Etna Borough Manager Mary Ellen Ramage can barely contain her excitement.

“The sign is down!” she says, “Walk Bike Shaler had it on their Facebook page yesterday.”

For years, Etna Borough has pursued a riverfront park and trail extension on the roughly one-acre sliver of former industrial land that borders the Allegheny River, not unlike that in nearby Millvale and Aspinwall.

Ramage, a lifelong Etna resident, said that growing up in the borough, when steel mills were still active, she and her parents would have to travel to North Park or the Pittsburgh Zoo if they wanted access to green space and nature.

But like so many riverfront towns and neighborhoods, the railroad runs right through the property. And for decades the Bridge Street crossing in Etna, not far from underneath the 62nd St. Bridge, was believed to be a private crossing, property of Norfolk Southern railroad.

That meant that any bike or pedestrian traffic that passed through the park would have to go over a 23-foot high flyover ramp, constructed and financed by the borough, that would cross over the rail lines to avoid the private crossing.

The proposed cost: $3.2 million.

The now-public crossing that runs through the future site of Etna Riverfront Park. Photo by Brian Conway.

Or so it was thought. Fortunately for the borough, their attorney, David Wolf, with Goldberg, Kamin & Garvin, researched historical records and maps affirming that the crossing was indeed public. Norfolk Southern agreed with the brief, which was filed with the PA Public Utility Commission, and agreed to take down the private crossing signs.

“This makes everything that much more attainable,” says Ramage.

The reaffirmation of public crossing, which was decided last month, means that it’s back to the drawing board for Etna, but without a $3 million albatross to weigh them down. Current plans envision a passive, riverfront nature sanctuary with educational assets relating to local wildlife, and perhaps a pavilion in an old pump house — a remnant of the park’s industrial past.

About half of the land was already owned by the borough and the other half was purchased by Friends of the Riverfront and transferred to the borough in 2015, in anticipation of a park.

Ramage says that there’s no definitive timeline for completion of the park, but she hopes to have it open by summer 2019.

In July, Shaler, which sits between Etna and the trail’s current terminus in Millvale, received a $200,000 grant from Southwestern PA Commission’s Livability through Smart Transportation Program to design a trail connection from the Millvale Riverfront Park through their township and to the proposed Etna park.

Darla J. Cravotta, Manager of Special Projects for Allegheny County, says that this Etna-to-Millvale section is “part of a system-wide strategy” of extending the Three Rivers Heritage Trail north as far as Freeport, at the northern end of Allegheny County, and could eventually be incorporated into a much larger trail that extends all the way to Erie.

1897 map of Etna used in court filings. Courtesy Goldberg, Kamin & Garvin, LLC.

“We’re connecting communities to the riverfront and creating a corridor that’s both recreation and transportation-based,” says Cravotta, adding that economic development in these towns is a priority.

Ramage notes that blue heron and kingfisher have taken up home in Etna along the Dougherty Nature Trail that runs beside Pine Creek. She hopes that the same can happen at the new park, and maybe change some perceptions along the way.

“It’s exciting,” she says. “It’s such a transformation. If you look at these historical photos we have of our riverfront you see these smokestacks and the steel mills. Sometimes that past is hard for people to get past, to see the possibility and potential.”

Brian Conway

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.