The Rivergreenway: 25 years ago it was just a dream

June 20, 2012

There was a time, seemingly not so long ago, when a stroll by the Wabash River eastward out of Bluffton meant walking on a state highway — or an unstable river bank.
Twenty-five years ago, a group of Bluffton’s movers and shakers put their heads and hands together and came up with a plan to change that. The plan became the Rivergreenway.
Concerned over the slow deterioration of the downtown, the community leaders met at what was then known as East Side Elementary School (now Bluffton-Harrison Elementary). They formed “Build a Better Bluffton” and more remarkably, that night they collected over $100,000 in pledges to do just that — build a better Bluffton.
The group hired Scott Day of the national Main Street program, a division of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Day came up with a plan and Panos and Co. was the consulting firm hired to determine if it was possible to fund Day’s plans with gifts and donations.
Attorney Keith Huffman was a key player in the Build a Better Bluffton program and recalled the meeting the Panos firm had with the Build a Better Bluffton committee.
“They did a survey of our community and they told our committee, ‘We believe that if your committee and your community conduct an aggressive fundraiser, you can raise a million dollars for these projects.’ We all sat around the table and chuckled, thinking, ‘Sure we could do that.’ They then told us they were going to charge us $90,000 to conduct the campaign. We thought, ‘Oh my gosh! Where are we going to get that kind of money?’ But we all agreed to do it,” said Huffman.
And do it they did. Franklin Electric got the ball rolling with a $375,000 gift on Nov. 5, 1987.
“We ended up raising $1.4 million,” said Huffman. “A lot of people from the public contributed — small amounts, big amounts — it was all over the board. Then we got a grant from the state for an additional $400,000,” Huffman said. That gave us the money to do the downtown and the ampitheater,” he added.
Most of the funds were directed to rehabbing the downtown. But a gift of $125,000 from Caylor-Nickel Medical Center was directed specifically toward the construction of a walking trail along the Wabash River and what was then known as Ind. 316, but which is now called River Road. (It was also called River Road then, too, but it was a state highway).
That got the ball rolling. Other businesses and individuals made donations and James S. Jackson Construction donated the little covered bridge — modeled after the former Cover covered bridge — that gets the Greenway from one side of Bill’s Creek to the other.
The Rivergreenway was actually developed in three phases. The first phase took it from Wayne Street to the White Bridge. The second took it from the White Bridge to the Ouabache State Park. The third took it from Wayne Street to Mill Race Park across from the T-intersection of Scott and Wabash streets.
“There were a lot of people who looked at the Build a Better Bluffton Committee members and said, “What are you doing? You’re tearing up this nice green riverbank and putting in a path of black asphalt. Who’s going to use it?” recalled Doug Sundling, an independent contractor and advocate of the Greenway trail, who performed a great deal of consulting work for the city for the development of the various phases of the trail.
“I still remember the last the equipment was out at the White Bridge and they were just pulling it off the little parking lot there and the first wave of people were starting to walk the trail at the west end. It has not let up since,” he added.
One of the challenges in developing the trail was discovering that the people who owned the land on the south side of Ind. 316 also owned the land on the north side of the highway. Their property ownership extended through the highway.
“The trail was really made possible by the generous donations of rights-of-way from numerous property owners along it,” said Huffman.
The rights-of-way were given to Wells County, or the City of Bluffton, depending on whether the property was in the city limits. Each landowner received a specific indemnification from the city or the county, with the city or the county agreeing to pay any and all costs for any claim brought by anyone using the trail, Huffman added.
It seemed like all of the pieces were in place to start construction, but then the state tossed the committee a curve ball.
“I’ll never forget, I got a call from the state highway department saying we couldn’t build this trail because we were encroaching upon their right of way,” he recalled.
“I told them that we looked at all of the property records and they didn’t have any right of way and if they didn’t have right of way, then their property rights did not extend beyond the traveled portion of the road. However, I did tell them we would send them the plans for the trail. We wanted their input because we wanted to build this trail to be as safe as possible. They looked at the plans and they approved of them,” Huffman  added.
In 1988 the Army Corps of Engineers also approved of the plans and E&B Paving of Fort Wayne was hired to build the trail.
Even after its construction, some were skeptical if it would be used.
“I went back and looked over some of the early park board minutes. The board members were stunned there were people out there at night walking the Rivergreenway after dark,” said Sundling.
“There was talk about lighting the Greenway and I told them, no, you don’t understand. People are walking out there after dark because they want to be out there in the twilight, the starlight, the moonlight,” said Sundling.
Even before Phase I was completed, the groundwork for Phase II — extending the Greenway to Ouabache State Park — was under way.
“The state highway (Ind. 316) used to split Ouabache State Park in two,” Huffman recalled.
“Members of the committee sat down with the commissioners at that time, Jesse Rogers, Bob Legge and Adrian Sprunger, and we reached a deal with the state to exchange roads for highways and that’s how we got the state to pay for the new White Bridge. By doing that we were able to close the road through Ouabache, which made the park much more attractive.
“Then we started talking about extending the Greenway out to the state park, which made a lot of sense. With the entrance to the park where it was originally, we couldn’t extend the trail to the entrance without building it in front of people’s houses. Once we got the road vacated, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources agreed to relocate the park’s entrance to the closest point of the trail,” Huffman said.
As before, it took the vision of the property owners along the Wabash River to complete the extension of the trail to the state park.
“Harold Geisel owned a property out there by the river and the park. We talked with several landowners about how we would get from the river to the park. Harold finally approached us and said he and his wife were moving and they were  planning to sell the property,” Huffman added.
Negotiations with and donations by other property owners plus cash received from the sale of license plates supporting the DNR and Phase II was launched.
In 1998, the city started purchasing several properties to extend the trail further west. With the aid of a grant from the Wabash River Heritage Corridor, Mill Race Park was constructed, which is currently the west end trail head. “The last three phases we were able to accomplish without fundraisers using grants and assistance from the Wells County Foundation,” said Huffman.
As time passed and the phases were developed, the city developed other park space around the trail including Angel of Hope Park, Pickett’s Run Park and the splash pad (following the flood of 2003).
Huffman believes that the Build a Better Bluffton’s vision for the Rivergreenway has succeeded tremendously. Twenty-five years later, the trail is used more than ever and is an attraction for visitors to Bluffton. “I don’t think you can ever drive by there and not see someone on that trail,” Huffman said.
The trail is not finished. “The fourth phase is presently in the drawing stage,” said Huffman.
“This extension will take the trail to Main Street so there will be a safe walking, riding trail from downtown Bluffton to Ouabache State Park. A $250,000 Wabash Heritage Fund grant and funds from the Bluffton Parks Department have been obtained to pay for this trail extension. This project will feature a nature center overlooking the Wabash River, with a permanent display about Charles Deam, Indiana’s first State Forester, author, inventor, and arguably, Bluffton’s most famous resident,” Huffman said.
Sundling also envisions the Rivergreenway extending farther west, following the Wabash River.
“There’s visions of doing that, it’s just finding the right source of funding to get it accomplished. Who knows who will step forward and say, ‘I want to make this happen. What do I have to do?’” Sundling said.
After all, 25 years ago a group of citizens got together with the vision of a Rivergreenway and look what they accomplished.

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