Visionary, conservationist, educator, leader, farmer, friend.
Jim Holden of Venango County, a longtime advocate of multi-use recreational trails, was all that and more.
“The Erie to Pittsburgh Trail (EPT) began as a dream of many individuals but only one individual, Holden, had the courage to verbalize, organize and commit to transforming the dream into a reality,” said Ron Steffey, president of the Erie to Pittsburgh Trail Alliance.
Holden, a native of Erie, died in 2013 at the age of 73. He was the founding president of the alliance, a coalition of trail organizations, municipalities and individuals that has completed 60 percent of the 270-mile trail from the Perry Monument on Presque Isle to Point State Park in Pittsburgh.
Holden earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics at Edinboro University and Penn State University, respectively, and retired as a professor of computer science at Clarion University.
An avid cyclist and runner, Holden learned in 1990 that Conrail wanted to donate miles of its abandoned rail line in Venango County. He and a fellow cyclist, Dave Howes, formed the Allegheny Valley Trails Association (AVTA).
That same year, with Holden leading the way, AVTA accepted 17 miles of abandoned railroad right-of-way, filed and won an appeal to prevent the destruction of bridges and trestles that became part of the EPT, won a grant for a trail-feasibility study and another for trail construction, and increased the AVTA’s membership to 75 .
It was an amazing accomplishment for a volunteer with a full-time job and no experience in trail development. AVTA now owns and maintains 50 miles of the EPT (the Allegheny River Trail, Sandy Creek Trail and Clarion Highland Trail) plus three tunnels and seven bridges.
Bill Weller, AVTA’s current president, ran and rode “thousands of miles” with Holden, including the EPT from Erie to Emlenton in Venango County, the Great Allegheny Passage from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md., and the C&O Canal Towpath from Cumberland to Washington.
“He had a great vision,” Weller said. “The word ‘can’t’ wasn’t in his vocabulary.”
“Jim was a hands-on person and made things happen by being involved in every facet of trail-building,” Steffey said.
“[His] greatest conveyance was infecting so many of us with passion. Quilting the Erie to Pittsburgh Trail together is not glamorous, well-paying or easy, but it can be satisfying to those of us that Jim infected. Satisfaction comes in the smiles of those we see using the trail.
“Jim showed us how to do the impossible,” Steffey added. “While many laughed at the thought of rehabilitating former railroad tunnels and bridges for trail use, Jim found ways to do the rehabilitation, improve the environment and stimulate the local tourist economy.”
In 2013, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Washington conducted a survey to monitor trail-user characteristics and the economic impact of five trail segments totaling 54 miles of the EPT.
Kim Harris, project manager for the Oil Region Alliance of Business, Industry and Tourism in Oil City, said the survey showed that 158,507 trail users in 2013 pumped $6.9 million directly into the local economy. A majority of the users — 51.8 percent — were bicyclists.
“Jim’s passion for the trails touched me,” Harris said. “And as we work on closing gaps in the EPT, it is my goal to assist in seeing his vision come to reality in his honor.”
Information: www.eriepittsburghtrail.org; www.avta-trails.org
Larry Walsh writes about recreational bicycling for the Post-Gazette.