In the beginning, there were the railroads. The iron rails and smoke-belching locomotives credited for connecting Canada’s provinces and coasts, as well as its towns and cities , were suddenly dying.
There was lots of abandoned railway land now coming available as those ribbons of steel were carted off and the built up rail beds had the cross beams yanked out – many of them used to prop up walls and to landscape the gardens of enterprising decorators.
What was left was a swath cut through the countryside, and nobody was really sure just what would become of all that land.
While that fate was being pondered, people with parties in mind swooped in and turned those lands into sites of revelry. There was a hierarchy of purchasing those lands. If the federal government refused, the province had an option to buy. Then, it was municipalities, and many rural councils pondered long and hard what they could do with lands that were scant feet wide and ran off into the horizon.
In some places, like old Peel township, farmers tired of parties and broken bottles purchased land when it became available to them. They wanted to ensure trespassers and partiers could be blocked from reaching their livestock and crops.
It was around that time some people began considering using the now abandoned lines for walking trails. For that time and place, such ideas seemed to many to be way out there. Others wondered if perhaps the idea had some merit. Their conviction was strong enough that they began holding meetings to pursue their idea and, over the course of many public meetings, they managed to start building something that is not only totally accepted today, but also an intrinsic part of life in many parts of the country.
In the instance of the Elora to Cataract trail, the man with the idea was Rick Goodfellow, of Salem, a teacher and someone who loved cycling so much he started his own bike shop. He and lawyer Deryk Smith started talking about the possibility of a rail trail between Fergus and Elora and, dare they think it, Guelph.
Tom Skimson is a past president of the Elora Cataract Trailway Association, and one of its earliest members. He credited Smith as being a driving force behind the group and the trail, but he said of Goodfellow, “It was really kind of Rick’s idea.”
Skimson said by 1988, rail lands were being sold off and Smith and Goodfellow made an effort to buy the CP rail lands between Elora and Fergus. Skimson said the idea might have come to naught except that Dr. Patrick Otto convinced his fellow physician in the area that walking was healthy. Led by Otto, area doctors donated over $10,000 and the trail group was underway.
“He planted the seed,” Skimson said of Otto. “The doctors reacted really well.”
Smith remembers the doctors raised about half of the $35,000 that was required to buy the land between Elora and Fergus. He also remembers Goodfellow called everyone he knew and held a meeting in a church basement. It was packed. People formed a trail group, chose a name, signed memberships on the spot and began to fundraise.
Smith remembers lobbying Fergus, Elora, Nichol and Pilkington councils to buy the land when the province turned it down and there was “no success there.”
When those municipalities opted out, that left it open to citizens and adjacent property owners. By then, the group was working with the Grand River Conservation Authority and Credit Valley Conservation, and their charitable foundations helped buy the entire line.
But getting support from adjacent landowners proved difficult. They wanted nothing to do with what they had been seeing for the past five years or so.
“There was one meeting where I didn’t think I was going to get out without being assaulted,” Smith recalled.
He said after nearly five years of parties and damage, supporting a trail was “a leap of faith most landowners were not willing to take.”
But the timing could not have been better for the fledgling group. In the early 1990s, the provincial government wanted a pilot project or three for rail lines. It funded five groups across the province, and the group that started locally with the Grand River Conservation Authority and Credit Valley Conservation, suddenly found the entire trail purchase was possible.
“We were fortunate to be at the right place at the right time,” Skimson said. “We got great support from both [Grand River and Credit Valley] foundations.”
Smith also noted the group’s membership was working hard to raise money. He remembers one donor giving him $100,000.
Once the two authorities owned the land with the help of the provincial government, the trail group could announce its plans. Smith said with such things as controlled access, signs and regulations, members hoped to win over the landowners. That took over two years, at least. Smith remembers property owners demanding fences between the trail and their properties, then wanting gates through those fences, all at the cost of the trail group. Then, the fences began coming down. It seems the landowers now wanted access to the trail, too.
“A forty-seven kilometre trailway linking the Credit Valley watershed to the Grand River watershed and communities along the way,” is the way the new Elora Cataract Trailway’s home page describes the route today.
That trail, the first in the area for the group, inspired others and a move began to link the trails now starting in Wellington to the cross-Canada trail system.
Along the way, the trail became so popular that in 2003, the acting editor of this newspaper, historian and columnist Steve Thorning, was moved to write about its use in an editorial. He noted when he rode his bicycle to work from Elora to the east side of Fergus, he met nearly 100 people day and night using bikes, walking and pushing strollers, walking dogs and even on horseback.
Smith said portions of the trail ban horses and snowmobiles and other sections allow them. He noted in the early years, outlaw snowmobilers caused problems, but legitimate snowmobile clubs also wanted to use the trail, and their policing efforts took care of most of those problems.
The trail seems to be popular at all times of the year. People could be seen as early as February this year walking the stretch between Elora and Fergus.
Various improvements have been made to the trail over the years. Smith said it is ironic, but in the early days the complaints were about protection of the adjacent properties. Today, he said, he gets complaints that there is so much traffic the resurfaced trail is in need of maintenance. Others complain the stretch between Elora and Fergus is so busy on weekends they won’t use it then.
Last year, area Lions Clubs launched Project BOOT (for Benches On Our Trail). That initiative is charged with the sale, installation, and maintenance of benches along the length of the Elora-Cataract Trail.
And this year, there is a once-a-month series of Sunday walks, including one on July 11 in the evening. They start in May and continue until the Jingle Bell Hike on Dec. 5.
Goodfellow, Smith, Skimson and now Ray Soucy have been the four chairmen of the trailway association since its inception.
Smith likes what he sees from what started many years ago with an effort to obtain about four miles between Elora and Fergus. He noted Goodfellow had suggested taking railways out of commission was shortsighted and if trail groups owned them, the rails or public transit could easily be brought back with a dual purpose – rail and trail. Of course, too much land was lost for that, and people seem protective of their trails now.
Smith said what really pleases him is families now meet and socialize on the trail, just like they once might have met and stopped to talk downtown.
In his commute between Elora and Fergus, he sees elderly people on the trail with new walking shoes – and not looking too happy about it. Over the course of several meetings, he gets acquainted and he often hears the walker is out there on doctor’s order.
But, as the season rolls along, those walkers suddenly seem to get a spring in their step and a look of adventure about them as they make their way down the wilderness road. The trail grows on them.
And the doctors who helped get the trail rolling with the idea that it would improve health cannot be too unhappy about their investment.
Not only are hundreds of people walking, hiking, running, biking and riding the trail, they are often doing it for a good cause.
Those include such things as Terry Fox Runs and In Motion events designed to get kids in particular into the habit of exercising.
A little foresight has come a long way down the road.