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The emerald necklace

It would be apt to call the Bear Creek Greenway a Rogue Valley jewel. It's practically how designers first referred to it, after all, calling it the Rogue Valley's "emerald necklace."

And this necklace, nearly 20 miles of paved, multiuse trail that runs through five Jackson County cities and connects users to a multitude of parks and scenic views, may not be done growing yet. The endgame could be even grander: A route for bikers, walkers and runners that would wind all the way from Emigrant Lake outside Ashland to Grants Pass.

The route has become a lesson in perseverance, with 40-plus years since the path's start in 1973. Running from Ashland to The Expo in Central Point, it's its own freeway, though you don't need four wheels and an engine to navigate it, just a bike or a pair of comfortable shoes and some time to get outside.

"It connects our communities as a whole now," says Greenway coordinator Jenna Stanke. "The fact that it's connected is so super important."

But it wasn't always that way. The Bear Creek Greenway's progress has been slow and steady.

While trail construction began in 1973, its roots go back about 80 years prior.

"Bicycles were still fairly rare contraptions around these parts when Jackson County commissioners first envisioned a bike path from Central Point to Ashland through Jacksonville," the Bear Creek Greenway Foundation website says.

History tells us the idea fizzled, despite the county's levy of a buck and a quarter against all bicycles — about 400 or so, according to old tax records — in 1899 intended to pay for it. Chicago-based architect and planner Jacob Crane pitched a similar idea in the 1930s when he worked in Medford as an adviser.

"He had proposed a parks system along Bear Creek," says Karen Smith, Greenway coordinator from 1978 to 2008. 

But again, nothing happened.

In 1964, things finally started to take shape.

That's the year the idea for the "Bear Creek Park Chain" started being tossed around. It was envisioned as a series of city parks along Bear Creek connected via a paved path. Neil Ledward, hired three years prior as the county's parks director, said the idea grew into the emerald necklace concept by the early 1970s.

County officials went after funds from the Land & Water Conservation Fund, receiving $898,729 in grants — just under $3.5 million today after inflation — by 1980.

"We were greatly fortunate to always be able to have some fairly large grants available to us," Smith says, adding they also received some funding from the state. 

In 1973, the Oregon Department of Transportation built the first 3½ miles of the path through Medford. Then came the section from Talent to Ashland, a section that was not without its challenges.

"There was a lot of mess in the creek," says Ledward, retired since 1991. "There were old cars, a whole bunch of them from a wrecking yard up in Talent. They just dumped the cars they couldn't do anything with over the bank into the creek."

Ledward says the mess was so severe the National Guard had to be called in.

"It was awful," he adds.

But they got the job done, and that section got paved, too. Construction of the emerald necklace was underway, link by careful link.

"Little by little, we got going," Ledward says.

The Bear Creek Greenway Foundation was formed in 1986 in an effort to acquire funding and land for the project.

"I think it's one of the biggest projects that the cities along Bear Creek have ever collaborated on," Smith says. "I think it was really a wonderful thing that the county was able to do that. I think that's the reason the program was successful."

She adds the project is not one she could see being completed today. Grant sources that helped keep momentum going have diminished considerably, and there's also a lot more development in the area, a lot more hoops to jump through.

"We were just in the right place at the right time," Smith says.

The necklace's final link was built in Central Point in 2014, connecting East Pine Street to Upton Road. The trail currently boasts a daily average of about 300 users, based on data collected by trail counters.

Jackson County Parks Manager Steve Lambert says it's become a path of contrasts — a stretch of path by a quiet, untouched creek that eventually flows into an urban setting. Though he lives in Ashland and works in Central Point, he occasionally makes the ride to work.

"I enjoy the full length of it. It's totally different experiences along the way," Lambert says.

The goal is to eventually tie the path to the Rogue River Greenway in Grants Pass, but there's more to consider.

"There's also a lot of interest in connecting the communities — like Eagle Point and Jacksonville — and having better on-street connection to the trail," Stanke says.

Other additions, such as a parallel, soft-surface trail for slower walkers, have also been suggested. But when it comes to amenities versus extension, Stanke says community support typically gets behind extension.

"That's not saying that those things couldn't happen," she says.

Either way, the trail that's been more than a century in the making is there, and it belongs to every resident of Jackson County.

"I think it's really a neat thing," Ledward says. "It was kind of a long time coming."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

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Runners head out in the first mile of the Turkey Trot 8-mile run on the Bear Creek Greenway on Thanksgiving morning in 2015. Mail Tribune file photo by Andy Atkinson.
Phil Gagnon rides along the Bear Creek Greenway near the Ashland dog park. 2013 Mail Tribune file photo