BY MIKE McCARTHY | MIRROR EDITOR — The ribbon-cutting ceremony for Maumee’s historic Towpath Park on September 14 paid homage to the community’s rich past and celebrated the prospects of a bright future for the newly rejuvenated riverfront park.
A gathering of approximately 50 Maumee residents assembled on a sunny Wednesday morning to welcome the official rebirth of Towpath Park, featuring the popular Towpath Trail, which extends from the east side of the Ft. Meigs Memorial Bridge to White Street Park, located at the end of the 300 block of East Harrison Street.
Maumee city officials, members of the Maumee Chamber of Commerce and other interested local citizens were on hand for the 10:00 a.m. ceremony.
Mayor Richard Carr opened the festivities by crediting Maumee city administrator Patrick Burtch for spearheading the 15-month towpath cleanup campaign, which merged the resources of the city’s construction division with a literal grassroots corps of local volunteers.
The volunteers, numbering between 10 and 25 on any given weekend, removed a small jungle of invasive plants and trees, while city workers handled the heavy removal of brush and poured approximately 1,300 feet of new concrete on the towpath.
The sum of these combined efforts has resulted in a towpath that is accessible to virtually all citizens, with a smooth surface that can accommodate electric motor scooters and tricycles for the physically challenged, as well as bicycles and roller blades for the more physically nimble. Walkers, runners and people taking their pets out for some exercise are now enjoying the views of the Maumee River as they share the towpath.
“When Patrick came in as administrator, we discussed the rejuvenation of parts of our city, and this was the first thing he took on because it was the oldest part of our city,” Carr stated in his opening remarks. “You couldn’t even see the river because of all the trees blocking the view. Turn around and just look at this view today. People will come from miles to get a look at this beautiful river.”
“It was Patrick’s vision, his drive, his experience that helped make this possible,” Carr added.
The mayor also had high praise for Maumee City Council. “Councilman Gabe Barrow also took on this project and was instrumental in making sure that council understood what we were doing and that we got the financing approved,” said the mayor. “Gabe also spent a lot of hours down here. I think he even had an injury.”
The mayor recognized another current member of city council, saying “Jon Fiscus was not yet on council at the time this project started. Jon spent endless hours helping out, and he also brought many other residents of Maumee in to work on this project, volunteering – people who have never been involved with the city before. He got them involved, helping us clean this all the way down the path. Thank you, Jon.”
Next, the mayor praised the work of the late Andy Merrels, a Maumee resident who fought hard for the improvement of the towpath over many years.
“About 40 years ago, this path was even worse than it was a year ago,” Carr noted. “There was a gentleman who was a very high executive with Owens Corning who lived on West Harrison Street. He made a commitment to cleaning up this towpath and bringing it back so that people could even walk down here for the first time.
“He passed away too soon, but if Andy Merrels were here today, he would be the proudest person. I invited his wife Karen to be here. Thank you for being here, Karen.”
The mayor also thanked the current members of Maumee City Council and council president Jim MacDonald. “They supported every step of this project,” noted the mayor. “It would not have been done if they did not have the understanding of what this meant to our community by cleaning this up.”
The mayor concluded his remarks by turning the program over to Maumee residents Mark Irmen and Jeffery Farthing, two volunteers who were present from the first week of work and who helped see the project to fruition.
Irmen, a lifelong resident of Maumee who lives on East Harrison Street with his wife Cynthia, spoke first.
“We wake up to this beautiful river every day and don’t ever take it for granted,” he said. “In those 30 years, I gradually started to ‘adopt’ my section of the towpath and took care of it and got rid of some of what I call trash – poison ivy, honeysuckle, grapevine – and put better stuff in its place.”
Irmen confided that his wife was worried that he might get into some sort of trouble, but Irmen said, “Nobody ever said anything negative about what I was doing. In fact, there were plenty of compliments given.”
