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April 15, 2013

Oneonta river walking path came from a surveyor's daydream

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The Daily Star

---- — Leon Kalmus of Oneonta spent a lot of time surveying land near the Susquehanna River in the early 1970s around the time Interstate 88 was being planned and built in this area. What he saw along the shores of the river, he called “pristine,” and soon had an idea for some kind of walking or hiking pathway along the shores of the river in the town of Oneonta.

While Kalmus’ idea never came to fruition, it was a forerunner to what is known today as the Oneonta Susquehanna Greenway, partially completed and a continuing work in progress.

“I envisioned a very narrow piece of land, stretching for as far as we could make it go, along the riverbank,” Kalmus said recently, “and that’s why I referred to it then as a linear park. It was going to be somewhat primitive, with some crushed stone at places for the path, and low maintenance, done by volunteers and through contributions of materials.”

“The main entrance,” Kalmus continued, “was at a piece of land on lower Main Street near the river bridge,” close to the site of today’s Home Depot, which was once a transmitter site for WDOS radio. “This would have been the only purchase of land that I suggested, but that never got very far.” There would have been other entry points along the path as well.

Readers of The Daily Star first learned about the idea of a linear park on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 1975. Kalmus was then a member of the Oneonta Town Planning Board. A committee to study the feasibility of such a pathway was formed including Kalmus, Donald Sheehan and Cynthia Squires. Sheehan chaired the committee. By that time, Kalmus’ idea had been in the talking stages for a few years.

Progress was slow, as it was reported that “serious planning” and the formation of a steering committee was set to begin in January 1977.

On Monday, Feb. 27, 1978, it was reported, “The Town of Oneonta Linear Park Committee got a good big jolt of encouragement Saturday when a spokesman for the New York State Department of Transportation gave committee members assurance of DOT support.” This was concerning user access to state lands as well as donation of land for park use. The state owned the land, acquired for building Interstate 88 and re-routing some areas of the river.

“It has only taken about five years to get to this point,” Kalmus said at the time. The project went dormant again, until a report on Jan. 10, 1980 said if the park was going to be a reality, the work would have to be taken on by the town planning board or a service organization. By that time, a linear park stretching from the area of Oneonta’s sewage treatment plant to Emmons would cost about $300,000.

Once again the park project went nearly silent. Plans for the park had been submitted to the state Department of Transportation, at its office in Binghamton. The office was then located in the state office building on Hawley Street. A fire in the basement of that building in June 1981 spread toxic chemicals throughout the building, making it uninhabitable until October 1994. Kalmus said that pretty much ended the town’s plan for a park.

While that park idea went by the wayside, a similar idea re-emerged in May 1987. Judith Betts, then chair of the Oneonta Town Planning Board, and Thomas Gergel, a member of the city Parks and Recreation Commission, presented the idea for a park along the Susquehanna to city officials. It would run along both sides of the river, in the city and town.

“I see this as a unique facility to be developed,” Gergel told the Star on May 23. Les Foster, then the town supervisor, said the park should be built before the development on the Southside encroached on the riverbanks. City officials were hesitant over the cost and maintenance.

It took several more years to make any progress on the park, but an organization called the Oneonta Susquehanna Greenway formed in the meantime, and significant progress was reported during 2001.

A half-mile trail had been completed in the spring, in time for Memorial Day and the General Clinton Canoe Regatta, due to the work of volunteers. Two miles were completed in 2001, looping around the city’s transfer station on Silas Lane. Moira Goldfarb and Thomas Gergel, co-chairs of the Oneonta Susquehanna Greenway, were named Conservationists of the Year by the Otsego County Conservation Association in October, for their efforts to get the Greenway moving forward.

Kalmus said he likes what has been adapted by the city with his original daydream. “I hike it fairly regularly,” he said.

The Greenway continues to be a work in progress. More information is at www.oneontagreenway.org

This weekend: Oneonta remembered the U.S.S. Maine.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.