Fred Sentineal remembers the days when the Upper Canada Heritage Trail, which follows the old railway bed through the rural area to John Street, was used regularly by the local equestrian association.
His mother, Jackie Sentineal, was one of the founding members of the Upper Canada Equestrian Association, which, in addition to regular group rides, would undertake a spring cleanup of the trail. He also remembers members of the association planting trees along the trail about 40 years ago, and he too has enjoyed riding it on horseback, he said at an Earth Day event Friday.
As a member of the heritage trail restoration committee, he looks forward to the day all four phases, from John Street to York Road, are open and accessible to anyone who wants to use it.
“I support the trail for everyone, pedestrians, cyclists, horses — everyone who wants to use it.”
His mother and three others who founded the association “formed it to save these trails,” he said, and the work of the committee now is continuing the effort to preserve them.
While many of those who use it see the Old Town portion, the bulk of it runs through agricultural areas, Sentineal said, and although the surroundings are different through the rural setting, it should also be available to anyone who wants to use it.
At a barbecue at the home of Steffanie and Moe Bjorgan Friday, Town Crier Tom Pekar called a small crowd to attention with his traditional humorous opening, and said, “for reasons unknown, the former railroad right-of-way has escaped the grasp of developers. This is in large part due to concerned citizens in our past who have thwarted the bulldozer blade.” Residents have enjoyed the benefits of phase 1 of the heritage trail restoration, he said. “Now is the time to begin phase 2 to bring the trail back to support eco-tourism, walking and cycling and community engagement. The plan is to connect to the Bruce Trail which already brings thousands of trekkers to the bounty of tender fruit and wine that Niagara-on-the-Lake has to offer. Give generously for the sake of your grandchildren. By the power invested in me as town crier I declare today Heritage Trail Day.”
The Bjorgans live at the end of Concession 1 as it meets Line 9, and those attending the Earth Day event learned the third phase will end at that point. Walking the trail will mean crossing the street and meeting it as it begins again just past Line 9, but that portion is currently off-limits, owned by the municipality. It is liberally posted with No Trespassing signs to keep people from using it, for safety reasons — it has been compromised by erosion and washouts.
But that’s a few years off — for now, the committee is focusing on donations to move ahead with the rehabilitation of phase 2.
Restoration of the first phase, from John Street to East and West Line, has been completed, and the committee is now committed to raising $160,000 — about $100 a metre — to finish it from there to Line 3, said Rick Meloen, committee chair, encouraging donations to a glass jar that by the end of the event had collected more than $2,000.
The final two phases will take it to its finish at York Road, between Queenston and St. Davids, and reconnect it as a side trail to the Bruce Trail, while also connecting three communities of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Old Town resident Debi Pratt also has memories of the rural portion of the trail, and is looking forward to seeing it restored to its finish.
She recalls teaching at the former Brockview School on Line 3, when the railway track was still used occasionally by trains, although there would just be an engine and maybe one or two cars, she said.
By the late 1960s or early ’70s, the train wasn’t part of a regular schedule, but when it was approaching, it was loud, and difficult to continue teaching classes that went from Kindergarten to Grade 3. Instead, she taught her kids to put their outdoor clothes on when they heard it coming, and they’d go outside and wave as it passed by. “Everything was a language experience,” she says, and when the tracks were removed, that was another lesson, watching the heavy equipment that did the work.
Restoration of the trail along the railway bed began with the NOTL Canada Sesquicentennial Committee, created in 2017 to support and execute events to commemorate Canada’s 150 years of Confederation, when rehabilitation of the Heritage Trail was chosen as a legacy project.
Anyone contributing more than $99 will have their name on a plaque — the donation can also be in honour of someone else. A cheque can be made out to Heritage Trail, Town of Niagara-the-Lake, and mailed to the town at Box 100, Virgil, ON L0S 1T0.