New Manayunk Bridge trail unites Philly & Lower Merion

The Manayunk Bridge is reopening as a pedestrian and bike throughway on Friday. The lines on the bridge shows the boundary between Philadelphia and Lower Merion on October 27, 2015.

HIGH ABOVE the Schuylkill River, joyful folks from Manayunk and Lower Merion Township met in the middle of the Manayunk Bridge yesterday to reopen it as a trail that joins the two communities for the first time in 30 years.

Just before the ceremonies began, John Newhall, 82, from Penn Valley, told the Daily News that his golden retriever, Lucy, 7, who was demanding love from everyone within barking range, was the first dog to cross the bridge.

"Lucy and I walked across from the Cynwyd Heritage Trail at 10:15 this morning," Newhall said, smiling. "She is nicer and a lot less complicated than most women I've known."

As the ribbon-cutting ceremonies began, Newhall and Lucy were joined by a handheld Chihuahua in a fake-fur coat and an army of walkers, bikers and government officials from both sides of the river who made the $5.76 million bridge trail happen.

State Sen. Daylin Leach said the new trail will be so popular "there will be marriage proposals and breakups and litigation" along its pedestrian-and-bike-only, S-curved paths.

Jeffrey Knueppel, the new general manager of SEPTA - which closed the 1918 railroad bridge in 1986 and midwifed its rebirth as a trail - asked the crowd, "Why am I wearing jeans?"

Because, Knueppel said, "I rode here today!" - eliciting hearty cheers from fellow cyclists.

Chris Leswing, a Lower Merion city planner, said that years ago, Manayunkers had helped his community turn a trash-covered wasteland into the beautiful Cynwyd Heritage Trail that now connects to the Manayunk Bridge.

"We had abandoned cars, mattresses, hundreds of tires along that land," Leswing said. "As a government, Lower Merion couldn't afford the labor to clean all that up.

"So friends groups put in 200,000 volunteer hours to clean it," he said. "People on the Manayunk side couldn't walk over so they'd drive over to help. We built this community of people on both sides of the river who believe in this space and who believe in connecting the two places."

The visionary thing was cool, Leswing said, "but the social thing is even cooler. People from Manayunk would come to Lower Merion, we'd have this big workday together and then we'd all go over to Manayunk for beers."

Now that the Manayunk Bridge trail is a reality, "there will be a lot of people hugging each other and going for beers together," Leswing said.

Kay Sykora, director of Destination Schuylkill River at the Manayunk Development Corporation, said Manayunkers have always loved their bridge.

She said that although the bridge had been closed since 1986 and its surface was "ankle-twisting ballast" for years, "Manayunk always had this culture of people who use spaces whether they should or shouldn't.

"One day, I went up on the Manayunk Bridge to take pictures and I was feeling guilty because we weren't supposed to go there. So I get up there and the bridge is full of artists, painting."

Sykora laughed and said, "When they announced that the bridge was reopening, the old-timers around here chimed in and said, 'Oh, we've been using it for years.' And they have."

On Twitter: @DanGeringer