For years, the levee along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, while protecting them, also separated the river from the people living along its banks.
On Thursday, ground was broken for the Susquehanna RiverWalk and Timber Trail, a $2.3 million project designed to reconnect the river with the people.
The ceremony marked the beginning of construction on the project which, when completed later this year, will include a four-mile paved pedestrian loop on the levee along both sides of the river between the Market Street and Maynard Street bridges, plus a connection to a bikeway in Loyalsock Township via Commerce Park Drive.
Mark Murawski, Lycoming County transportation planner, speaks of the RiverWalk during the ground-breaking for the 4-mile walk near the Basin Street pumping station Thursday.
County transportation planner and project coordinator Mark Murawski said the river walk will be "a fountain of youth" by providing area residents with new recreational opportunities.
"We'll all be able to stay young by getting up here and being healthy," Murawski said.
The project includes a paved pathway on top of the levee and sidewalks and access ramps on the bridges.
The Timber Trail includes interpretive signs detailing the area's lumber heritage, park benches, trash cans and recycling receptacles.
A focal point of the trail will be a life-sized sculpture of a "wood hick" - or lumber camp worker - created by Muncy artist Pam Madia Barner, who attended the ceremony. The sculpture will be located near the Market Street bridge access ramp on the north side of the river.
A model of the sculpture was displayed at the ceremony, along with project maps and examples of interpretive signs.
According to Murawski, the trail will provide other members of the local art community with an opportunity to display their work, as well.
Prior to the groundbreaking, an array of speakers came forward to talk about the project. Nearly all of them mentioned the partnerships forged to develop the project.
Partners included the city, county, Borough of South Williamsport, Loyalsock Township, state and federal agencies, Williamsport-Lycoming Community Foundation, Williamsport-Lycoming Chamber of Commerce, Lumber Heritage Region and many local citizens and businesses.
"This would not be possible without partnerships," Wes Farhinger, state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources regional adviser for the Bureau of Recreation and Conservation, said
The river was a "signature part of our history," yet today it is separated from the city by the levee and a "man-made wall of concrete made for cars," Farhinger said.
The RiverWalk and Timber Trail will allow people to reconnect with the river and celebrate those who helped forge the area's history, Farhinger said.
South Williamsport Borough Councilman Jeffrey Neyhart talked about the borough's initiative to expand the trail on the south side of the river by adding a tributary trail along Charles Street to the borough's municipal park.
Commissioner Rebecca A. Burke said the ceremony capped a 10-year planning effort by the county.
Burke paid tribute to former commissioner and current county Planning Commission member Joseph Neyhart, who was among those who helped initiate the project.
Murawski credited county community development planner Rachelle Ricotta for spearheading the Timber Trail portion of the project.
"If Rachelle didn't exist, all you'd get is the River Walk, which is the same thing but without the Timber Trail," Murawski said.
The Timber Trail was funded, in large part, by the Lumber Heritage Region.
Michael Wennin, executive director of the Lumber Heritage Region, said the project will play an important role in telling the story of the river's history. That is all the more important because Williamsport is the gateway to the 15-county Lumber Heritage Region, Wennin said.
"It's one more piece of the puzzle we're trying to put together for the (region)," he said.
Patty Barthel, community relations representative for Waste Management, presented Ricotta with a $5,000 Waste Management/Keep America Beautiful Target City Award to be used for trash and recycling bins along the Timber Trail.
Construction is expected to begin within days and should be completed by late fall, according to Murawski.