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Blazing the Port Jefferson-Wading River Rail-Trail

Denis Byrne, left with Mike Cosel and his

Denis Byrne, left with Mike Cosel and his wife, Ronne, seen by the bridge and trail in Shoreham. (Sept 21, 2013). Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

What will eventually be one of Long Island's longest recreational routes -- a 10-foot-wide, 13-mile paved path from Wading River to Port Jefferson Station -- begins around the corner from a strip mall.

The obscure location, a few hundred feet north of the intersection of Wading River Manor Road and Route 25A, was once the site of a Long Island Rail Road branch -- the terminus to a line extending east from Port Jefferson that was supposed to do for towns along the North Shore of Suffolk County what railroad lines were then doing all over a growing America.

"Back in the late 1800s, wherever the railroad went communities sprang up," said David Morrison, author of "Long Island Rail Road: Port Jefferson Branch," a photographic history of the line being published in October. "The railroad figured, 'We'll go out to Wading River, and it will explode.' And it never did."

The Wading River branch opened in 1895. There were four stops along the line, which roughly paralleled what is now Route 25A: Miller (then called Miller's) Place, Rocky Point, Shoreham and Wading River.

Trains ran four times a day: two eastbound, two westbound. It took about 30 minutes to get from Port Jefferson Station to the Wading River terminus, which consisted of a two-story station building, an engine house, a water tank and other structures.

Around the footprint of what was once the station complex, there's now an auto repair shop, a school and a waist-high wall of weeds.

On a bright, late-summer morning in September, a group of hikers plunged into the thicket and, after a few minutes of wishing someone had brought a machete, stepped out onto the old LIRR right of way.

Trees line each side, and LIPA power lines tower overhead, pointing the way -- 13 miles west to Port Jefferson Station. Grass is thick and slick, and while the right of way is about 100 feet wide, the existing trail is faint.

After a quick check to make sure no ticks decided to come along for the ride, Mike and Ronne Cosel, of Setauket, and their friend Denis Byrne, of Port Jefferson, forge ahead together, as they've done on this trail project for more a decade. Their grassroots organization didn't -- and still doesn't -- have a website or a name.

"Just a few of us tilting at windmills," Mike Cosel said.

 

The story of the Wading River LIRR line ends in 1938, when the railroad shut it down due to low ridership. The story of the Wading River Rail-Trail begins more than 60 years later, when the Cosels were visiting their daughter in Arlington, Mass., a Boston suburb. While there, they went for a walk on the Minuteman Bikeway, a 10-mile paved, recreational path built in the 1990s, on the right of way of two defunct rail lines.

The couple was impressed.

"I said, 'Why don't we have something like that here?' " recalled Mike Cosel.

When he learned that the 13-mile right of way for the old Wading River-Port Jefferson Station line was still extant, he and Ronne decided to pursue their idea. They didn't think it would be a hard sell: As bicyclists, they saw how hard it was to find traffic-free routes to ride.

"Everybody loved it," Cosel said, recalling the presentations he and Ronne made to various civic organizations and local government officials. "They said it was a slam dunk."

Encouraged by the response, Mike, a retired property manager, confidently predicted to his wife that "we'll be walking on this trail in a year."

That was 2003.

Over the next few years, the Cosels surely must have begun to feel like LIRR officials in 1895 who, having opened the Wading River line with high hopes, were disappointed.

"Almost from the day they came out here," Morrison said, "I think they were sorry they did. It was a money loser."

Every time the trail process stalled, Cosel and his allies tried to keep it on the front burner through calls, letters, reminder emails, petitions and talks at local organizations.

"I became a professional thorn in the side," he said.

For 12 years, the Cosels and their allies kept up the pressure. "We called legislators, LIPA, the county attorney's office, state assemblymen . . . everyone," Cosel recalls.

"We never let it pop off the radar, Ronne added.

The couple also kept up their schedule of presentations to local civic organizations. At every one, Mike Cosel said, "We'd ask them to contact their legislator. We'd even bring a sample letter."

Some did more than that.

Bruce Kagan, a schoolteacher and cycling enthusiast who heard about the Cosels' efforts, had his students at the Laddie A. Decker-Sound Beach Elementary School in Miller Place launch a letter-writing campaign to legislators about the trail, as part of a civics lesson.

Other, more conventional petitions, some with hundreds of signatures, according to Cosel, were also generated.

It's not as if the rest of the couple's life stopped. Over the past decade the Cosels became grandparents and retirees. But the trail was never far from their thoughts or efforts. And they were not alone. Cosel alludes to what he calls "silent partners . . . government employees who couldn't publicly speak out in favor of what we were doing but were able to help us behind the scenes."

Even when progress was slow, their efforts were noticed. Cosel said some legislators either stopped taking his calls or avoided him. "Someone said to me, 'You're like a pit bull,' " he recalled.

