Deb Esia got involved with the Montour Trail 26 years ago.
“I’m an outdoors person, and I just thought it was a great idea to repurpose the property,” said Esia, 58, of Joffre. “Because I was a runner, it appealed to me because I could go out and practice training for marathons.”
Esia said she’s since scaled back to half-marathons and remains a committed volunteer. The trail system, meanwhile, has grown enough to earn attention from Harrisburg. The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources named the 63-mile trail system the 2017 Trail of the Year. The designation, in its fourth year, is granted by the agency’s Trails Advisory Committee, whose job is to promote the thousands of miles of public trails in Pennsylvania.
In a statement last week announcing the designation, DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn cited “a history of support dating back to the 1980s, annual user numbers surpassing 400,000 and a strong volunteer network” among the reasons for recognizing the trail system.
The agency noted the Montour Trail, which occupies the former right of way of the Montour Railroad and Peters Creek Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad between Clairton and Moon Township, is one of the oldest “rails-to-trails” ventures in the country.
“Length, vareity of terrain, and a rich history all emerge to show why the Montour Trail has helped Pennsylvania as a national leader in the rail-trail concept,” Dunn said.
Work began on the Montour Trail in 1989.
Additional sections connecting existing portions of the trail system, which is mostly surfaced with crushed limestone, are scheduled to go into construction this year.
“It is not only suitable for local people to jump on it and do a few miles out and back,” said Ned Williams, president of the Montour Trail Council. “This provides a real link around Pittsburgh to tie into the Great Allegheny Passage” – part of the more-than-330-mile trail from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.
Esia, president of the Fort Cherry Friends of the Trail – one of six volunteer “friends” groups that do most of the maintenance on their respective sections of trail – said the system is “fairly level” because of its route along former rail lines.
Williams, 65, of Washington, said the flatness of the trail “really opens it up just about everyone. I used to do a lot of road biking, and the roads around here are hilly.”