By Jean Shanley
Special to the Tribune
Ready for a long walk on the Ernst Trail — a really long walk?
Work is progressing on plans to extend Ernst Trail to Meadville’s Bicentennial Park (and possibly as far as the Allegheny College campus) from the trail’s east end, and all the way to Conneaut Lake Park on the other side — creating a new total of more than 11 miles for bikers and hikers to enjoy.
Dick Eglinton, a recent president of Ernst Trail Board of Directors and still active in trail operations, said plans now are in the works to connect the trail to Bicentennial Park, just off Mead Avenue in Meadville. He hopes work can start next spring and continue, piece by piece, until that part of the project is done. Options also being explored are to then connect that part of the trail to Allegheny College or other sites in Meadville.
Based in Vernon Township just west of Meadville, the trail currently is five miles long, starting at the trailhead at Bean’s Auto on Route 322 near the Park Avenue Plaza and winding to Mercer Pike and then Krider Road. Exact numbers of users are not logged, but Ernst board members know the trail is popular and has been well-used in recent years.
Work on the trail’s most recent construction project, to Bailey Road, has been postponed until spring because remnants from Hurricane Sandy made the grounds too wet for work, then winter weather arrived.
Also being developed is a “Sharing the Road” plan — for extending the bike trail with help of its adjacent communities — to South Watson Run Road and to Vernon Road in Vernon Township, then proceeding to the area of Lake View Ford Sales just outside Conneaut Lake Borough.
Plans have been discussed for a couple of years to connect with the Conneaut Lake community, and possibly eventually stretching to Conneaut Lake Park.
As far back as 2003, ideas were discussed for extending the trail in those two directions — to Meadville and Conneaut Lake — making the hiking-biking trail 11 miles long.
Eglinton said meetings were held with a Conneaut Lake group a year ago to discuss the idea, which hopefully will happen “sooner than later,” he added. At the present time, however, plans are moving for the extension to Meadville with some private money and other funding available for that effort.
A previous grant from Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for $500,000 took the trial to Bailey Road, between Brown Hill Road and a swampy area which used to be a duck farm, and then to South Watson Road, Eglinton aid.
A grant of $92,000 received about 12 years ago paid for five miles of paving from Bean’s Auto to Route 19 near Krider Road, and other funds had to be raised through foundations and other support.
How it all began
Ernst Trail was originally started when area businessman Calvin Ernst bought an old railroad bed and gave an easement for the establishment of the bike and hike trail. Other people owning land also gave easements along Route 19 for the trail. Guided by the group French Creek Recreation Trail, work on the Ernst Trail started in 1995, but it was not open until 1998, Eglinton said.
Some of the preservation work on the trail now is paid for with a special fund set up to honor Tom McNally, one of the trail’s “founding fathers.” McNally, who died in 2008 at age 57, was a driving force behind the trail’s constant improvements, and he was instrumental in guiding the trail to its current success and popularity.
Although the Share the Road to Conneaut Lake project is one in which plans are to extend the trail to the west, the exact location of the trail has not been determined, according to information provided at a recent Conneaut Lake Borough Council meeting.
Plans for the Meadville connector were scheduled to be presented to Department of Environmental Protection officials this month for their review.
Dick Holabaugh, chairman of Conneaut Lake Borough Council, expressed the wish that perhaps a bird-watching area could be designated because he knows there are many bird watchers in the area.
Eglinton said he knows there are eagle nests in the state game lands there, and he hopes the trail could extend through that area.
Ed Yates, president of Conneaut Lake Community Development Committee, said at the council meeting that John Grossman, president of EG and G, which is handling the work of revitalizing Conneaut Lake Borough, had met with Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and was very receptive to the idea of bike trails in the borough.
However, it was emphasized that all the Conneaut Lake plans are tentative, and no work is expected to begin before 2014.