This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of The Montco Explorer Newspaper. Pick up your copy at #MakeItMontco kiosk stops around Montgomery County.
“The Schuylkill River has been the backbone of the community forever.”
As Executive Director of the Schuylkill River Heritage Area, Elaine Schaefer is biased toward the river, but it’s impossible to argue the point.
“From Native Americans to the American Revolution through the Industrial Revolution the river has been an integral part of life here. Even today, 1.5 million people still get their drinking water from the Schuylkill River.”
The Radnor Township Commissioner served seven years as the Executive Director of the Radnor Conservancy, a local land trust dedicated to preserving natural resources and encouraging the protection of the open space.
After her recent foray into politics, Schaefer returned to non-profit leadership when she took the Executive Director position in May.
“I had the great fortune of taking over an organization that I don’t have to fix,” Schaefer said. “My goal is to step it up a notch and reach a wider audience.”
Heritage areas are places with a distinct characteristic of importance to the nation’s history. In this case, the Schuylkill River and the communities that it serves. And while the Schuylkill River Heritage Area has been serving the region since 1974, the organization’s work doesn’t make a lot of headlines. That’s something Schaefer would like to change.
“A lot of what we do is behind the scenes. I’d like to see the organization get more credit for the work it does so that we can raise more awareness and more funding for future projects.”
The most high-profile project is the Schuylkill River Trail. Much of the organization’s time and resources goes into the construction, maintenance and promotion of the trail. And for Schaefer, completing the trail is the organization’s top priority.
Of the planned 130 miles of trail, only about 65 are complete. The largest section of that is from Phoenixville to Philadelphia. Here, the trail passes through Valley Forge National Historical Park and Montgomery County communities like Oaks, Norristown and Conshohocken.
There are still noticeable gaps, especially in Schuylkill and Berks Counties, as well as between Pottstown and Phoenixville. Closing those gaps, according to Schaefer, isn’t just about recreation. It’s about economic development.
“We have already seen the economic development and vibrancy that a good river trail can make,” Schaefer said. “You can see it in Manayunk, Conshohocken and Phoenixville. The community used to have their backs to the river. Now it’s front-facing. They want businesses on the river.”
Of course, there wouldn’t be a Schuylkill River Trail (SRT) without the Schuylkill River. For the Heritage Area, promoting the Water Trail is another important initiative.
Reminders can be seen throughout the organization’s office. The walls are adorned with 19 oars, one from each edition of the annual Schuylkill River Sojourn. After next year’s event, a 20th oar will be autographed by the participants and hung with pride in the office.
“The event is very well respected among sojourns,” Schaefer said. This year’s seven-day event drew 221 participants with 70 of them making the full 112-mile journey from Schuylkill Haven to Philadelphia.
A series of Pedal and Paddle events combines activities from both trails throughout the year, and Schaefer believes we are close to making a more permanent connection with rentals that would allow you to kayak down the river for dinner and bike back home.
One of the organization’s largest events of the year takes place on September 30.
The 2nd Annual Ride for the River is held in conjunction with Sly Fox Brewing Company’s Can Jam Festival. Riders have the option of taking a 40- or 16-mile ride to and from the Festival along the Schuylkill River Trail.
Whether riding to Reading’s Riverfront Park or the Union Township Recreation Area, everything begins and ends at the Can Jam Festival. The event features eight hours of live music, great food, and Sly Fox beer, including its SRT Ale. The American pale ale is named for the Schuylkill River Trail and a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the beer benefits the Trail through the Heritage Area’s efforts.
Improvements and expansions are planned for both trails, including several projects in Montgomery County. Miles of trail continue to be developed in and around Pottstown. Plans call for establishing a boat launch in Bridgeport. And a feasibility study is planned for repurposing an abandoned railroad trestle to connect the Schuylkill River Trail to Royersford.
These projects all boil down to one thing for Schaefer. “It’s about getting all of these river communities to prosper.
“The river is the great economic driver.”
2nd Annual Ride for the River
When: September 30
Where: Starts and Ends at 331 Circle of Progress Dr, Pottstown.
What: The Ride for the River fundraiser includes both a 16-mile and 40-mile ride to and from Sly Fox Brewing Company's Can Jam Music Festival in Pottstown. The 40-mile ride goes from Pottstown to Reading's Riverfront Park and back. The 16-mile round trip takes riders to the Union Township Recreation Area.
Cost: $50 Per Rider | $55 at the Event