The borough of Etna has a connection to the Allegheny River for the first time in nearly a century. Elected officials and community members celebrated the opening of the Etna Riverfront Trail and Park on Friday afternoon, underneath the 62nd Street Bridge.
“This is probably our biggest effort to change the story of Etna and have us reconnect to nature and the river,” said borough manager Mary Ellen Ramage.
The site was once home to heavy industry and transportation facilities, which Ramage said did considerable damage to the environment. A Norfolk Southern-owned railroad still runs adjacent to the property. Nearly a decade ago, borough leadership started to consider what the space could become, given that resources were available to clean up and develop the former brownfield.
The borough and its partners, including the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, Friends of the Riverfront, Allegheny County and others, created a plan to buy the riverfront land. Trees have been planted to offset the pollution caused by the nearby railroad tracks, and there’s signage about the region’s native birds and plant life.
“It’s the people taking back what was once theirs,” Ramage said. “They have a right to nature and beauty and the beautiful rivers.”
The process wasn’t easy, all the speakers acknowledged, especially due to the ownership of the train crossing. But after some digging into Allegheny County archives, Ramage said a staffer was able to find a deed from the 1800s.
“She found…that it was a public crossing,” Ramage said. “It was in old calligraphy ink, that’s how old it was.”
The park and trail are key to connecting the region’s riverfronts, speakers emphasized. Environmental advocates and groups that maintain and build the trails are working to connect this to the rest of the Allegheny River’s paths, as well as the Pittsburgh to Erie trail.
Lauren Imgrund, deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said the nearly two-year project became even more significant due to the pandemic.
“We know we’ve learned from all of that more than ever how important the outdoors is,” Imgrund said. “The experiences and the folks coming down to connect with parks and trails across the state really is kind of waking up to the importance of quality of life.”
The park and trail cost a little over $2 million, Ramage said, which includes many county and state grants, as well as the safe passage over the train tracks.