By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer
WEST CHESTER TWP. - When Bill Zerkle looks at the dirt mule path along the abandoned Miami and Erie Canal, he sees a modern paved route for joggers, bikers and walkers.
The West Chester Township Parks director has been working with Fairfield, Hamilton, county, state and conservation officials to build the four-mile path from Ohio 747 in Port Union to Gilmore Ponds.
To Zerkle, this is more than just a bike ride through brush along an old ditch.
"The idea is to capture a bit of our history before it disappears," Zerkle says.
In the 1800s, the 250-mile Miami and Erie Canal was an important commercial artery linking Toledo with Cincinnati (Lake Erie and the Ohio River), offering an outlet for goods and products all the way to New Orleans.
Port Union, two miles north of the Ohio 747/I-75 interchange, was so named because it was a major stop along the waterway. The Port Union Cafe is one of the oldest buildings in the township, he says.
The 10-foot wide path would go past an aqueduct, under the Union Centre Boulevard and Ohio 4 Bypass bridges, to Butler County MetroParks' 260-acre Gilmore Ponds Interpretive Reserve. Near the Union Centre bridge, the canal passes the stone foundation of the old Cullen Ice House, which shipped ice from a nearby pond to Cincinnati breweries, he says.
Although the township parks system is strapped for cash, with the park levy failure in November, Zerkle is confident the path could be built with grants from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Clean Ohio Trails Fund and land donations. The Butler County Transportation District has offered 0.7 acres near the Union Centre Boulevard railroad overpass.
"The whole project doesn't require cash from the township. We can use existing land for matching grants," says Dave Gully, township administrator.
"It's a wonderful project," says Trustee Catherine Stoker of the Port Union-Gilmore Ponds Conservation Corridor.
Fairfield and MetroParks also have applied for grants to build the rest of the path in two phases.
"If we can get the bike path built to Gilmore Road, then we could get it connected in some way (over city streets) to the Great Miami bike path in Joyce Park," says Mike Muska, MetroParks director.
The bike path eventually will be extended east from Port Union to the new West Chester Safety Services Center, 9566 Beckett Road, where it connects to township routes to Mason, Zerkle says. That's the plan for the Miami-2-Miami bike path linking the Great and Little Miami Rivers, he says.
"I think other things will blossom as soon as we get the path through, and people will recognize the historic and recreational value," says Howard Dirksen, Fairfield City Council member.
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