge, using Main Street Manayunk, trails in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, and the Cynwyd Trail," Leswing said.

Engel, the West Philly cyclist, agreed. "The real appeal for the Pencoyd Bridge is the West Laurel Hill Cemetery, a beautiful little treasure with the single best headstone anywhere in the United States," he said.

"When you ride through the cemetery from the Cynwyd Heritage Trail, you come to the Spain family headstone, and the charm is in the epitaph: 'SPAIN. Cocktails at six.' I saw that and I thought, 'Yes! I will never write an epitaph that good.' "

Leswing said he was so taken with the headstone, he honored it one night by literally stopping there to have cocktails at 6.

Engel is one of thousands of cyclists who ride hundreds of miles a week on bridge-and-trail connections sparked by visionaries like Leswing.

"In 2010, I picked up my Specialized Rockhopper mountain bike from graduate school and went for a ride and discovered the Schuylkill Banks," Engel said. "Next thing I knew, I rode out to Valley Forge and had to take a nap on a picnic table there because I had completely overdone it."

Seven years later, he acknowledged, he's addicted to long-distance trail cycling. "My enjoyment of cycling is kind of the ordeal of it," Engel said. "After about 40 miles, I start to lose myself in a zenlike state. My worries about work fall away and I get into the rhythm of riding. I'm really an extreme case by now."

When he's not riding from Philadelphia to Canada, as he did last Labor Day, or from Philly to Kittery, Maine, as he did last month, Engel cycles the long, scenic loops created by the Manayunk, Sullivan's, and Pencoyd Bridges. Since 2015, the three new Schuylkill bridges have created a trail-connections paradise for legions of foot-powered folks, feeling the car-free power of bikes and sneakers.