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OPINION: Rails-to-Trails – celebrating 30 years

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Ian Scott

Guest Opinion

It was great to read the "Trail blazers" coverage on June 3, and Bryson Guptill's, "A walk around P.E.I. The next big thing?" on June 6 – both in The Guardian, which both brought back rich memories of the early efforts to secure the abandoned rail lands in public hands for trail conversion.

It was Aug. 3, 1989 – 30 years ago that Rails-to-Trails was born at a meeting Gordon MacQueen and I organized with Ron Hately as primary guest speaker. Gordon knew Ron, a cyclist, who had travelled the Cape Cod Rail Trail. I knew Don and Florence Deacon, who were international hikers. Gordon and I were keen to do the leg work but knew we needed someone with Deacon's seasoned ability within the political realm. Retired from municipal and provincial politics in Ontario but full of energy, he was careful about which new causes he would embrace. I pitched the idea to him, and after talking with Florence, he agreed to a plan where I would volunteer as secretary and Gordon as treasurer if he would accept nomination as chairman. We asked him to also speak about their recent hiking tour in England. Ernie Morello had just completed a major plan for government called Charlottetown Routes for Health & Nature, which included rail lands in Charlottetown. He agreed to be our third speaker.

Gordon was action oriented and arrived at the meeting with a cash box and receipt book declaring that "we better sign people up when they arrive." He deposited his own $10 bill into the cash box to become the founding member of an organization that didn't yet exist, and continued signing up members arriving at the public meeting. With the three speakers and the election of an interim board, the evening was a huge success; although we eventually learned that a number of the people at the meeting would make their own case for private ownership of the rail land by adjacent land owners.

Harry Holman joined the board, and as an historian, knew the historical significance of the P.E.I. Railway. He developed the slide show that guest speakers would take across the Island to make a case for preservation of the railway lands and creating a new resource. Dean Shaw likewise joined the first board and provided his office boardroom for meetings, drafted documents to register the organization, and with Gordon MacQueen, was a keen salesperson for memberships. Within 19 days memberships in the fledgling organization reached 140.

A presentation by Harry Holman called P.E.I. Railway Past & Present in September raised membership to 200 and the show was on the road: Summerside, Kensington and Montague. A newsletter kept people informed and meetings with government led to the desired response where the province bought the land for a linear park which they administered while continuing to work with volunteer organizations and municipalities. Doug Murray, a civil servant, led the process taking it from a tangled mess of old spikes and rough gravel into a smooth trail bed with interpretative panels and services at the various trail heads across the province. Even retirement has not stopped him from continuing to expand the system into spur lines that connected Stratford to Murray River in recent years. A project that has included many levels of government and many volunteers, the Confederation Trail remains an example of the importance of co-operation to realize a dream. Similar resources in elsewhere that remain undeveloped are evidence our model works well.

Congratulations to everyone who continues to dream of new trails and kudos to Bryson Guptill for his vision of a 700-kilometre trail around the Island, placing us in the league of other international hiking and cycling destinations.

As we approach the 30th anniversary date this summer, I recall Don Deacon's towering stature with his helmet rising above any vehicular traffic as he biked around the city from his Water Street home, and the ever jovial Gordon MacQueen in his final years telling me how his morning walk on the Confederation Trail before the city awoke was a wonderful tonic to start each day. Not only were they each believers in building dreams for others, they both knew the personal value of making use of these trails. To all the dreamers, and to those continuing to advance the cause, Happy Trails.

Ian Scott is a trails advocate and craftsperson in Charlottetown.

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