Slow but steady progress for Manchester's Riverwalk

MANCHESTER — Manchester's Riverwalk continues to grow thanks to the dedicated work of community volunteers, who recently welcomed the donation of a historic water turbine from the Manchester Historical Society.

The turbine, originally from the Beebe Marble Mill, now rests atop a marble slab, on the section of the trail closest to Friends of the Sun on Depot Street.

"The historical society is grateful to Brent Herrmann who saved the turbine during the demolition of the sirloin saloon. Such actions aren't always acknowledged and appreciated, but without such efforts pieces like this would have been lost," said Shawn Harrington, curator for the Manchester Historical Society. "The Manchester Riverwalk committee incorporating its display into the landscape keeps our history in the public view, which is at the core of our mission."

"The water used to come down here and there was a canal, so this river powered the town," said Manchester Riverwalk Association President, and owner of the solar energy company Grassroots Solar, Bill Laberge. "We're just showing the history of it, and how this river actually used to be integrated into the town's activities. We want to tell that story as we're restoring the river walk."

On Sunday morning, a day after the turbine had been installed, a group of volunteers gathered at the riverwalk for a day of cleanup.

"We did an ecological restoration planting, so now we're just making sure that our plants are thriving," said Laberge. "We're going to mulch them and clean up."

The process of restoring Manchester's river walk began in 2010 with the group Transition Town Manchester, and in 2013 the path became a focus of one of four town "task forces" to revitalize the downtown area. That's when the Manchester Riverwalk Association, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, was born.

"When we started transition work it seemed like a good idea for us to fix it up," said volunteer Theo Talcott, who's been with the project since the beginning. "I remember coming down here with my dad when he was clearing the trail originally, when I was about six or seven. It was a fun way to spend a Saturday morning; everyone turned out to build this trail."

"I think a lot of times we get so busy in our lives that we don't stop to see what's right in our backyard; I had no idea that this was back here," said Lisa Helmholz-Adams, owner of Helmholz Fine Arts and board member for the Manchester Riverwalk Association. "I felt very strongly having lived here, and having worked right down the road for over 24 years, that it was important to really make this accessible for everybody."

While the riverwalk fell into disrepair over the years, the group hopes to revitalize this forgotten facet of the downtown landscape.

"It's continually growing," said Laberge. "Right now the best section is going from Friends of the Sun up to the Town Green."

"It's a fantastic group of dedicated people working on it, and we're making some real headway this summer," said volunteer Margot Page, author of "Little Rivers: Tales of a Woman Angler." "This project really appealed to me because of my own love and personal history with rivers and water."

To date, the organization has made considerable progress on the project by designing the trail alongside a landscape architect, conducting elevation surveys, and initiating an ecological restoration program. Next, the grassroots group hopes to install a bridge crossing the Battenkill in conjunction with the Vermont Agency of Transportation and the University of Vermont.

"The state has some surplus bridges, so we're going to see if we might be able to incorporate that into the design," said Laberge. "UVM has offered some students to help figure out the engineering, which might be a fun project to collaborate on."

The Manchester Riverwalk Association hopes to continue expanding the trail, which runs alongside the Battenkill in downtown Manchester.

"This is just a beautiful place," said volunteer Ron Dundon. "The long-term the vision is to connect this to the Hildene, and have a trail that goes all the way from the center of town to the Hildene Meadows."

Many of the volunteers that came out to get their hands dirty on Sunday morning believe that the riverwalk will enhance downtown Manchester, and provide a valuable public space for the community.

"I think nationwide, towns, villages, or cities that have a riverwalk are vibrant," said Dundon as he worked. "This is a neglected aspect that we've turned our back on for years."

"Something of such natural beauty really enhances the downtown area," added Page. "It provides an oasis of quiet and beauty and sounds of the natural world in downtown Manchester."

At the heart of the project lies a deep commitment to Manchester's community.

"It's the Battenkill; the beauty of Vermont is what makes people come here and live here, and I think that community aspect was everything for me," said Helmholz-Adams. "We're putting in our own time here because we see a bigger picture, that this is really going to be something special for people to enjoy in Manchester."

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Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.


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