CLIMAX – While many of the speakers at Saturday’s dedication ceremony of the recently completed Climax Tunnel, located along the Redbank Valley Trail near New Bethlehem, touted the economic benefits the project will have on the area, one speaker saw the restoration of the 1870s-era tunnel as a duty to preserve the old railroad tunnel.

“We are the guardians of history,” Clarion County Commissioner Ted Tharan said, urging the large crowd that gathered at the tunnel’s newly built eastern portal to imagine the work that had been done by hand and by horse to carve the originally 520-foot long tunnel through the hillside near the small village of Climax in Porter Township. “It behooves us to take care of what they made for us.”

Tharan said that the hard labor more than a century ago was justified as a way of opening the Redbank Valley area to new commerce and opportunities — the same as what the tunnel’s multi-million dollar restoration will do to spark new economic opportunities for the local tourism scene.

“This is the new form of commerce for our area,” Tharan said.

Located about two-and-half miles west of New Bethlehem, downstream along the Red Bank Creek, the Climax Tunnel project was seen as a vital link on the Redbank Valley Trail, which runs 42-miles from Brookville to the Allegheny River.

“The tunnel is important because it is at the midpoint of the trail,” Redbank Valley Trails Association president Sandy Mateer said. “The Climax Tunnel is a key connection.”

Planning for the project dates back to 2010, and work on the multi-phase project started in 2013.

“We’re pretty excited about this,” said Cindy Dunn, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, who spoke at Saturday’s ribbon cutting. She said the Climax Tunnel was identified as one of the top 10 gaps in Pennsylvania trails and the first one on the list to be completed.

“This is an attraction,” she said, noting that the completed tunnel will motivate more people to come to the area. She credited Mateer and former Allegheny Valley Land Trust executive director Ron Steffey for helping to make the vision of a local trail system a reality.

“I think these trails are one of the most powerful things going on in Pennsylvania,” Dunn said, stating that trails “breathe life into our small communities.”

“We can make big things happen and we can continue to grow and build these trails,” she said.

John Straitiff, director of the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors Visitors bureau agreed, saying that more and more people have been asking his tourism promotion agency for maps and information about the Redbank Trail. Interest has surged since word about the tunnel’s opening has spread, he said.

“This is going to be a big boom for our area,” Straitiff said, adding that the tunnel’s completion will attract more trail users as well as railroad enthusiasts. “It’s helping to build our local economy.”

He said he planned to market the trail and tunnel at upcoming sport and tourism shows.

“We’re very happy to have the Redbank Valley Trail as part of our area,” he said. “You have something to be very, very proud of.”

State Rep. Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion) said that when she first saw the Climax Tunnel a decade ago, the roof was falling in and the work ahead seemed daunting. Now complete, she credited the many volunteers who helped make it happen. “I know it will continue to draw more people.”

Chris Ziegler, executive director of the Allegheny Valley Land Trust, recognized the contractors who worked on the tunnel rehabilitation project, including Francis J. Palo Inc., Gregori Construction, Senate Engineering, Hiles Excavating, Signs by Rick and Holbein Inc.

Mateer also expressed appreciation for the help the project received from Clarion, Armstrong and Jefferson counties, New Bethlehem Borough, Brookville Borough and the Trail Volunteer Fund. She also thanked the trail’s board members and a number of volunteers who have worked on the trail through the years.

In addition to the speakers, Saturday’s dedication included a ribbon cutting, the unveiling of the new Climax Tunnel sign atop the eastern portal, lunch for the nearly 200 who drove, biked and walked to the tunnel, as well as a 5K race sponsored by the U.S. Army.

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