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The Catharine Valley Trail winds from the shores of Seneca Lake in Watkins Glen to just north of the Village of Horseheads, a roughly twelve-mile pedestrian path and bikeway offering recreation, glimpses of history, and day trip excursions that pull in as many as 20,000 people annually. It winds from Watkins through Montour Falls, Millport, and Pine Valley.
The trail retraces the paths originally taken by the Seneca Indians, the earliest residents of the Catharine Valley. Later, Revolutionary War soldiers used the trail, along with pioneer settlers. Eventually it became a major transportation corridor leading to the modernization and development evident today.
In parts the paved trail reflects its Native American roots; in others there’s clear evidence of a railroad, canal, turnpike, and trolley line, all now gone.
The trail sees most visitors during spring, summer, and fall, though cross-country skiers and snowshoe aficionados use it in winter, enjoying near-complete silence, says Caryl Sutterby, coordinator of the Friends of the Catharine Valley Trail.
This trail’s story begins with the late Ed Hoffman, an Elmira, New York, attorney who passed away in 1999. Hoffman—credited as being the modern founder of the Catharine Valley Trail—wanted people to be able to enjoy the natural beauty and learn about its rich culture. He coordinated the purchase of land along the trail that crisscrosses townships as it follows meandering Catharine Creek.
Catharine Valley Trail was named after Catharine Montour, born in 1710, who married a Seneca Indian Chief and ruled the Shequaga Village, which was on the southern tip of Seneca Lake. She is buried in the village of Montour Falls Park.
The trail’s namesake—Catharine Montour—was the great-granddaughter of a French military officer and his Huron Indian wife. Catharine married a Seneca Indian chief and later ruled the village called Shequaga until Revolutionary War forces destroyed it. She fled along with most of the people of the village.
Shequaga Falls is now the centerpiece tourist attraction in modern Montour Falls.
The destruction of Catharine’s village was part of a military sweep by General John Sullivan of the Continental Army. He wiped out more than forty Finger Lakes Indian settlements believed to be helping the British in the War of Independence.
Catharine later returned. A memorial to her is on the trail in the Village of Montour Falls Park, close to the cabin where she died in 1804.
The trail today is a partnership between counties and more than two dozen businesses, groups, and governments.
All the land was eventually donated to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation in the late 1990s when the work began to make it a usable park.
“It’s now a New York State Park,” Sutterby says. “But the state gets lots of help to keep it what it is.”
The essence of what-it-is differs from person to person.
For Amanda Smith-Socaris, owner of Seneca Physical Therapy in Watkins Glen, the trail is her daily exercise route for running, walking, and sometimes bicycling.
“It’s a great place, wild in spots, quiet,” she says. “And from a physical therapist’s perspective, well, the nice flat surface is easy on people’s knees, too.”
In the past few years, the number of bicyclists has jumped sharply. They range from spandex-clad semi-professionals to riders slowly pedaling between trailheads, often with young children towed in trailers behind.
The bicyclists share the path with sometimes-serious hikers who start at Watkins Glen and end up at Mark Twain State Park—or vice versa.
Shequaga Falls in Montour Falls is one of the attractions that can be seen on the twelve-mile trail.
Near the north end of the trail between Watkins and Montour, the 1,000-plus-acre Queen Catharine Marsh draws many hundreds of birdwatchers annually trying to spot birds from dozens of species and also watching the migration of geese and ducks through the area. The marsh has a spur trail off the main walkway for birders who want to get a closer look by going along the swamp.
Catharine Creek, which borders much of the Catharine Valley Trail, also draws loads of anglers annually.
The Friends organize an annual spring cleanup and help keep the trail going by publishing a newsletter, maintaining a Web site, sponsoring events, and training trail stewards.
The group’s unofficial headquarters is the Montour Coffee House and Wine Bar, owned by the Friends’ president, artist Maggie Martin.
For people wanting to learn trail history, the best way might be to attend a talk by Gary Emerson, a high school history teacher and author. One Saturday a month, Emerson offers a history walk starting at the Montour Falls Library and ending several miles along the trail.
The Catharine Valley Trail envisioned by Ed Hoffman may have its last leg—a 1.5-mile stretch near Horseheads—under construction later this year.
“Next summer,” Caryl Sutterby says, her fingers tightly crossed, “Next summer the Catharine Valley Trail should be finished.”
And between now and then, another 20,000 people will probably have already enjoyed it.