The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Local News

July 18, 2012

A gem in the city

River tour shows need for full Indian Trails Park access

A few hundred yards from where Mark Winchell, executive director of the Ashtabula County Convention and Visitors Bureau, paused to gingerly catch a crayfish, a bank teller was busy counting a deposit, a furniture salesman was trying to close a sale and the Ashtabula Fire Department was rolling a unit, siren blaring.

In the Ashtabula River valley just below Main Avenue, however, the loudest noise was the gurgle of a water-starved stream winding toward Ashtabula Harbor and the single blast of a diesel locomotive horn as the engines and cars crept onto the iron bridge.

Farther north along the river valley, Cleveland Museum of Natural History botanist James Bissell paused to take clippings from a shrub with deep red blossoms. Pretty in a front yard, vibernum has no place in a wild area like Indian Trails Park, where it is considered an invasive species.

“This is not a good thing,” Bissell said, stuffing a branch into his collecting bag and jotting a few notes about the location in a small notebook.

A quarter of a mile farther south, Mike Wayman, chairman of the Ashtabula Park Commission, led a group of hikers toward the Spring Street Bridge, the first scheduled stop on a tour of Indian Trails Park. The tour left from the parking area at Tannery Hill and, for those with the stamina and interest, would continue to the Smolen-Gulf Bridge, then back to the parking area and north to the West 24th Street Bridge.

The hike was expected to take at least 3.5 hours, more if the walkers paused for sightseeing and discussion, which were, after all, the raison d’être for the excursion. Wayman said it has been a while since the commission hosted a walk through Indian Trails, and thus he and others with an interest in improving access decided to host the event Tuesday morning.

A second walk, along the same four-mile stretch of park land, is planned for Saturday. It leaves at 10 a.m. from the Tannery Hill parking lot. Wear shoes that can get wet and allow four hours for the grand tour.

Tuesday’s hike was attended by a number of regional natural history experts, including Bissell and several other naturalists associated with the museum, plus Matthew Smith of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Scenic River Program.

Smith said the river was designated an Ohio Scenic River in 2008. The designation gives the river a “higher level of protection,” Smith said. It does not infringe upon the rights of private property owners, but it does give the river’s advisory council some authority over public projects affecting the stream.

If Wayman and the other commissioners had the money, there would be a number of those projects under way. Prior to departing on the hike, Wayman displayed the circa 1936 plans that the Civilian Conservation Corps drew up for the park’s development. Time and neglect have claimed many of the improvements those young men made in the 1930s, but the vision of an improved trail remains.

Specifically, a covered bridge to carry pedestrian traffic across the river would be built under the Smolen-Gulf Covered Bridge. The proposed bridge would stand where the old iron bridge once was; the bridge had to be removed to facilitate construction of the Smolen-Gulf Bridge.

Wayman said the commission hopes to receive a Clean Ohio Grant to construct the bridge next year. He said the bridge, number 19 for the county, will help boost tourism. It would connect the 3,000-foot paved hiking trial to a 30-space parking lot on the opposite side of the river.

Because of the way the river hugs the steep banks at different points in its journey through Indian Trails, at least four other pedestrian bridges would be needed to make the 405-acre park fully accessible. Numerous culverts and smaller crossings would have to be built, as well. A comprehensive plan for the trail has been developed.

Wayman said the commission acquired the first parcel of what would become Indian Trails in 1908. The park commission’s most recent acquisition in the gulf was at West 24th Street, 37 acres that will be developed into a wetlands with primitive river access. That land was purchased with Natural Resource Damage funds associated with the Fields Brook cleanup effort.

Wayman said the really outstanding feature of the gulf is the riparian forest buffer between the river and the populated areas. The forest filters out the storm water and helps keep the river worthy of its “scenic” status all the way to West 24th Street.

This forest has been the site of the annual Botany Challenge for area high school students, and Wayman said one of challenge’s participants expressed in an essay what is sadly true for most residents.

“She said she drove across the Route 20 viaduct many times and never knew what was down there,” he said.

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