Tiger swallowtail butterflies with black-and-yellow velvet wings. Graceful feathery ferns tucked into woodlands. Huge moss-covered stone blocks from vintage canal locks and bridge arches. Twisted metal and stained, crumbling concrete remnants of past buildings. And everywhere, hikers, runners, bicyclists, kayakers, bird watchers and history buffs.
It is a path of fascinating contrasts — just like us.
Finally complete after 20 years and $54 million, the trail connects us geographically, sure, but there’s more. It takes us from an industrial past to, hopefully, a greener future for everyone. It is a path forward.
“Within 15 minutes of the Towpath Trail you can find yourself in a forest or an industrial area rich with history. I love that,” says Chris Ronayne, chairman of the board of Canalway Partners, a nonprofit organization leading the restoration of the route where mules once pulled canal boats with goods to be sold. “The Towpath Trail interprets our past as well as our future as a cool city. It’s educational, fun and unique.”
It’s now possible to access the Canal Basin Park Trailhead in the Flats on the east bank of the Cuyahoga River and go all the way to Zoar, following the general path of the 1832 Ohio & Erie Canal. The waterway brought important commerce and transportation opportunities to the region. Local farmers shipped wheat, corn, timber and other products to markets in the east. Incoming canal boats brought cloth, coffee, tea, glass and more. Busy towns grew up along the canal and Ohio’s frontier began to open.
These days, about 2.5 million visitors use the 93- mile Towpath Trail each year, including an increasing number of city dwellers who now have safer, more convenient access to the trail. With recent extensions, the Towpath also binds and connects neighborhoods to Lake Erie, the Cuyahoga River, Cleveland Metroparks and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park
But the work is not done, says Cleveland Metroparks CEO Brian Zimmerman. “I firmly believe other park districts and more communities will want to become connected to the Towpath,” he says, “The Towpath Trail has stood the test of time as a connector.”
The Towpath Trail also gives Clevelanders a new view of the Cuyahoga River, which Ronayne notes has been “somewhat elusive in the city.”
But his favorite view from the Towpath Trail? “Coming out of Tremont, overlooking the steel mills, because it tells the story of Cleveland.”