The Nature Of Green Space Bristol To Preserve Tract Near Canal

Posted: September 12, 1999

BRISTOL BOROUGH — Between a popular car dealership and a recently restored lagoon in this tiny borough, a dense swath of trees and marshland rolls southeast along the historic Delaware Canal yet untouched by the bulldozer.

The engine of industry long ago churned most of the thick riverfront woodlands in Bucks County's oldest town into factories and warehouses, parking lots and storefronts.

But this roughly 20-acre tract, among the last vestiges of open space in Bristol, has survived unscathed. And now, in an effort to preserve the beauty of the landscape, the wooded parcel largely will remain as it has for centuries: natural.

Last month, the borough put up $150,000 in local, county and state funds to buy a 6.7-acre section of the tract owned by the local timber firm, Lumbermen Associates. Appraisals are under way on the roughly 14 acres remaining, which are owned by Amtrak.

Once that land is purchased, borough officials will have acquired one of the final properties needed to restore and showcase a mile-and-a-half section of the historic canal's terminus, or ending point: the bustling river port of the 60-mile waterway that served as one of Southeast Pennsylvania's busiest trade routes at the turn of the century.

"It doesn't get much wilder than this," said Bristol Borough Manager Fidel Esposito, after hacking his way through vines and brambles one sticky day last week to show off the town's latest acquisition. "Come springtime, this whole area will be dotted with wildflowers.

"Some portions of this could have been developed," Esposito added, waving an arm across the landscape. "But really, what the heck can you put back here but a trucking outfit or a warehouse. And that's what we were afraid of. We didn't want to see that kind of development around an area we're trying to preserve for its historical significance."

In addition to saving the last stretch of green space in Bristol, the tract and its geographic link to several recent canal-area preservation and restoration projects underscores that even in the county's industrial lower end, the waterway possesses natural and man-made attractions.

For years, some residents have argued, the bulk of preservation work and tourist-attraction projects on the historic trade route has focused along the middle and upper stretches. New Hope has the mule barge. Kintnersville has canoe docks. And Raubsville has the Theodore Roosevelt Recreation Area, with picnic areas, fishing holes and hiking trails.

"I know people from the lower end sometimes feel all the attention on the canal is focused up north," said Roger McChesney, assistant manager of the Delaware Canal State Park. "But right now, there are several things going on in the lower end."

Now in Bristol, the Delaware Canal is bustling with projects and completed attractions that officials hope will lure tourists.

At the town's northern border on Green Lane just behind Charles Oldsmobile Cadillac, the wooded area will provide visitors with a nature preserve. Walking paths and observation decks, which state park officials will help to design, will allow hikers along the canal's towpath to step into a canopy of twisting vines and trees for a scenic view.

"We might put a canoe dock in there or perhaps a mule-barge ride like in New Hope," said Victor DePallo, the design consultant for much of Bristol's canal projects. "But we're really looking just to preserve the natural beauty that's already there."

Where the woodlands give way along the canal to the south, the recently restored Bristol Lagoon offers visitors a serene isthmus of grass and trees cutting into a pooled section of canal waters, accented by a classic Roman gazebo where water meets land.

The lagoon, originally created by Joseph Grundy in the late 1920s, gave way to the site of the old Grundy ice rink. But two years after fire destroyed the rink in 1995, state Rep. Thomas Corrigan (D., Bucks) and state Sen. Robert Tomlinson (R., Bucks) launched efforts to restore the lagoon.

Just across Jefferson Street from the lagoon, the canal rolls on toward the Delaware. To the east, the stone masonry of a powerhouse that once generated electricity for the adjacent Grundy textile mill soon will house a Bristol heritage museum. Designs also are in the works to turn a stately manse on historic Mill Street into a Delaware Canal Welcome Center.

Farther down the old trade route, where the canal pours into the Delaware River, the Bristol Marsh Nature Preserve provides walking trails and observation decks on one of the river's largest freshwater bogs. The federally funded site is sanctuary to a variety of animal, bird, insect and plant life.

Such projects emphasize that in the last decade, Bristol has come to realize the canal's cultural value, said Susan Taylor, head of the nonprofit Friends of the Delaware Canal, a group that helps maintain and document the 168-year-old waterway.

For years, the canal's terminus in Bristol lay dormant and ignored. After commercial barges ceased trade between Easton and Bristol in 1931, town officials filled in more than a half-mile stretch to create a municipal parking lot and other projects.

By 1991, when the Friends group organized its first annual autumn hike along the canal's length, Bristol officials mowed away tall grasses and weeds to accommodate the tour.

"People were simply thrilled to see even that little bit of canal maintenance in Bristol back then," Taylor said. "We've certainly come light-years past that."

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