Irmen’s neighbor, Jeff Farthing, who resides with his family across the street, told Mark about the work being initiated by Burtch and Barrow down by the river on July 3, 2021. Irmen had just undergone a hip replacement and was chomping at the bit to volunteer in the effort. He thought he might miss out on the opportunity due to the limitations placed upon him by his mending hip.
He got to know Burtch and Barrow over the next few weeks and was relieved to realize that “they were in it for the long haul” and that he may eventually get his chance to help.
“It just became a great relationship to get to know them and realize that they would give their personal time on a holiday weekend,” Irmen said.
“I couldn’t get that out of my head – that there were people who would do something like that. So, I was hooked, so to speak.
“As time went on, we made more progress working from Sentinel Point this way (toward the bridge) and Patrick knew these last two blocks were going to be too much for the 15 to 25 volunteers that would be a part of this,” recalled Irmen.
“It was all like-minded people who wanted to get involved. It’s been a real dream come true, beyond my wildest dreams, to see what’s been done down here,” Irmen said, with a smile. “I’m just really happy to be a part of this and to see people having an appreciation for the river.”
Farthing then addressed the assembly. “A year ago, you wouldn’t have been able to see the house of Maumee’s first mayor (located in the 100 block of East Harrison Street) from this point on the towpath.”
Farthing also said that the site of the old woolen mill near the towpath is now visible once again. “They made jeans and blankets for people after the Civil War,” he stated. “This is historic stuff that you wouldn’t have been able to see a year ago.”
“It’s really exciting for me to see all the people down here,” Farthing continued. “It used to be the neighborhood’s best-kept secret – this path – but opening it up for everyone to see and use … it’s just great.”
Following the actual ribbon-cutting, the park’s visitors all had a chance to mingle and enjoy the fresh new view of the Maumee River.
Among those with a new appreciation of the upgraded towpath was Stuart James, executive director of The Ability Center.
James was able to navigate his motorized wheelchair effortlessly on the new towpath, displaying the kind of personal access to the Maumee River that has been difficult, if not outright impossible, for residents with disabilities in past years.
“The really great thing about the citizens that make the city of Maumee special is that when they do these projects, they think about accessibility,” said James.
“It’s really important, so that people with disabilities have the opportunity to come out into nature, to look at the birds, walk their dogs, whatever it may be,” said James, as his assistance dog, Raven, sat at his side attentively and appeared to be listening to his words.
“It’s great that they make this a priority.”
Andy Merrels, whom the mayor recognized in his speech, was represented at the park by his widow, Karen Merrels, and his daughter, Karla Lewis.
Merrels said that her husband became heavily involved in the early efforts to revitalize the towpath when their family moved from Perrysburg to the 200 block of West Harrison Street in Maumee over 45 years ago.
“The towpath was in our backyard, and it was such a mess that he wanted something done,” Merrels explained. “What culminated in him getting really interested was when we had two motorcycles that hit head-on in our bottom land and the paramedics couldn’t get there.
“He talked with Mayor (Art) Buffington, and I think, as a way of placating my husband, he made him head of parks and recreation,” Merrels recalled. “He came up with the bike path, which preceded this beautiful pathway. I think he would be just so thrilled to know what has happened down here.”
Maumee Chamber of Commerce executive director Kristin Meyer said, “We are committed to fostering healthy recreational opportunities for people of all ages and abilities in Maumee. The new and improved towpath complements the neighborhood’s rich history and is a way for residents and visitors to easily connect to the outdoors. We are excited to reopen the towpath to the community.”
As part of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the city announced the implementation of a memorial program involving the new benches and swings to be installed in the coming months along Towpath Trail.
The $3,000 bench donation includes an engraved memorial plaque honoring a loved one or an organization. The benches will be installed at scenic sites along the towpath in the order that requests are received. The donation life is set at 15 years, with the option for renewal at the time of expiration.
“People are going to be able to donate one in memory of their family member, a friend, or in honor of somebody,” said the mayor. “We have 15 available and five have been taken already.”
To learn more about the bench program, interested residents are invited to call the city administrative offices at (419) 897-7100.