Story by Danielle Breault Stuebing
When the community gathered last October to open the Rotary (1918) Centennial Hub, the section of trail which connects the Town of Tecumseh, Town of LaSalle, and Herb Gray Parkway trail systems with the Chrysler Canada Greenway, it was celebration that was over 20 years in the making.
The effort started in 1994, when the Essex Region Conservation Authority (ERCA) began discussions with the Canadian Southern Railway Company (CSX) to purchase an abandoned line running from Oldcastle to Kingsville.
This rail line had a rich history. It was created by industrialist Hiram Walker in the late 1800s as a means of efficiently delivering freight and farm products and to provide transportation to his summer home in Kingsville. Walker eventually incorporated it as the Lake Erie, Essex and Detroit River Railway. At its opening, the line went south from Walkerville to Harrow and then east to within four miles of Leamington. The eastern terminus for passenger traffic was Ruthven.
After several changes in ownership, CSX took over the line in 1950 but abandoned it in 1991. In 1995, with $500,000 raised through the Essex Region Conservation Foundation, a 42 kilometre section from Oldcastle to Harrow and Ruthven was purchased.
A summer intern at the time, Richard Wyma’s job was to visit every neighbour along the rail line to hear any concerns from the landowners. “Farmers were worried about city people coming to the county and taking produce, trespassing on fields and generally just not respecting agricultural properties,” he recalls. “The rails-to-trails movement was still in its infancy so the Conservation Authority’s efforts to create a region-wide trail system were met with early resistance.”
However, after meeting each of the more than 350 adjacent landowners, Richard, who now serves as ERCA’s General Manager, notes that through environmental design such a planting rows of trees, creating berms and erecting fences, these concerns were addressed and the fears never came to pass. In the year 2000, the first 42 kilometres of what is now known as the Chrysler Canada Greenway was opened in honour of the new millennium. It also became the southern-most connection to the Trans Canada Trail.
“Experiencing our landscape on foot or by bike is very different than driving past in a car,” he says. “We know that in our fast-paced world we have to make purposeful efforts to connect with nature around us for our health and well-being. When you’re walking or cycling, you can stop to look at a particular leaf or marvel at the size of a tree, examine a tiny insect and hear the frogs and birds calling. Being engaged in your natural surroundings creates attachment to the space.”
John Chisholm, President and owner of Rose City Ford agrees. He took up cycling in earnest a few years ago, and reports that he’s become an enthusiast following his experiences on the local greenway trails. “Getting off the road and onto the trails gives you a sense of peace and quiet,” he reflects. “It allows you to connect with nature and with yourself.”
For the past number of years, John has been the top fundraiser for the annual Essex Region Bike Tour, a multi-level cycling event with routes ranging from 15K – 110K. “It’s so important to support these trails,” he says of his involvement. “You get a great appreciation for the natural beauty of our county, vegetation, forests, and the agriculture. It’s absolutely beautiful. Becoming immersed in nature, rather than just seeing it from the road is like being in the picture rather than just looking at it.”
In 2003, because of the community’s positive response to the Chrysler Canada Greenway trail, Canadian National donated an additional 26 kilometres of abandoned rail line to the Conservation Foundation, in hopes of replicating this success. ERCA and the Foundation got to work, raising funds to open the first few kilometres of trail in McGregor, a high-use area that created a safe passage for school children. Then, in 2017, thanks to a $250,000 investment from the Cypher Systems Group, Canada 150 funding, and $100,000 from each of the Towns of Essex and Amherstburg, the Cypher Systems Group Greenway, a multi-use trail that extends from the urban centre of Essex to the Town of Amherstburg and intersects with the Chrysler Canada Greenway in McGregor.
“The comments from the community were much different this time around,” Richard notes. “Rather than expressing hesitancy and concerns, people couldn’t wait until the trail was ready for use. People appreciated access and connection.” The greenways have also become a driver for real estate, with listings boasting their proximity to the trails.
There are countless studies documenting the economic and health benefits of having these types of trails accessible to our residents. The Ontario Trails Council estimates that trails contribute at least $1 billion each year to the Ontario economy. The Canadian Medical Association lauds the benefits of trail accessibility, noting a 10% increase in physical activity could reduce direct health-care expenditures by $150 million each year.
Across the region, municipalities are also investing in trails. In both Kingsville and Leamington, the towns have created connections and extensions to the greenway trails. The City of Windsor and the county-wide active transportation system, known as CWATS, make significant efforts to provide pathways, trails and widened paved bike lanes to encourage residents to ‘walk, ride – county wide’ through a regional committee at planners who implement this vision.
“If you build it, they will come,” promises Geno Wendland, long-time member and past president of the East Side Riders Cycling Club, the largest cycling club in our region. “The new Cypher Systems Group Greenway from Essex to Amherstburg has been amazing,” he enthuses. “We’ll start riding in Windsor, have coffee and lunch in Amherstburg, the head back through Essex.”
And it’s not just the hard-core cyclists that utilize the trails, he notes. “Joggers, walkers, families with dogs and strollers and in some areas, equestrians can all enjoy easy access to beautiful nature trails in our own community – wonderful not just for cyclists but for families and everyone.”
John agrees wholeheartedly. “I want to shout out to everyone – take your kids, grab your bikes and get out,” he says. “Ride 5k, 10k, 50k or as far as you want to go. I want to support something that will last forever. Everyone can have a piece of this beauty.”
But, until recently there was a missing link to the long-term vision of a seamless connection between Windsor and the greenway system. Numerous alternatives were considered over the years. “Initial attempts to include a solution within the Highway 3 expansion were rejected as too unsafe,” Richard says. “When plans for the Herb Gray Parkway were taking shape, the idea started to gel. If on-road options were not going to work, could we investigate rear property options?” After initial discussions with the Town of Tecumseh proved very supportive of the concept, a number of parcels of property were obtained and the 3 kilometre section completed. And after two decades of dreaming of a region fully connected by trails, the completion of this section of trail turned that vision into a reality.
“This really shows us if we can dream big as a community and work together, we can make remarkable things happen,” he adds. “There are a lot of opportunities on the horizon which we are continuing to pursue in hopes of further expanding recreation and active transportation in our community.”