The Cosels did more than just nudge. When obstacles brought the project to a standstill, they were ready to provide solutions.

"At one point, someone said, 'This was never done on a utility line,' " Cosel said. He and Ronne contacted the National Rails to Trails Conservancy in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit advocacy group for rail-trail initiatives around the country.

"Turned out it had been done, in Pennsylvania somewhere," Cosel said. "They sent us a 20-page legal document that we were able to send to the county and LIPA and say, 'See, it can be done.' "

And eventually it was.

In August, LIPA and the county agreed on a 25-year, no-fee lease. U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) helped secure a $6.5-million grant for the project from the Federal Highway Administration's Scenic Byways program, and Suffolk officials plan to have Melville-based RBA Engineering draw up designs, which will be presented for community input.

 

While issues of funding and jurisdiction were to be expected in a project of this size, the Cosels and their growing number of allies found another, unanticipated obstacle: Some of those whose properties abut the old rail line have adopted it as an extension of their backyards. At a property about a half-mile west of the trail head, a beach volleyball court -- complete with sand, net, deck chairs and an adjacent viewing and area -- stands incongruously amid the power lines and crabgrass.

Farther on, the expansive right of way narrows to a small path through what looks again like an impenetrable thicket of high grass and brush. It is hard to imagine that steam engines ever chugged along here.

Then in a spot where the shrubbery is gone, the right of way is cleared, and to the right is a large LIPA substation and a barbed wire fence with a sign reading "DANGER: KEEP AWAY."

Byrne and company keep away, as do the wildlife. A deer darts across the trail ahead of the party, and rustles in the high grass suggest other critters scurrying to avoid them. But a quarter mile or so west of the substation, a hawk circles overhead before alighting on one of the power lines. He seems to be eyeing the group before flying off.

"I think he decided we're too big for his lunch," joked Byrne, who has explored the trail extensively on his mountain bike.

At this point the group had seen much and covered barely three miles of the path -- not even a quarter of the entire length. Just south of this point, which is barely the 3-mile mark of the planned bike path, is the new Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe on Route 25A, which is raising funds to open as a museum and attraction along the path when it is finished.

The walk concludes at one of the trail's most impressive railroad landmarks. The stone bridge across Woodville Road in Shoreham is the last of four originally built for the line. It was constructed by master stonemasons, using perfectly interlocked brownstone blocks. Clearly, it was built to last: Cars still drive under the 115-year-old structure.

"It just seems to have escaped time," Morrison said.

As did the ill-fated Wading River branch, which seems poised to begin a new chapter in its history. Citing a long process mandated by use of federal and state funds, involving public hearings and documentation, Gil Anderson, Suffolk County commissioner of public works, said it could be three years before the new path is paved and ready to use. But he is confident that this train will eventually leave the station.

"I appreciate everyone's patience," he said. "I'm just going to ask for a little more patience. But we'll get there."

Cosel is slightly more optimistic.

"We will be walking this trail in late 2014 or early 2015," he predicted.

With a hedge thicker than the canopy of growth along the Rail-Trail, he adds, "But I wouldn't bet money on it."

 

 

The Port Jefferson-Wading River Rail-Trail project

Rail

1895: Wading River branch of the Long Island Rail Road opens. Trains ran from Port Jefferson Station to terminus at new Wading River station.

1898: Miller's (later Miller) Place and Rocky Point stations built.

1902: Shoreham station built.

1905: Second story is added to existing Wading River station.

1927: The LIRR replaced steam power engines on this line with self-propelled gas cars known as "doodlebugs."

1938: The LIRR closes the Wading River line (the last train leaves Port Jefferson Station for Wading River on Oct. 9). The tracks are torn up, and while most stations were eventually torn down, the one at Rocky Point was moved a short distance to where it remains today, a part of a lumberyard complex.

Trail

2000: Mike and Ronne Cosel hike the Minuteman Bikeway in Massachusetts and are inspired to help spark something similar in Suffolk County.

2001: The Cosels develop a video presentation on the benefits of a rail trail; meet with local officials and civic groups to promote the idea.

2002: New York State grants $2 million for trail.

2003: Having been assured by LIPA, state and county officials that the Rail-Trail is "a slam dunk," Mike Cosel confidently predicts that "We'll be walking this trail in a year."

2004-2010: Project stalls for various reasons, including questions about liability and changes in administration.

2010: U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) secures Federal Highway Administration's Scenic Byways grant that will provide $6.5 million for the project.

August, 2013: LIPA and Suffolk County announce agreement on a 25-year, no-fee lease of the land. Melville-based RBA Engineering is hired to draw up designs, which will be presented for community input.

Late 2014-2016: Estimates on when at least the first 3-mile stretch of the path will be paved and open to the public.

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