By Heather Bellow, The Berkshire Eagle
GREAT BARRINGTON — For decades, few people have stood in this open field between the town's iconic Victorian castle and the Housatonic River. Now, a trail runs through it.
Amid a hard rainstorm and moorlike mist Tuesday, a group of about 15 stood here to celebrate the vision that took years to realize.
It was more than two decades ago that Great Barrington Riverwalk pioneer Rachel Fletcher and a now-renowned trail designer, Peter Jensen, dreamed of extending that trail to the south for an unfractured path along the river through the downtown and beyond.
Over those years, the Great Barrington Land Conservancy held the vision, and after three years of fundraising, easement-wrangling and permitting, the Riverfront Trail now is born and open.
Walking along the course of the river no longer is a back-and-forth from the entry near Walgreens to the W.E.B. Du Bois River Garden Park at Church Street. One now can cross Bridge Street and continue on past Memorial Field and the Railroad Street Youth Project, then past Searles Castle — it's now Dewey Academy — to Olympian Meadows.
Another new section is farther south, behind Bostwick Gardens at Brookside Road, and the great hope is eventually to link the two through the fairgrounds.
Dale Abrams, the conservancy's vice president, said this perspective of the river and town most people have not seen in decades — particularly behind the castle, now a private boarding school.
"It's a property that no one has walked for decades, except students at the school," Abrams said. "It's a spectacular stretch. It connects nature and history."
At a very wet ceremony, Abrams said the trail is the result of a collaboration between the conservancy, the town and people like Janice Kabel, conservancy president, whom he said pursued easement negotiations, contracts and grants with "dogged determination."
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He said Town Hall offered robust support. And Christopher Rembold, town planner and assistant town manager, helped make connections that brought public money to the table. Rembold could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
It was Abrams who held the vision after Fletcher had handed him a map of the original idea and said "go forth and see if you can make this happen."
It cost about $220,000, Kabel said. This included $115,000 from the town's Community Preservation Act money, $40,000 from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation as well as private donations. The work began last fall, and it is not done — an additional 1,000 feet of trail at Olympian Meadows is coming in the spring.
Jensen, of Peter Jensen & Associates, is known for his creative trail work in Great Barrington and in places like Patagonia.
Jensen designed the Riverwalk and the Lake Mansfield Conservation Forest Accessible Trail, as well other county trails, including the Old Mill Trail in Dalton and Hinsdale, and the Hoosac Range Trail in North Adams.
The trail is made of crushed stone, so it is stroller and wheelchair friendly. Benches are situated along the way. It is open dawn to dusk, year-round.
It was Fletcher who, 30 years ago, gathered a group to clean trash from the riverbank on North Main Street. That took three years.
"The people who had been throwing beer cans into the river and laughing at us while we were doing it the next year they were cleaning up their section," said Fletcher, who could not attend Tuesday.
Fletcher, who left the conservancy in 2018, said it is gratifying to see more trails sprout from the original Riverwalk.
"There's something about this river that just keeps growing and growing," she said.
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
To see photos from the Riverfront Trail Opening, click here.