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Rail Trail incomplete after a decade

October 12, 2008
By RODNEY MINOR, The Leader-Herald

It has been about 10 years since the first section of the Fonda, Johnstown & Gloversville Rail Trail was opened to the public. In that time, it has become a popular place for people to bicycle, rollerblade or just enjoy a little bit of "greenspace" in the midst of civilization.

While the original plan for the trail called for it to run from Fonda to Broadalbin, via the Glove Cities, that has not yet come to fruition.

Gloversville City Court Judge Vincent DeSantis said even if the trail is never completed, it still is an asset for all of Fulton County.

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan
The Rail Trail and the wooden bridge near Foster Street in Gloversville where Raymond Pike was murdered is seen Thursday.

"It's beautiful," he said about the Rail Trail. "If nothing else is done, it would still be a big plus."

DeSantis, who also has been working in Johnstown as the county Family Court judge for several months, said he rides his bike on the trail to and from work. The trip gives him about one hour or so every day to appreciate what the trail currently provides, and what it could mean for the future of the community.

When DeSantis takes his bike to work, he is riding along one of two completed sections of the trail.

James E. Mraz, director of the Fulton County Planning Department, said one section runs about 9 miles from the southern end of the city of Johnstown, through Gloversville, and out to Dennies Crossing at the border of the towns. The other starts near Vail Mills and goes less than 2 miles before terminating near Second Avenue in Broadalbin.

That leaves two undeveloped portions of the originally proposed trail. The southern end of the trail should terminate in the village of Fonda, near the Erie Canal trail system.

The trail should also run from Dennies Crossing, along the old FJ&G Railroad path, to Vail Mills.

"The primary challenge now is finding money [to do the work]," Mraz said.

A notable amount of the money that has been spent on developing the trail, roughly 80 percent, already has come in the form of government grants.

Since Fulton County received the first grant for the project back in 1996, about $1.25 million in grant money has come in for the project and related ones, such as the construction of the Fulton County Visitors Center.

However, Mraz said given the status of the economy and the state's budget situation, grant money might not be reliable. That complicates completing the trail, he said, because the plan from the start has been to use grant money to pay for the bulk of the work.

What already has been completed is popular, though.

Allison Swartz, director of tourism development for the Fulton County Regional Chamber of Commerce & Industry, said from the spring through the fall people regularly come to the area to use the trail. She noted the chamber and the Glove Cities have continued to promote the trail, because people who use the path tend to visit local businesses, as well.

"Ultimately, I think we all would love to see a whole, complete trail," Swartz said.

DeSantis was one of the early supporters of the Rail Trail, and he said although it is not yet the 18-mile trail that was planned, it is already delivering some of the benefits supporters hoped for.

#Across the nation many people have tried using bicycles for transportation instead of gasoline-powered vehicles. DeSantis said the trail plays right into that. As more people become comfortable with the idea of riding a bicycle to and from various tasks -work, grocery shopping - the more use the trail will receive, he said.

The Rail Trail not only beautifies the areas it runs through, DeSantis said, it can also provide recreation to a wide-variety of people.

While motor vehicles are not allowed on the trail, virtually everything else - bicycles, walkers, roller skates, etc. - is.

"It's very pleasant to use [the trail]," DeSantis said. "I also see many other people using it as well."

Wally Hart, the president of the county chamber of commerce, said the Rail Trail is the type of feature that enhances the quality of life for the people who live in, and those who are just visiting, the county.

"It gives people another reason to come here," he said.

However, some people say the Rail Trail has become a highway for crime.

While acts of vandalism have been reported near the trail, the concern reached a peak when a Gloversville man was stabbed to death in August.

But Gloversville Police Capt. James Lorenzoni said the alleged murder was an aberration.

"The trail is no more dangerous than any other section of the city," he said.

The typical calls officers deal with on the trail itself - suspicious person, disorderly conduct, underage drinking - generally do not involve violence either, he said.

Lorenzoni said given the number of people who use the Rail Trail per day, it probably generates fewer calls per person than any other part of the city.

Marianne Sanderson, who has operated Mariannes Too in Gloversville for eight years, said the trail helps her business. People who use the trail routinely stop and visit the store, at the intersection of Bleecker Street and Eighth Avenue, to get a drink or some food, she said.

While the business has been vandalized, Sanderson said that is a problem businesses throughout the city deal with.

"Any of [the store's] problems are not related to the Rail Trail," she said. "I see it as a plus."

DeSantis said some people might have the impression the trail is dangerous because parts of it can make travelers feel like "they are pretty much in the woods."

The concern is that if help is needed, it might be a long way off, he said.

However, DeSantis noted other public places - the parks, the sports fields - generate the same concerns.

"Will we stop having public amenities because of the possibility a crime might occur?" he asked.

The issue of public versus private property actually is part of the reason the trail is not complete.

The 9-foot-wide strip of asphalt pavement that forms the ground of the trail literally runs on top of the old railroad bed that belonged to the FJ&G.

The railroad was created in 1867, and its first engine pulled into a terminal in Gloversville three years later.

By 1903, the FJ&G had expanded far from its original track, stretching from Northville to Schenectady.

The company in fact created its own tourist destination in the amusement area known as Sacandaga Park. That park already was on the decline when the Hudson River-Black River Regulating District won its lawsuit with FJ&G to complete the Sacandaga Reservoir project in 1930.

Other factors contributed to its decline, including, after World War I, competition from the automobile.

By 1974, what remained of the FJ&G was sold to the Delaware & Otsego System.

The company continued running freight trains for another 10 years, but eventually sought to abandon the strip of land the Rail Trail was later planned for.

The Glove Cities exercised their preferential rights to the land in the early 1990s, and acquired the right of way from Dennies Crossing to Fonda.

Both cities subsequently adopted agreements stipulating they would maintain their sections of trail, and Fulton County agreed to do the same for the other parts of the trail.

However, the as-yet unfinished section of the trail between Dennies Crossing and Vail Mills was not publicly acquired.

The stretch of land was subsequently divided up and sold to six different property owners, which of course entitled them to the right-of-way.

When the plans for the Rail Trail were announced, a couple of the owners made it known they would not allow even non-motorized traffic to go through their property. They had concerns about possible crime, littering and liability issues.

Mraz said it would be best if the land can be purchased from the current owners and the trail can continue along the former railroad bed.

While staying along the former railroad tracks adds some historical value, it could also save the county money compared to going off the former train path.

Not only does the old railroad bed provide an almost perfect foundation for a trail, Mraz said, when the FJ&G railroad laid its track down it dealt with the various construction difficulties generated by the wetlands, ravines and hills in the area. In many cases, they just avoided them entirely, he said.

"If we deviate from the [railroad] path, it will generate more construction," he said. "More construction means more money will be needed to do the work."

Getting the trail from the city of Johnstown down to Fonda could also be complicated, but in a different way.

While the right-of-way is owned by the city, some people may have a problem with money from Fulton County being spent to do work in Montgomery County, he said.

However, despite those difficulties the plan is still to complete the original proposal for the trail, stretching about 18-miles from Fonda to Broadalbin.

There is no timeline to complete the work by, Mraz said, as the## funding and other issues will determine when the work is completed.

DeSantis said if the trail can be constructed as planned years ago, it would be even more of a benefit to the area.

"I definitely think it is a tremendous asset," he said. "But it has still not reached its full-potential."

Rodney Minor covers Gloversville. He can be reached at



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