The bicycle trail in Gratwick Riverside Park has attracted hikers and bikers who said it's quieter and more peaceful than other waterfront recreation areas in the region.
This time next year, that could all change.
The city is about to move forward with a $200,000 project to build the final 6,000 feet of a blacktop path that will connect its bicycle trail at the north end of the city with the Niawanda and Erie Canalway trails, as well as the Tonawandas Gateway Harbor. That will open up the city to a large network of smooth-paved trails for bicyclists, in-line skaters and pedestrians.
"I usually ride down in Niawanda, but in the last couple of weeks it's been so busy I figured I'd ride here," said North Tonawanda resident Roxann Huwitt, who hadn't heard about the city's plan to extend the trail.
"I think it's about time they did," she said.
The city put in the first 5,000 feet of bike trail along its riverfront in 2001, when Gratwick Riverside Park was nearing completion of a nearly $8 million environmental cleanup.
The 53-acre area is man-made but was built up when local industry dumped waste into the Niagara River and the city used it as a landfill, said City Engineer Dale Marshall.
The site was deemed a park in 1968, but the state Department of Environmental Conservation found contamination in 1990 and ordered remediation.
A bike path wasn't included in the original plans, Marshall said, but seemed like a natural fit. "I had the brainstorm to say, 'If we're building this park back, let's put a riverwalk in.' " he said. "We can do it, and I have the equipment."
Marshall said the cost of the trail was split between the parties who were responsible for the contamination, but the state reimbursed the city for 75 percent of its share.
Now, on any given summer night, the park at the Wheatfield-North Tonawanda line attracts dozens of residents, including families with picnic dinners, groups of boys with fishing poles and bicyclists.
The 4,400-foot extension of the Gratwick trail, which runs along River Road to Fisherman's Park, was completed last year with a nearly $100,000 state grant from the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
A similar grant from the same office will pay for nearly half of the final piece of the trail, which will complete the three-mile path along River Road that will end at Sweeney Street and the harbor.
Marshall said the city will bid the construction of the 10-foot-wide path toward the end of the summer with completion expected this fall. It will run a few feet from Route 265 and include landscaping, lights, benches and trash cans.
Several businesses along that stretch of busy road have driveways that will cross the new section of trail, but Marshall said safety will be addressed with pavement markings and signs to alert motorists and bicyclists of each other.
While the river will be obscured from view on that part of the path because of business and industry, Marshall said it will be safer and easier to navigate the trail along River Road than behind the city's water treatment plant and private properties.
When completed, the entire path will have cost $500,000 to design and construct, but the city will have paid just over $200,000.
Diane Davis, a city resident who has visited Gratwick Riverside Park with her husband, Jerry, nearly every day for 20 years, thinks the trail is money well spent.
"With all this waterfront, they had to do something," Diane Davis said, as she pushed her grandson, Joshua Rollain, in a stroller along the path. "Now they just need something for the kids, like a beach where they could swim."
Jerry Davis said he likes the quiet of the park most evenings but supports improvements, even if it means more people will begin to use the trail.
"I'll tell you, it's come a long way," he said. "If you would have seen it before, it was a dump site with a road."
Marshall said he thinks the city's success in getting state grants -- another $20,000 grant was used to hire surveyors to map out the trail -- is because it has become a popular concept to connect people with the waterfront.
"You should be able to get on a bike at the Peace Bridge and go all the way to Fort Niagara without getting killed by a car," Marshall said.
In fact, the 13 riverfront municipalities have adopted the Niagara River Greenway Plan, which envisions a series of interconnected trails from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.
Marshall, a recreational bicyclist who uses local trails, points out the irony that North Tonawanda is about to complete its portion of the Greenway before the first checks are written from a dedicated $450 million greenway fund the New York Power Authority will pay out over the next 50 years.
North Tonawanda is not a member of the Niagara Power Coalition, the main Niagara County recipient of the greenway money, but could ask Niagara County, which is a member, for help with some future projects, such as an interpretive center, improved fishing areas and restrooms at Gratwick.
Kurt Alverson, a North Tonawanda Waterfront Commission member, said the completed bike trail will be a good foundation for the push to bring people back to the waterfront. He expects more overnight boaters will be attracted to the city because they often use bikes for transportation once they dock.
"A lot of effort went into making an actual use of the waterfront," he said. "We haven't done it in the past. The bike trail is the first piece of that."
The city of North Tonawanda is moving forward to fill the gaps in its bike and hiking trails.
(Green) Park trails -- The city included 5,000 feet of trail through Gratwick Riverside Park in 2001, and another 4,400-foot extension to Fisherman's Park last year.
(Red) Other existing trail -- The Buffalo and Erie County Riverwalk trail ends at the Seymour Street bridge in the City of Tonawanda.
(Blue) New trail -- The final portion of the trail will run along River Road for 6,000 feet and end at the City of Tonawanda. It will connect with the Tonawandas Gateway Harbor, a short canalside trail in North Tonawanda and the start of the Erie Canalway Trail in the City of Tonawanda.