September 27, 2023

The Chautauqua Rails to Trails is pictured off Woleben Road in the town of Portland.


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From Bill Ward’s perspective, Chautauqua Rails to Trails has been a lifesaver of sorts during some of the darkest of days of COVID-19.

Ward, in an interview on Friday, said it’s hard to ignore the impact the ongoing pandemic has had on the trail system, which has segments from Sherman to Brocton totaling about 30 miles. He estimates that during the summer of 2020, trail usage went up 60 to 80%.

“I really believe, and maybe this is hyperbole, I believe it maybe even saved lives,” Ward said of the trails helping people escape their homes and get outdoors.

As new president, local musician and current Chautauqua County legislator, he is also an avid runner and biker and frequents the trails.

“We heard that story over and over and over again,” he said, “people who said they got out there who had never been out there before. Introducing people to the trail is sort of what we’re about.”

Since Sept. 26, however, the trails have not been filled with happy endings. On that day a set of human remains were found near Woleben Road in the town of Portland.

SAbout 24 hours later, a more recent find that turned out to be a missing 50-year-old Buffalo woman was located about 10 yards away.

Coverage of the unusual discovery has made national news while partially casting the walkways in a negative light. But Ward said members of Chautauqua Rails to Trails remain positive, noting a bevy of projects that have been completed, are currently taking place or are planned.

“We are really excited for the energy we have in Rails to Trails,” he said. “The usage of the trails has gone up. … The pandemic really elevated trail usage.”

Among many upcoming goals include making the rail trail viable between Sherman and Clymer; implementing needed repairs to the “Swank” culvert on the Ney Trail; progressing on the town of Carroll Trail in Frewsburg; editing the trail guide; making improvements to the entrance segment of the Webb Trail at Route 394 and an update on the large problematic culvert near Woleben Road.

Ward pointed to the accomplishments of longtime trail manager and president, Jim Fincher, who just recently retired. He said Fincher has “done more for the organization than perhaps any singular individual.”

He added Friday, “Jim Fincher has done such a fabulous job. He was hired at the beginning as trail manager and he continued to do the lion share of the work there. We’re so indebted to him.”

Chautauqua Rails to Trails plans to honor Fincher by naming a trail segment after him — a 1-mile stretch between Route 430 and Honeysette Road in the village of Mayville. Improvements to the surface of that popular trail will occur in the next year, the organization announced in a news release last month.

As its name suggests, Chautauqua Rails to Trails was first established in 1991 by converting abandoned railroad rights of ways into multipurpose recreational trails ideal for hikers, cyclists, snowmobiles and cross-country skiers.

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