Rails to Trails celebrates new extensions, four miles of additional trail now open

7 min read6,050 views and 275 shares Posted September 20, 2019

This post has been updated with additional photographs from the day’s events, courtesy Song Kim of the Lebanon County Planning Department. A correction has also been made regarding Tom Kotay, who retired from transportation planning in 2016.

On Thursday, two recently-completed sections of the Lebanon Valley Rails to Trails (LVRT), in west Lebanon and southwest Jonestown, were officially opened for public use, marking a major community accomplishment for the county.

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The first ribbon cutting occurred at noon near the southern end of Union Canal Tunnel Park, and the second followed an hour later at a 1927-era iron bridge crossing the Swatara Creek near Jonestown.

The celebrations followed a meeting at the Lebanon City Municipal Building that morning updating and summarizing the status of the project, which began with five miles of trail opened back in 2000. Following the second cutting, the gathered ensemble of officials and onlookers paid a visit to the former site of the Inwood Iron Bridge, lifted off the river earlier this summer. The replacement bridge will connect a future segment of the LVRT to the current trails in Swatara State Park.

LVRT President John Wengert (center, with shears) alongside a number of officials poised to cut the ribbon at Phase 7. (Groh)
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Celebrating the ribbon cuttings were a multitude of county and local officials and representatives from LVRT, the Lebanon County Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

Among the 60 or so people in attendance were County Commissioners Bob Phillips, Jo Ellen Litz, and Bill Ames, City of Lebanon Mayor Sherry Capello, DCNR Deputy Secretary Lauren Imgrund, Project Manager Leona Barr of PennDOT District 8, and a number of other individuals associated with the project. LVRT President John Wengert and LVRT Board member Tom Kotay spoke, highlighting the work of the all-volunteer organization, as well as the many partnerships, funding, and cooperation from private and governmental sources.

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Silldorff only needed a little help getting up on the old-fashioned bike before he rode off into the sunny September day. (Groh)

After the ceremony, Friends of the Union Canal Tunnel Park member Pete Silldorff wowed onlookers with his restored 1874 penny-farthing bicycle, which he rode all the way to the end of the trail at Long Lane.

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The Union Canal segment, known as Phase 7 of the LVRT system, stretches around 1.8 miles from the trailhead at 25th Street and Hanford Drive to Long Lane. It runs along the southern edge of the Union Canal Tunnel Park, with several entrances branching into the park itself. A mixture of exposed and shaded trail, the route passes by several farms, private residences, and small ponds. Particularly noteworthy is the tunnel burrowing below Tunnel Hill Road, built for the project in 2017 by engineering company Wilson Consulting Group, PC and contractor J. D. Eckman, Inc. All told, Phase 7 took two years to build.

Following the second ribbon cutting, officials moved up north to check in on the former site of the Inwood Iron Bridge. (Song Kim)
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The second ceremony, in the Frog Hollow/Bunker Hill area southwest of Jonestown, took place an hour later at Phase 9 of the LVRT. Standing on the newly-redecked 152-foot iron bridge crossing the Swatara, Wengert and Kotay spoke again on the trail’s significance to the community. This section can be accessed from West Market Street by the Swatara Creek, and a small parking area can be found on the opposite bank.

Phase 9 runs around 1.7 miles from below Route 22 to a private road that leads out onto New Bunker Hill Street. It boasts a beautiful view from the trail’s bridge, along with small fields and woodland.

The complete map of trails throughout Lebanon and surrounding counties. Note that some details of the completion and progress of various segments are now outdated. Click here for a high-res image of the map that will open in a new tab. (LVRT)
A closeup of Phases 7, 8, 9, and 10. Phase 6, in red, is also in development. (LVRT)

The celebrations mark the latest of several milestones completed so far in 2019. LebTown reported in April on the updates for Phase 10 of the project (stretching from Jonestown to Lickdale) and LVRT’s North Cornwall Commons connection, and in July on the “soft opening” of Phase 7 (when the trail was unofficially opened for public use).

One of the next segments to see progress is what is technically referred to as Phase 9C. It’s at a tunnel below Route 22 at the start of Phase 10, the Jonestown-Lickdale segment still being worked on. Wengert’s especially eager to open this portion of trail, as it runs through lush woodlands and offers spectacular views of the surrounding landscape. Kotay referred to Phase 10 as “pristine… These are lands that most of us have never seen or walked on.” Part of Phase 10 runs along an old creek-side towpath.

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As for Phase 8, the major 2.8-mile segment connecting Phases 7 and 9, progress is slow but steady. According to Wengert, this section will be opened last, as there’s still much work to be done. When complete, Phase 8 will run from Long Lane at Phase 7 to the current southern end of Phase 9.

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The grand vision for the project is the eventual completion of all phases, thus creating a county-long pathway. “We are two steps closer to creating a trail that will stretch from Lancaster County all the way to Swatara State Park,” said Wengert.

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For eager trail enthusiasts, Thursday’s weather couldn’t have been better. See more photos below from the new sections.

Phase 7 (25th Street to Long Lane)

John Wengert and Tom Kotay speaking on the accomplishments of the LVRT and all its community partners. (Groh)
The 24-space trailhead at 25th Street and Hanford Drive, just behind the Lebanon Valley Mall. (Groh)
One of several entrances to the Union Canal Tunnel Park built into the trail. (Groh)
A cyclist passes below Tunnel Hill Road through the recently-constructed pedestrian tunnel. (Groh)
Past the tunnel, shady woodland continues to provide coverage over the trail. (Groh)
Nearing the end of Phase 7 and looking out onto some quiet fields. (Groh)
Looking across Long Lane to the opposite road. As the sign says, this road is “NOT THE TRAIL.” (Groh)

Phase 9 (West Market Street to Frog Hollow)

Kotay speaks to the assembled crowd near Jonestown. (Kim)
Close to the entrance at West Market Street in Jonestown. Another short stretch of trail begins on the other side of the road, and is planned to extend all the way into Swatara State Park. (Groh)
Though slightly shorter than its sister segment Phase 7, Phase 9 is no less beautiful. (Groh)
The newly-redecked iron bridge spanning the Swatara Creek. The bridge was originally built in 1927. (Groh)
A view from the bridge, looking west. This area is known for its bird population, and bald eagles have been spotted here numerous times. (Groh)
The opposite view, overlooking a rocky shore where the Swatara recedes into the woods. (Groh)
The trails are beginning to see the signs of fall approaching, and the forested areas will look stunning when the season arrives. (Groh)
The current end of Phase 9. Though this end doesn’t immediately connect to public roads, this area is roughly in the Frog Hollow/Bunker Hill region southwest of Jonestown. (Groh)

Looking for more about the Rail Trail? Here’s our previous coverage.

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