Mike Weilbacher, executive director of Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, speaks at the official opening of the River Trail Gateway on Sept. 26. In the background from the left is Sarah Clarke Stuart, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition, Kay Sykora and Tim Szuhaj, president of the board at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

by Sue Ann Rybak

For years bicyclists, joggers and hikers using the Schuylkill River Trail, which currently spans 60 miles (with a planned length of 130 miles), passed by the small faded sign that marked the path leading to the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. A rusted vine-encrusted 8-foot chain link fence barricaded the path and hid one of the few remaining streams that flow unimpeded into the Schuylkill River.

Thanks to a grant from the William Penn Foundation, the River Trail Gateway now connects the Schuylkill River Trail to the Schuylkill Center and its four-mile trail network.

Representatives from the William Penn Foundation, Schuylkill Center, PECO and members of the Circuit Coalition formally opened the trail connector on Sept. 28 with a “vine cutting.”

“The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education has been here for more than 50 years and most of that time we have essentially been sitting on top of the Schuylkill River Trail,” said Mike Weilbacher, executive director of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. “The River Trail is kind of the backbone of the whole Circuit Trail, so we wanted to put an entrance on the circuit that lets people know we are here.”

The Circuit currently includes more than 320 miles of completed multi-use trails with a vision of more than 800 miles of interconnected trails across the region.

The new gateway features signage identifying the Schuylkill Center, a large trail map detailing the center’s four-mile trail system which features streams, meadows, forests, ponds and ravines, a bike rack, funded by a grant from REI, an overlook of Smith Run, a small stream on the center’s property that flows directly into the Schuylkill, a native plants garden, steel I-beams and cobblestones framed by railroad tracks.

Weilbacher said the steel I-beams arranged at various angles were “designed as something as a poetic illusion to the industrial history” of the site. He said the Pennsylvania Railroad “once chugged along this River Trail so the River Trail is one of the thousands of Rail to Trail stories across the country.”

Sarah Clarke Stuart, chairperson of the Circuit Trails Coalition and executive director of Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, said the William Penn Foundation has been critical in helping the Circuit Trails Coalition close gaps in regional trails.

“I am struck by how beautiful this gateway is and for those of you who may not know, The Circuit is the region’s trail network,” she said. “It covers nine counties in southeast Pennsylvania and South Jersey. It is the primary way for bicycles and pedestrians to circulate to the entire region. And the Circuit connects people to jobs, to communities, to nature and to natural resources.”

Stuart said the River Trail Gateway project is “just the kind of thing that we need more of for the Circuit and for the region.” She said trails like the Schuylkill River Trail “connect us to the wonderful jewels and resources that our region offers us.”

She added the trail system was built “to help bring and connect people to natural resources … so we can really enjoy and appreciate these public amenities.”

Tim Szuhaj, president of the board at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, said at the opening that the project, designed by the Manayunk-based Viridian Landscape Studio, was completed in “almost record time.” He added that getting the project “from concept to opening day” was truly remarkable and a real testament to teamwork and collaboration with the city and others.”

“The board has spent a lot of time on the Master Plan to bring …our learning center and other aspects of our facility into the 21st century,” he said. “This project was a key component of that master plan.”

Andrew Johnson, director of the William Penn Foundation Watershed Protection Program, explained why the organization funds trails as part of the Watershed Protection Program.

“[The William Penn Foundation] We are very committed to increasing public access to the Delaware River Watershed and parallel to that is ensuring that there is a pipeline … of opportunities to learn at environmental centers about the value of water,” he said.

Johnson added that this project was “emblematic of what the William Penn Foundation is trying to do and the 23 nature centers that are both on the trail network and a waterway.”

In a press release, Johnson said the Circuit helps to “foster critical connections between communities, and bring people closer to our rivers and streams.”

“We are proud to collaborate with key organizations in the work of completing the full system of trails,” Johnson said.