SALISBURY — Originally planned to make it safer for bicyclists and pedestrians to cross busy Route 1, the Rail Trail Connector ended up turning a previously unused and unsightly area under the Gillis Bridge into a glimpse of Salisbury history, while providing a riverside oasis for those traveling between Newburyport’s Clipper City to Salisbury’s Eastern Marsh rail trails.
On Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Salisbury will celebrate that transition with an Art Stroll and festivities that show off the Rail Trail Connector and its custom-painted murals along the abutments under the Gillis Bridge. At noon regional mural artists Jim Angelone, Raymond Guertin, Edith Heyck, Debi Libuda, Stephanie Noah, Peggy Omer and Claudia Owens will be recognized with a formal ceremony, according to Salisbury Planning Director Lisa Pearson.
The murals, themed to depict historical and cultural features of Salisbury, showcase the town’s architecture, beach scenes, expansive salt marsh, farming and fishing heritages. Permanently affixed on the concrete and made with weather tolerant materials, they’ll welcome visitors for years to come.
But Saturday’s celebration also offers the Salisbury Art Stroll, featuring other artists and artisans from the region who will be positioned at tables and easels along the Eastern Marsh Trail, Pearson said. Open air artists will paint pictures of the marsh and other artisans will display their crafts for demonstration and sale. Included are those who make teapots, sculpt iron art and fashion handbags, Pearson said, and that just names a few.
The day brings to fruition years of work in planning, designing and building of the $1 million-plus connector that allows bicyclists and walkers to travel under the Gillis Bridge to cross Route 1 from either direction. It was shortly after the completion of the Clipper City and Eastern Marsh trails that users and local officials realized there was a safety hazard to the popular recreational outlets.
Vehicle traffic crossing the Gillis Bridge over the Merrimack River is swift and heavy in both directions at the base of the bridge on the Salisbury side, making pedestrian and bike crossing dicey at best. It didn’t take very long for state highway officials and the region’s state legislators, Rep. Michael Costello and former Sen. Steven Baddour, to notice and respond.
“MassDOT (Department of Transportation) realized there was a problem and they really stepped up to the plate,” said Jerry Klima, former Salisbury selectman and biking enthusiast. “It’s really usually a town’s responsibility to pay for the design of something like this, but DOT got their own people to do the design in-house.”
Yet, even with legislators on board and DOT’s help and resources, if not for the generosity of two property owners and trail neighbors, it couldn’t have happened, Klima said. Larry Pleau of Bridge Marina and John Golden donated land to make the trail connector possible, Klima said.
The project also took federal funding and additional money from the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, Klima said, and the talents of its DOT designer, Lou Rabito.
“He was responsive, caring and flexible,” Klima said. “He did a remarkable job on the design.”
Built by Newburyport contractor John D. Hartnett & Son Inc, the project started in mid-March 2012 and was completed on time.
It allow travelers heading north from Newburyport to go over the Gillis Bridge and, at its end, make a right-hand U-turn just before First Street by Stripers Grille. They then will proceed down the embankment and under the Gillis Bridge to the other side and head up the embankment on the west side of the bridge. Traveling north a bit, after a left onto Friedenfels Road and onto the path, they will be able to proceed to the head of the Old Eastern Marsh Trail. Those traveling north will follow the connector in reverse.
The idea of making the connector an art gallery came through discussions with members of the Newburyport Art Association, Klima said.
“We thought about adding one mural,” Klima said. “But it was Elena Bachrack and Bonita Leflore, of the Newburyport Art Association, who suggested making it a gallery of murals. The murals really are wonderful. If you had the room, you’d be happy to have any one of them in your home.”
Sponsoring a mural contest with the help of NAA, the sketches of seven artists were chosen from the 11 who applied. And even that was a collaborative effort of financial support from the Cultural Councils of Salisbury, Newburyport, Amesbury and West Newbury, along with the Institution for Savings, the Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank and the Coastal Trails Coalition.
Working out how to hang the murals also took the ingenuity of Don Wilson, of Wilson Welders, who donated his time, talents and materials to make all hardware that holds the murals onto the concrete abutments.
“It’s been an amazing project, really, with so many contributors,” said Klima. “It started off that we just wanted to make it safer for people to cross the road. Now, it’s not only safer, it’s really beautiful. It’s a garden spot in Salisbury along the Merrimack River, with a panoramic view of Newburyport.”