KERRTOWN — A new bridge will carry walkers, bikers and with enough snow, skiers across a stretch of the Ernst Trail.
The Ernst Trail will now connect travelers to Kerrtown's Mary Gable Park, a wide lawn for picnics, events and games. The bridge weighs in at 8.3 tons, according to Peter Oven, an engineer and board member with nonprofit French Creek Recreational Trails.
A massive crane was brought to the wooded area behind the Smucker's pet food plant to lift the bridge and place it on massive concrete blocks. The bridge provides a way over a man-made drain that feeds into French Creek.
The Ernst Trail was founded when Calvin Ernst, owner of the former Bessemer & Lake Erie Railroad Co. right-of-way, donated the property to the trail group in 1996. At one time, the railroad was regularly used for passenger trips to what is now Conneaut Lake Park.
The haF.AST Dirtworks crew, led by Erik Kulasa, began work at 9 a.m. Thursday. By 3 p.m., it was finished placing and securing the bridge and grading dirt and gravel to allow passage. Roads were installed by Ralph Hunter on each side of the bridge a few months prior, and Oven maintained that section of the trail would remain gravel "for the foreseeable future."
The bridge has been over a year and a half in the planning and permitting process with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), according to Oven. He mentioned pipe for the drain was proposed, but DEP was not keen to approve the amount of dirt needed to fill in the ditch around the pipe. ADM Welding in Warren fabricated the bridge, which cost French Creek Recreational Trails about $50,000.
Oven also said Vernon Township has been a partner with the extension of the Ernst Trail and that the trail group has enough grant funding to add gravel to the section of the trail that winds through a major portion of the township, under Smock Bridge, behind Hoss’s restaurant and to Bean’s Auto Service. To follow the grant's procedures, the gravel construction would have to go out to bid, which Oven said would keep the project to later this year or possibly in the spring.
"(The township has) been very cooperative," Oven said. "They are basically getting a free trail. They’ve been supportive in talking to the neighbors, making sure they’ve been onboard with the project. They gave us free land through their park to build our trail."
Future plans discussed by Oven included using the Poplar Street Bridge to get trail users over Mill Run and into Bicentennial Park in Meadville, a long-held goal of the group. While he said the city was supportive of such a plan, the trail group had yet to go through the design or permitting process.
A temporary bridge behind Hoss's also must be replaced after the original span was destroyed by the 2018 ice jam. Brenda Costa, executive director of the French Creek Valley Conservancy, said it had granted the trails group an easement to build on properties the nonprofit conservation organization owns behind Hoss's and supported the recreational mission. She also said they were in the "very early stages" on future plans for expanding the trails.
Ultimately, the trail group would eventually like the Ernst Trail to run from Meadville to Conneaut Lake, according to board member Scott Wissinger.
For now, Wissinger mentioned the multiple benefits to completing the trail from Bean's Auto to Mary Gable Park.
"There’s the recreational use for people in the city, there’s the history of French Creek for the city and it’s also for the people in Kerrtown," Wissinger said. "If they have to go out to any of the businesses, they walk along Pennsylvania Avenue. This would allow them to get to the plaza on a safe path."
Still, the next step continues to be connecting from Mary Gable Park to Bicentennial Park, according to Wissinger and Oven. Wissinger cited the need for a starting point within the city as a way to increase usage from families and tie it to the park's history.
"The city of Meadville is a goal for us," Oven said. "It’s important that Meadville succeeds — and not just the townships around it. Having the trail start and the locus there is important to the whole region."
Tyler Dague can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.