LEWISBURG - Friday morning's clear blue sky and gentle breeze provided the perfect backdrop for an announcement by Lewisburg Area Recreation Authority (LARA), more than seven years in the making.
"This is the day we can finally put all the rumors to rest," authority Executive Director Angela Zimmerman said. "LARA has acquired the West Shore Rail Road."
Nearly 12 miles of abandoned track from Montandon through Lewisburg to Mifflinburg now can begin the transformation from steel and wood to a safe trail for walkers, bicyclists and outdoor enthusiasts.
These rail tracks in Lewisburg are slated to become a rail trail.
Eric Winslow of the West Shore Rail Road says the company is ready “to hand the keys over” to the Lewisburg Area Recreational Authority. Behind him are the tracks and three aerial views of the proposed pedestrian and bicycle trail the authority plans to create on 11.8 miles of track from Montandon to Mifflinburg.
According to officials, the trail will provide an economic boost, tourist attraction and safe pedestrian trail to local businesses, schools and libraries as well as a history lesson.
"There're not many valleys around like this one," said Louis "Trey" Casimir, authority chairman.
The process of purchasing the rails began in December 2000, Casimir said. It was made possible in part by a $150,000 grant from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' Growing Greener II program to Union County.
There were times over the past seven years where the authority feared it never would be able to purchase the rail line, Zimmerman said.
"This was a very emotional decision for the shareholders of the West Shore Rail Road," said Eric Winslow, a representative of the rail company.
West Shore was created by a small group of private investors, hoping to preserve rail traffic on the line when Conrail abandoned it in 1983.
As of now, "there are no future prospects for rail traffic," Winslow said. The line has been silent since 1997.
"We know this was a very difficult decision for them to make ... We think they made the right decision," Casimir said of the rail company.
The authority is working under a federal program where, if there is a future need for rail traffic, the lines can be replaced because the bed has been preserved.
The first step in the authority's long-range plan for the trail is to have the steel reels removed and sold "for a good amount of money" to continue to fund the project, Casimir said.
"We have not even begun our technical plans," he added.
The removal of the lines will begin in the easiest locations first, and the trail will open to the public in phases.
"It's not going to happen overnight," Zimmerman told a crowd of about 50.
Artifacts recovered from removal of the line will be donated to local schools, nonprofit groups and historical societies, she said.
The authority hopes to place informational signs along the route.
According to Union County Commissioner John Showers, residents from across the area repeatedly have raised awareness of a need for trails.
"Citizens in every part of Union County have been telling us that they see value in trails of this kind," he said.
"Rail-trails in other Pennsylvania counties have proven to be worthy building blocks of economic development," Showers added, "boosting tourism and bolstering local property values by enhancing quality of life."