Bridge Over The Farmington

ENJOYING THE VIEW from the renovated bridge over the Farmington River in Farmington are Nancy Miceli, of Farmington, and her children, Danny, 7, right, and Thomas, 2. It's a nice path, a nice ride," Nancy Miceli said. The new bridge connects two segments of the Farmington Valley Greenway. (PATRICK RAYCRAFT)

Designers of the Farmington Valley Greenway hardly could be faulted for envisioning a simple, straightforward job in 1991; a few of them even figured the 22-mile Rails to Trails project would be completed by the late '90s.

After all, railroad workers had done the heavy lifting more than a century ago.

Surveyors had plotted a flat, direct route into dense woods, over hills and streams, across rivers, through farms and villages. An army of low-paid laborers then toiled for years to clear the path, build culverts and drainage ditches, put down a thick base of crushed gravel, and finally lay the rails that freight trains would use for decades.

So, converting the old right of way -- and an 8-mile spur from Farmington to Canton -- into a walkway and bikeway didn't seem too tough. With the old rail bed already in place, the Rails to Trails folks could simply tear up rotten wooden ties and put down asphalt.


Well, no.

In the 12 years since they began, Greenway advocates have hit enough obstacles to derail a string of freight cars. Clusters of homeowners and even businesses along the right-of-way fought the project, fearing it would invite vandalism, break-ins, litter and noisy parties. Simple grade crossings turned into safety concerns and logistics puzzles. Abandoned railroad bridges became money-eaters and bureaucratic quagmires.

And complications came steadily. Who would've expected that the route led through a washed-out river bank in Burlington, a high-security explosives factory in Simsbury, a sprawling nursery in East Granby that sprays pesticides near the trail, two hunting grounds and a dog-training field?

``Challenging'' didn't quite capture how tortuous the paperwork would be to coordinate efforts among a half-dozen towns, the state Department of Transportation and the federal government.

``We knew there were no major hills or valleys, but we forgot the hill of bureaucracy,'' conceded Stephen Noble of Simsbury, one of the earliest volunteers on the project.

``Back then I thought we'd have it done in five years,'' said Preston Reed of Farmington, who organized the initial campaign for the Suffield-to-Farmington trail. The year was 1991, and Reed had just retired at age 75 as a management professor at the Hartford Graduate Center.

``The railroads started giving up in the '70s and '80s, and were abandoning tracks right and left. People got the idea these would be wonderful resources to make linear parks and multi-use trails,'' Reed recalled. ``We've had delays. But it's going to go through.''


Noble shakes his head, smiles and offers the same response he gives bikers, skaters, runners and walkers who regularly ask him when the trail's fragmented sections finally will be linked. ``It's imminent,'' he said with a chuckle. ``Imminent.''

At the national level, the Rails to Trails Conservancy envisions the Farmington Valley Greenway as one small section of a proposed 2,500-mile trail stretching from Key West to northern Maine. That's a distant goal; merely completing the Connecticut corridor from New Haven to the Massachusetts line above Suffield appears certain to take years.

For now, local volunteers are just trying to close the gaps along the Greenway and its Canton spur, the Farmington River Trail. Ultimately, it will be a 30-mile path running south from Suffield's border with Southwick, Mass., through East Granby, Granby, Simsbury and Avon to Farmington, then swinging west to Unionville and veering northwest through Burlington to Canton's Collinsville section.

Despite the obstacles, roughly 75 percent of the route is paved and open, and it continues to draw more people each year. The longest unbroken stretch, 12 miles, extends from Unionville to southern Simsbury.

But five gaps -- most of them north of Avon, some more than a mile long -- remain.

Those breaks aren't too harmful for joggers, walkers, folks casually enjoying the scenery and fresh air, parents pushing strollers or couples walking their dogs.