The Beginnings of the Trail
I was one of a core of passionate people who formed a steering committee to begin the arduous process of the founding of the Georgian Trail which runs from Collingwood to Meaford via Thornbury. Little did we know the process would take almost five years before actual approvals were obtained. It was spurred on by the death of a cyclist in the Craigleith area on Hwy 26. By serendipity, CN was opening up talks to sell off its old rail line in that same vicinity.
To create a “linear park” was a new concept back in the 80’s. It had been done in the US to interconnect communities along abandoned rail lines, but there was only one precedent (that I know of), in the Caledon area, that we could look to. But it was located in one municipality. Ours traversed two counties (Grey and Simcoe) three towns (Collingwood, Thornbury and Meaford) and two townships (Collingwood, now called The Town of the Blue Mountains, and St. Vincent, west of Thornbury).
Each of these municipalities had different concerns, objections and by-laws that had to be brought into line with this novel concept. St. Vincent, being rural, was concerned about the liability of the spraying of apple orchards. Town of Blue Mountains was quite luke warm to this novel concept. Meaford, Thornbury and Collingwood saw the potential of ecotourism (a new word back then). If St. Vincent wasn’t onside, then it would isolate Meaford and the trail would have only gone to the Town line between Blue Mountains and St. Vincent, or probably just to Thornbury proper. Meaford really wanted it.
There was another stumbling block: CN only wanted to sell to one owner. The price was about $26,000.00. They would pull out all the old rail way ties and leave the road bed as it was, which was in remarkably good shape, considering it had not seen a train on it for about 20 years! Many property owners whose lands abutted the railway, wanted to purchase their own section to enhance the value of their property. Others were NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) who didn’t want the public nearing their property, fearing vandalism. If there was a gap between property owners who did not want to get on board, then it would be null and void. Hence the Georgian Trail was formed as a legal entity. (Interestingly, all the studies on linear parks proved that they actually kept neighbourhoods safer, lessened vandalism, were a greener option than driving, improved the safety of cyclists, provided an opportunity to improve fitness outdoors and open up more commercial enterprises along their way, thus improving the economy of the areas through which they traversed). It ushered in the huge growth of cycling, and the many businesses that support it, in our area alone.
Under the tutelage and leadership of our Chair, Anne Bennett (1936-2010), we persisted, attending countless meetings in blizzards (one in which Hwy 26 was closing as we left the meeting!). She went to the Eastern seaboard of the US to see the trails there. She met with the people in Caledon. She talked to the local MPPs of the area. She went to Queens Park as well. She just didn’t give up when more and more road blocks were thrown in front of us (for her efforts, she was awarded The Order of Collingwood). We soon realized it became a matter of educating all parties on the huge potential and opportunity this presented. We zealously went out to speak to local groups, council meetings, stake holders, businesses and landowners to convince them of the benefits of this trail.
There was more than one dark moment when we thought all was lost. The deadline was quickly drawing near with CN (who had been very patient with us). At that time, the Town of Collingwood stepped in and promised to buy all the land in all the townships, counties and towns through which it travelled, to become the “owner”. This stroke of good fortune prompted all the municipal stake holders to come onside. Once approved, then came the machinations of costing out and building the trail, and the necessary fundraising that followed.
So, for all those new to our wonderful area, think of how this concept of “linear parks” has mushroomed in the South Georgian Bay area specifically, but in Ontario as a whole and perhaps the world. Now, I believe, every new development has to have a series of trails that interconnect with its community trail system. Collingwood, as an example, has over 60 kilometres of community trails—which even link to Stayner, and are second to none, thanks to their amazing core of volunteers and the town itself.
Next time when you are cycling through Thornbury, look for a green plaque near the crossing area at Bruce St. north, towards the harbour, that highlights the creation of the Georgian Trail and all those involved in its beginning!
Contributed by Helen Bull, Collingwood, 2020