Hiking trail officially opens in Odessa

Sep 28, 2023 at 12:10 pm by Observer-Review

Odessa ribbon cutting
BY Karen Gadiel
On the first day of autumn, at the Texas Hollow end of the new Odessa-Hector Rail Trail, the air held the scent of autumn and the flavor of community pride. Rain threatened, but considerately held off until the afternoon so the former section of the Lehigh Valley Railroad could be re-dedicated and newly experienced as a trail for walkers, riders of bikes, horses and snowmobiles, as well as utility task vehicles (UTVs) reserved for the mobility-impaired. It was the culmination of five years of planning and work.
Odessa Mayor Gerry Messmer began the ceremony with a short history of this village stretch of the railway. Surveyed in 1890 for a planned extension of the Lehigh Valley Railroad from Odessa to Van Etten, it took its first passengers on that trip in 1892. Sixty-seven years later, May 11, 1959, was its final passenger run; the railway ceased operating in 1976. In its years of service, it suffered several derailments, most dramatically in 1913 when the engineer at the throttle died as the train approached the station in Odessa. As he related this part of the story, many of Messmer’s 40-odd listeners sighed sympathetically.  
A few months after he was elected to the mayoral position in 2018, Messmer continued, the trail was mentioned. Originally, it was thought to be privately owned by a variety of landowners, but it was traced to Fairman Drilling, an oil and natural gas drilling company in Pennsylvania. The company did not wish to partner with the village, but agreed to consider selling the land. “Be gentle with us,” Messmer told them, “We’re a very small village.”
The company had purchased the land for $50,000 before New York state banned hydraulic fracturing or hydro-fracking in 2015. A week after the initial conversation with Messmer they offered it to the village for $35,000. “We’ll take it!” Messmer said. Then, worried where the money would come from, he began contacting private individuals and non-profit agencies.
Max Heitner of the Finger Lakes Land Trust walked the trail and said “We’re in,” making them one of the first donors. Bruce Boughton, branch manager for the Chemung Canal Trust Company, reportedly deliberated for about half a minute before offering $3,000 on behalf of the bank. Schuyler Glass was another contributor.
Messmer asked others, and the money started to trickle in. One donor, longtime resident Ralph Daugherty, along with his late wife Debra, offered money because he thought a lot of people enjoy walking the local trails. And besides, Messmer asked.
“The trail is here for your use,” Messmer declared. “It was created at zero taxpayer cost. It was 100 percent donations with just a little touch of federal money.” He invited those present to explore the trail after the ceremony; also to partake from the platter of pretty, decorated cupcakes provided by 2 Cats Cakery’s Nancy Connors and hot coffee from Evan Stewart Eisenberg at the Odessa Coffee Depot.
One major donor was area builder Bruno Schickel, who calls himself a “Big enthusiast of rail trails.” Schickel spent countless hours renovating the trail, which involved clearing nearly 50 years of brush and overgrowth. Heavy equipment was needed, as was the assistance of veteran large equipment operator Steve Perry, who is said to be so skilled he could open a soda can with the backhoe. Afterwards, John Palmer removed large roots from the walking trail and seeded it with grass. When the work on the trail was almost complete, Schickel was informed by Messmer that there was one non-negotiable aspect of its signage. In honor of his tireless work on the project, the trailhead was being named in Schickel’s honor.
Schickel and Heitner were each presented with a knife forged from an iron railway spike, the blades honed sharp enough to cut the large ceremonial ribbons.
Messmer also pointed out there are some railroad artifacts still accessible to public view, from the hand-cut stone culverts installed in the 1870s to the signal marker at the trailhead. The overarching trees will be magical when the foliage takes on its autumnal coloring, and once the leaves drop, there’s a clear view to Shequaga Falls in Montour Falls.
Eventually, Messmer and Schickel have high hopes the trail will be extended as far as Burdett, which will require, Schickel says, a huge community effort and landowners donating easements. But this grassroots-driven effort was an inspiration, he says, adding, “I’m a patient man. We’ll get it done.”
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