The roots of the Bear Creek Greenway stretch back to the 1890s, even though the trail got its formal start in the early 1970s.
Bicycles were still fairly rare new contraptions around these parts when Jackson Country commissioners first envisioned a bike path from Central Point to Ashland through Jacksonville, said Bear Creek Greenway Coordinator Karen Smith.
To pay for the bike trail, the county levied a $1.25 tax against all bicycles in 1899, and it was paid on 400 bicycles, old tax records show. Exactly what happened to the money and the plan is lost in the fog of time, local historians report.
The idea of a park corridor along the banks of Bear Creek popped up again in a proposal and study by a Chicago planner and architect, Jacob Crane, who was an adviser hired by the city of Medford.
In the 1960s when the county park system was growing, planners envisioned "an emerald necklace" of park land stretching from Emigrant Lake near Ashland to the Rogue River, Smith said. The Oregon Legislature approved plans for a greenway trail along the Willamette River, causing enthusiasm for a Southern Oregon trail to surge. The commissioners set aside the first land for the greenway, and the University of Oregon completed a plan for a "park chain" along Bear Creek.
In 1973, a young state representative named Al Densmore offered up a bill creating the Bear Creek Greenway, and the legislation enabled Jackson County of proceed with planning and land acquisition for a nearly 30-mile-long trail from the creek's source at Emigrant Creek to a spot near Eagle Point where Bear Creek flows into the Rogue River. That same year, the Oregon Department of Transportation built 3.4 miles of trail through the city of Medford, a Mail Tribune story on the history of the greenway reported in 1996.
Smith, who is set to retire this year, was named greenway coordinator in 1977 to manage the growing project and the grants that trickled in from various sources. In 1986, the private nonprofit Greenway Foundation was set up to receive donations and promote the trail.
The full length of the trail between Ashland and Central Point will be open this summer, even if the design of the permanent crossing at Barnett Road in Medford isn't finalized, Smith said.
Plans for a Rogue River Greenway, which would link with the Bear Creek Greenway in Central Point and continue to Grants Pass, have set the stage for further dreaming and construction. The Rogue River Greenway Foundation incorporated in 2004, and the grand opening of the first paved mile was celebrated in August 2007.