The Cornelia and Florence Bridge Preserve: One Generous Man’s Accessible Vision

As lovers of the outdoors, many of us enjoy going for a jog through the woods, biking for miles along a designated route, or hiking along a steep trail that tests both our footing and endurance.  However, the reality is that outdoor recreation is simply not an option if you have a physical handicap and cannot navigate rough terrain.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1 in 5 people have a disability, and more than half of those people report having a severe disability.   But thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which became law in 1990, accessible trails— those that meet federal standards such as having a minimum tread width of 36 inches with few obstacles and minimal grade—are becoming more prevalent and inclusive.

And for the Cornelia and Florence Bridge Preserve in Pike County, PA, including a trail that could be available for all abilities was highly important during the site planning of this 300 acre natural park.  When Charles P. Bridge—a humble and beloved man who sold penny candies to children at his well-frequented gas station in Milford, PA—donated his family’s property to Dingman Township under a Conservation Easement with the North American Land Trust (NALT) in 2007, he wanted to ensure that everyone could be inspired by his family property, just as he was.

Mr. Bridge, also endearingly known as “One Armed Charlie” within the community, had survived an accident in his youth that resulted in his arm being amputated.  He therefore personally understood the limited opportunities and discrimination that confront those with physical handicaps.  Charlie felt it essential that all sorts of people be able to access and enjoy his family’s beautiful land, just as he had in his youth.

With Charlie’s passing at the age of 95 in 2008, the township was surprised to learn that this adored gas station owner was more generous than anyone could have imagined, as he bequeathed unforeseen substantial funds from his and his late wife’s estates to the township to support the development of public access to the family property.  This in turn allowed the park to develop at a rate much faster than originally anticipated, and the township was assured of funds for continual upkeep.  Although Charlie was unable to see the end results of his donation, Karen Kleist, who works for Dingman Township and played an integral part in the planning of the Preserve, is confident that “Charlie would be thrilled that we were really able to implement his vision.”  And it is truly a vision to behold.

What were once cross country skiing trails were ultimately turned into more than 2 miles of hiking and biking trails, neighboring Delaware State Forest and ultimately the former County Park.  From the trailhead, the Cornelia Trail, which was named for Charlie’s mother, is a central part of the trail network and an ADA trail.  Less than a mile long and frequented by children, dog walkers, and parents with strollers, it gently winds amongst the trees and stops for breaks at wooden benches before leading walkers to an open pavilion that sits atop a meadow, allowing for wonderful, well-earned views of rolling hills and distant treetops.

While the ADA regulations resulted in an extremely costly and time consuming project, every one of Charlie’s pennies invested in the construction of the Cornelia Trail has been worth it.  Dingman Township Board of Supervisors member Dennis Brink explained that, “We anticipated it being very well used, but the popularity and success of it has blown us away!”

Thanks to Charlie’s legacy, more projects are in the works.  More than 4 miles of trails have been mapped and designed, trail markers will soon go up, and a local mountain bike group is working with the Township to design additional single track trails.  In addition, thanks to a PaDEP grant and expertise from the Pike County Conservation District staff, a local Boy Scout Troop will soon begin creating an interpretive trail by identifying plant species with informational placards along the trail network.  And with the popularity of the Preserve, there are plans to expand the parking lot, which has the tendency to overflow on the weekends.

The Cornelia and Florence Bridge Preserve is a model in its thoughtful accommodation of people of all abilities, and in this way, “One Armed Charlie” continues to give back to his community.  The culmination of a collaborative effort involving Charles Bridge, Dingman and Milford Townships, the North American Land Trust, and many dedicated individuals has ensured that generations to come will be able to enjoy the many natural features of this scenic property.

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