From the banks of the lower Susquehanna River, visitors can catch glimpses of life in Maryland's earliest days, and soon they might be able to walk through the history of the area.
A trail network proposed for a 40-mile stretch of the river in Harford and Cecil counties would offer walkers a look at lush natural beauty, Native American rock carvings, preserved remnants of colonial commerce and 14 museums.
With federal funding, the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway hopes to build a series of trails that would link the area's natural, cultural and historic resources.
"How many places along I-95 can you stop and walk and within 15 minutes see a bald eagle fishing?" asked Mary Ann Lisanti, director of the nonprofit group, based in a building overlooking the river in Darlington.
The project has won the support of Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who has invited the group to apply for a $4 million federal grant.
"Senator Cardin is a big supporter of other trails and is familiar with their value," said Lisanti, who submitted a grant application last month. "Very few projects get such invitations."
When the replica of John Smith's shallop sailed up the river to Port Deposit in July, Maryland's newest senator was there to greet the boat, along with about 7,000 other visitors.
"We walked along the trail and talked about the project," Lisanti said.
The greenway group wants to preserve about 40,000 acres of waterfront on both sides of the river, which flows for nearly 450 miles from Otsego Lake in New York through the Appalachians to the Chesapeake Bay. Then, it would build a series of pathways that would encourage visitors to take a long look at what the area has to offer.
"This will be a great recreational opportunity," Lisanti said. "It could also be a very big economic engine for tourism. It will actually get people into towns along the way."
James C. Richardson, Harford's economic development director, envisions walkways similar to those along the old railways in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.
"This would absolutely be a boon to tourism," Richardson said. "It is recreation that it is in the interest of our growing community."
Erika Quesenbery, marketing coordinator for Cecil County, said a passive trail will provide a leisure walk, or what she called "a getaway with no cost." Walkers would also see the charms of smaller communities, like Port Deposit and Darlington, that are bypassed by I-95 and Route 40.
"You don't see all the beautiful nuances when you are driving 50 miles per hour through the area," she said. "When you walk it, you get it. The trails would give you the chance to walk along the river shore, see small islands, granite cliffs, all variety of trees and the remains of bridges. This is a way to show people the history of great American river towns."
A spokeswoman for Cardin said it is too early in the federal budget process to comment on the possibility of funding for the request.
Lisanti, a Harford County councilwoman, realizes that she is looking at a lengthy budgeting process in a troubled economy, but she remains optimistic.
"We all pay taxes," she said. "A successful leader in Washington or Annapolis brings some of those taxes back home."
The greenway group is also seeking $250,000 from the state legislature that would build a four-mile trail from its headquarters at the Conowingo Visitor Center into Susquehanna State Park. Companion bond bills were scheduled for hearings in the House and Senate yesterday.
"It's costly because you are building in environmentally critical areas, often within 1,000 feet of the shoreline," Lisanti said. "There is a tremendous permitting process. We also have to build elevated boardwalks over streams."
About five years ago, the group received a $1.5 million federal grant, which paid for a transit pier in Perryville and helped fund an engineering study for the trails as well as a walking bridge that would allow pedestrians access to both sides of the Susquehanna.
"I am optimistic about funding," Lisanti said. "We have tremendous support from Harford and Cecil counties. Everybody associated with this project understands its environmental importance and the economic value."