Staycation: Cynwyd Heritage Trail

staycation
staycation

As part of a summer “Staycation” series, Eyes on the Street is profiling outdoor getaways that Philadelphians can explore without having to go too far.

To kick off the Staycation Series, I took my eyes and my feet to the Cynwyd Heritage Trail, where I walked with Sarah Francis, a volunteer at the Lower Merion Historical Society and a member of the Friends of the Cynwyd Heritage Trail.

The Cynwyd Heritage Trail is a 1.8-mile, multi-use path that travels between the historic Cynwyd Station and the Manayunk Bridge. In between those important landmarks, the Cynwyd Heritage Trail is a linear park that runs behind residential areas, Bala Cynwyd Park and the West Laurel Hill and Westminster cemeteries. Vine Creek intersects with and runs along the trail in several places, and before the path reaches the Manayunk Bridge, it opens up offering views of the hilly Philadelphia neighborhood across the river and expressway.

The path has both a paved, smooth surface and a softer, dirt surface. For the most part the paved surface runs under catenaries where Reading Railroad and Pennsylvania Railroad tracks once traveled. The compressed, dirt surface branches off at times and meanders along creeks, through grassy meadow areas and behind some man-made landscape features.

The trail’s hidden history

In addition to offering a quiet escape from both Philadelphia and nearby City Avenue, the Cynwyd Heritage Trail contains an intriguing history.

The trail begins just outside the historic Cynwyd Station. On one side the trailhead is made of a large, concrete area recently paved by PennDOT. On the other side of the trailhead is a one-acre park built by the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). Today many people overlook the park or don’t realize it is a public space, Francis said.

Much of the trail is built along the footprint of former Pennsylvania Railroad’s Schuylkill Valley division and tells the story of two competing railroads. In the late 19th Century the Pennsylvania Railroad decided to cut into Reading Railroad Company’s territory and built the Schuylkill Division line running from Philadelphia to Reading, Pa. and Pottsville, Pa. The Schuylkill Division essentially paralleled the established Reading tracks, and at times the tracks were only about 50 feet apart. 

The trail passes between West Laurel Hill and Westminster cemeteries, which used to have their own station where trains carrying both passengers and coffins would stop. Today some stone ruins of an old station building stand alongside the trail and create a rest area for trail users. 

Before Friends of Cynwyd Heritage Trail started clearing the trail of thick bramble that had grown over the abandoned rail corridor – they found cars with bullet holes in them, refrigerators and a kitchen sink among other things – this entrance to the West Laurel Hill Cemetery was nearly forgotten. After the Friends uncovered access point, West Laurel Hill Cemetery installed a new gate and spruced up the entrance. Now in addition to the Cynwyd Heritage Trail, visitors can access West Laurel Hill Cemetery and its own trails. 

Cynwyd Heritage Trail also passes the sites of several former mills, some of which were powered by Vine Creek. Francis is in the process getting signage installed along the trail to explain the historical significance of these mills, the cemeteries and other historic attractions.

Future connection: Manayunk Bridge

Today the trail ends just past the Manayunk Bridge at the intersection of Rock Hill Road and Belmont Ave. As it stands today, the Manayunk Bridge is an old, abandoned, curved railroad bridge, but it will soon be transformed into a bike and pedestrian bridge that will connect Lower Merion Township with Manayunk. 

That project is a complex one and involves several stakeholders joined together in a unique collaboration. According to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the bridge could go into construction as soon as late 2013 or early 2014. 

When the bridge is complete, the Cynwyd Heritage Trail will feed into the Manayunk Bridge, and trail-goers will be able to travel to and from Manayunk by foot or bicycle. 

Beginning, for instance, at the trailhead of the Cynwyd Heritage Trail, a cyclist could potentially ride the 1.8-mile Cynwyd trail, cross the Manayunk Bridge, and connect with trails along the Schuylkill River. For this reason, both the Cynwyd Heritage Trail and Manayunk Bridge are critical links in the Circuit – the proposed 750-mile regional trail network.  

Cynwyd Station’s story

Built in 1890 as a freight stop and now owned by SEPTA, Cynwyd Station sat vacant for decades. It survived three known fires and multiple arson attempts and lived a life as a drug den before the Lower Merion Historical Society began pushing to renovate the station as a community space with a waiting area for SEPTA passengers. 

After a lengthy bureaucratic process, SEPTA leased the station to the Lower Merion Township, which then subleased the station to the Lower Merion Historical Society. In 2008, the Lower Merion Historical Society began historic renovations on the station building. Work is ongoing. 

Today the station offers a glimpse back in time with original front doors, first floor windows, bricks and columns. 

By the fall, the Lower Merion Historical Society hopes to have a café and ice cream parlor operating inside. In addition to serving as the Cynwyd Heritage Trail trailhead, the building has a SEPTA passenger waiting area and an area displaying information on the station and neighborhood history, trial itself, The Circuit, and more. 

In case you go…

At the moment the Cynwyd Heritage Trail is best accessed via Cynwyd Station, and users can bike, drive or take the train there. Parking is somewhat limited, but there is additional parking behind the neighboring BMW dealer parking lot. Of course cycling to the trail is encouraged.

In a community where conversations about new developments often begin with questions about parking, Francis said, “The trail is the first big step in another direction. At first you drive your bike to the trail, and then maybe someday you’ll ride your bike to the trail.”

SEPTA does run weekday service to Cynwyd Station, but service is limited, so be sure to check the train schedule before you visit. Getting to the Cynwyd Station from Center City by SEPTA bus is doable, but it is a bit of a trek, especially given the traffic congestion that seems to plague City Ave. 

The Manayunk Bridge is heavily gated at the moment, but if the project continues to move forward as planned, the bridge could provide additional pedestrian and bicycle access to the trail. There is a way to access the Schuylkill River today but the unmarked trail requires a bit of scrambling and bushwhacking. Francis suggested that down the line, maybe in 10 years or so, that could become an official spur. 

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