Four years ago, when the town began to build dikes along the north end of town, officials were merely hoping to stop the flow of water that gushed through the streets during high-tide storms. No one envisioned the dikes as any more than barriers between the water and homes. Town officials put trees up on top of the dikes - which are made of dirt and stone - and flattened the tops in order to improve the aesthetics. Suddenly, people began walking along the top of the dikes, treating them as a waterfront walkway. Such a pathway was not an outrageous idea. Secaucus officials had long complained about being left out of the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission's plans for a 22-mile walkway along the other shore of the Hackensack River, the one facing Bergen County. In fact, officials were bitter when plans for this walkway only skirted the edges of Secaucus and ended up in a parking lot for one of the malls. The people's hunger for waterway access started several officials rethinking the concepts as far as the river was concerned. Current Mayor Dennis Elwell, then a councilman and a member of the Flood Control Committee, began to consider having some flood control efforts serve a dual purpose. As he continued to work with Councilman Mike Grecco and DPW Superintendent Mike Gonnelli to build the dikes, he thought about providing Secaucus residents with a pathway of their own, and a pathway that might generate interest in Secaucus as a recreation site. It seems now that such a path may become a reality. Elwell has been quietly implementing a plan, since he became mayor in January, to form a path that hugs the river all the way up the western side of town. As the town gained rights to property along the river this year, workers from the town's Department of Public Works moved in with land-leveling machinery to make way for the path. The path varies from place to place. Sometimes it is little more than a grass-and-tree-covered mound of dirt along the dikes. Sometimes it is a gravel pathway, such as behind the Meadowlands Hospital; in other places, where it crosses water, it can be an elevated wooden walkway. The completion of the path depends upon getting rights-of-way to property as the waterfront develops. Those sections that can be developed now will be. The project could result in making Secaucus a destination for birdwatchers, boaters, fishermen and others from across the state who want access to the Hackensack River. Build it and they will come
"The river has been a curse to us when it comes to flood control," Elwell said as he was working on the plans. "Why couldn't we make it a blessing, as well?" Elwell believes the pathway will attract tourists and bring business to local merchants and hotels. "We have a natural resource in Secaucus that other towns in the county and state do not have," Elwell said. "If we build it, people will come here and use Secaucus as a recreation resource." Although not a well-known fact around town, some sections of the walkway already exist, part of Elwell's effort to provide a more-or-less continuous path from the county's park at Laurel Hill near the southernmost tip of Secaucus along the shore line to the Old Mill site near the northernmost tip. One section of the path behind Meadowlands Hospital is open to the public, as is another on top of the dike at the end of Farm Road. While the town has not yet acquired the rights to all the land (and in some places the walkway will have to be diverted inland because construction is already too close to the water), the plans are in the works, and Elwell said they are moving ahead now to get rights before the projects get started and the space along the river is lost. Elwell said the town is currently in negotiations with NJ Transit to deed over land near Harmon Cove. "The land was set aside originally by Hartz Mountain when Harmon Cove was constructed, in case the development brought in more kids than the schools could handle," he said. As it turned out, the land was never used, and NJ Transit has acquired the rail right-of-way along the river to move traffic downstream toward the Secaucus Rail Transfer station. The deal could net the town $1.5 million and the town would maintain access to the riverfront for its walkway. The money could help fund the walkway, with the rest of the funds coming from the town. The town already has access other to areas for the path such as the area behind the Crowne Plaza Hotel, which connects the hospital area with areas near Snipes Park. Foundations for the walkway over the water near the Hess property have also been placed. Hess has already expressed plans to build a seven-story hotel on the Meadowlands Parkway site. Elwell said the path will run along the rear of the NJ Transit yard past the Red Roof Inn. Where the trail passes under the Route 3 bridge, it will come to an area where the former Aratusa sat, a pleasure boat that had been relocated to Secaucus from New England for use as a restaurant. (One night in the late 1980s, while being used as a restaurant in Secaucus, a fire broke out, and the boat began to sink. All that remains now is the grass-covered parking lot and the rotting moorings standing a few feet from shore.) Plans call for the construction of another seven-story hotel on this site as well, and town officials will ask that that space be given for the walkway behind the hotel. Plans are also being considered for a huge piece of real estate just north of where Meadowlands Parkway ends. This section is commonly called the Shiptank property and has long been the subject of speculation. While Elwell said he opposed the high density proposed for the site, he said whatever construction is ultimately approved for the site will require access for the pathway. Just north of this, the pathway reaches the property of a concrete plant. Because the owners are planning to upgrade the plant to become a more environmentally-friendly facility, Elwell said the town is asking the owners to move the new building further back from the shore to allow room for the pathway to reach Trolley Park. From Trolley Park the walkway has open ground to reach the dike that will take the path the rest to the high school. North end of path will be a nature preserve
Several agreements between the town and the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission have helped make it possible to transform the north end of Secaucus into a haven for nature and to provide the northernmost point of the pathway with a nature center. Earlier this year, the HMDC agreed to become a partner with the town to create a new recreational and educational facility in Secaucus. This will result in the development of the former Tony's Old Mill site on Mill Creek as a riverside park and canoe launch. The HMDC will contribute both financial and personnel resources to the recreational development of the property, which is situated at the mouth of Mill Creek on the Hackensack River and adjacent to the HMDC's 134-acre Mill Creek Wetlands Enhancement project. The Mill Creek site, a former upland tract dominated by the common reed, has been restored by the HMDC to a functioning wetland traversed by a system of walking trails. The enhanced marsh has attracted a wide variety of waterfowl species and features a sand and spoil island designed to serve as a nesting site for the endangered least tern. Future plans for the property at the northern end of the town's riverfront path - to be known as Mill Creek Point - also include a canoe launch, as well as the renovation of the existing building as a satellite annex to the HMDC's Environment Center at Richard W. DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst. That facility that has provided education and professional development training for teachers since 1983. Working with Secaucus, the HMDC will provide $530,000 in capital investment for the Old Mill project The Commission's contribution will be funded from its Environmental Initiative Bond Fund. In addition, the Commission will provide landscape architectural and construction services through its professional staff. The HMDC has provided the town with an all-terrain vehicle to be used in patrolling both the proposed park site and the trail network of the nearby Mill Creek Wetlands Enhancement Site. The vehicle is also being used in the south end of Secaucus for patrolling the Malanka dumpsite, where kids roll over the mound on dirt bikes and other off-road vehicles. The Commission also has donated one of the pontoon boats from its river cruise fleet for Secaucus' use in both patrolling the river and conducting town-sponsored sightseeing tours. Mayor Dennis Elwell says he envisions setting up a scouting camp on one of the upland islands just east of the Old Mill, which campers might access via canoe or a footbridge from the high school.