In October 1992, Franco Harris, WPXI news anchor Della Crews and Belgian horses were on hand for the dedication of the Butler-Freeport Community Trail.
Then some disgruntled landowners filed lawsuits, which took about a decade to settle.
“Among other managers, our trail is known as the ‘little trail that might,'” said Chris Ziegler, president of the Butler-Freeport Community Trail Council. The 30th anniversary of the 21-mile trail from Freeport to Butler will be more moderate on Saturday. There will be historical photos and exhibits at the Cooper Station caboose along the trail in Winfield. A Galaxy Donuts food truck will be available for visitors along with t-shirts, hats and more. Halloween decorations and candies will add to the festive occasion.
Buffalo Township Supervisor Albert “Ouch” Roenigk, 80, who owns the trail, remembers the grand opening of the Buffalo Township Fire Hall. “Franco made sure the kids were wearing helmets and walked them to Cabot.”
In an October 19, 1992 Sports Illustrated article, Harris’ presence at the trail opening was noted. The story focused on Harris promoting the use of abandoned railroad property for trails that young people could use for exercise. A Buffalo Township supervisor since 1979, Roenigk said he got the idea for a trail when he learned in 1988 that the Western Pennsylvania Railroad had stopped using the rail corridor.
“Buffalo Township was the only township that was interested in the railroad,” he said. “Our lawyer thought it would be good to have a small railway, but it would have been expensive.”
Ron Bennett, the first president of the Butler-Freeport Community Trail Council, asked supervisors what they could do to help, Roenigk said, adding that the trail council has since helped.
The township purchased the rail corridor for $90,000. He got that money back and more when they sold the ballast used for the tracks, Roenigk said.
But there was opposition from some landowners who wanted to absorb ownership of the railway line near their land as their own. Others didn’t want strangers near their property.
Some residents have filed lawsuits and some have even illegally erected barriers to prevent people from using sections of the trail.
“Some of the other townships involved backed down when we were sued,” Roenigk said.
The township has been in court for about 10 years; at one point, Buffalo Township supervisors were sued for about $1.6 million, Roenigk said. “Every time I ran for re-election, that was the topic.”
The municipality won the lawsuits.
Today, when Roenigk looks back on his 40 years as a supervisor, the track is one of his three favorite accomplishments.
“The township doesn’t have a traditional large park, but it does have a 20-mile ‘linear’ one,” he said.
The track’s success lies in the number of volunteers, which were about 180, for its sold-out half marathon recently, Ziegler said.
Ziegler, only the trails board’s second president, became involved after the lawsuits were settled.
“When it was over, it was over,” she said. “New people continued to get involved. The animosity did not follow the people.
Popularity skyrocketed during the covid-19 pandemic when the number of park users increased at Pittsburgh-area parks and more people headed to new destinations, Ziegler said.
For two weeks in 2020, the trail board recorded over 4,500 visitors. Although Ziegler doesn’t have exact numbers on trail usage, thousands of visitors make their way there every month.
“If it wasn’t for the community, it wouldn’t be a trail,” Ziegler said. “The community is very involved and the trail is maintained entirely by volunteers. They have skin in the game and treat it like their backyard.
A revival of the historic Butler-Freeport Trail Geocache is also scheduled from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday. And there will be a demonstration of electric bikes.