An equipment operator and work leader, Tim Atkinson his role in the Park staff. Discussed are the means by which Atkinson evolved from a volunteer position to a leader in various projects and the challenges posed to staff personell. These include the seasonality of trails, seasonality of staffing, and the extensive flooding damage to the Towpath. Atkinson discusses also the successes of the Towpath project in terms of improving the quality of life and the ability of the visitor centeer to articulate the importance of history and nature.


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Atkinson, Tim (interviewee)


Glasier, Andrew (interviewer); Sumen, Amy (participant)


Rivers Roads and Rails 2008



Document Type

Oral History


58 minutes


Transcription sponsored by Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Andrew Glasier [00:00:00] Let's start with just basic questions and then we'll go through your work in the Valley. For the record, could we have your name, when you were born, and where were you born?

Tim Atkinson [00:00:08] Timothy R. Atkinson, [...], 1950, Dayton, Ohio.

Andrew Glasier [00:00:18] And how long have you lived in this part of the world in northeast Ohio?

Tim Atkinson [00:00:23] Since 1979.

Andrew Glasier [00:00:27] And you moved here... Why did you move here?

Tim Atkinson [00:00:30] I came up for an interview with the Park Service. And that's why I moved up here. I started work two weeks later after the interview.

Andrew Glasier [00:00:41] And what were you doing for the Park Service?

Tim Atkinson [00:00:44] When I originally came here, I was an engineer, engineering equipment operator, work leader.

Andrew Glasier [00:00:50] Can you expand on that? What kind of role that was, what they were asking you to do?

Tim Atkinson [00:00:54] Well, at that time they brought in two work leaders at the same time, two engineering equipment operator work leaders, under the premises that they were going to be taking over all the roads and so forth around the area. And that didn't work out. But that's why they originally brought in two work leaders. And I was one of the two. Our job at that time was basically to operate the equipment and so forth that was here. The other operator that came in, he kind of took over the roads part of it, and I took over the trails part of the scenario. And that's the way we worked for about two or three years in that capacity. So we was kind of doing a little bit of everything in the park as far as that dealt with equipment operation. So...

Andrew Glasier [00:01:46] When the park started it was a recreation area. Was it kind of like small staffed because it was a recreation area?

Tim Atkinson [00:01:55] I think it was because it was more that it was just growing. It still hadn't acquired all of its property yet, and it still was basically getting its feet under itself. So the staff built from that point forward until what it is today.

Andrew Glasier [00:02:16] So you start off as an administrative equipment operator work leader...

Tim Atkinson [00:02:20] Correct.

Andrew Glasier [00:02:21] And they hired... Why did they hire you specifically? I mean, what were your qualifications prior to that?

Tim Atkinson [00:02:26] Well, I had spent well over four years in the Seabees in the Navy and construction as an equipment operato,r and I had a little over seven years with the Greene County Highway Department as an operator. And I had put in an application with the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base just under a general heading of equipment operator. And I had actually forgotten about that. And I went to work for American Freight working the docks and I kept getting laid off because they were... Just the way they were doing things, you know? And I got a call from the park to come in for an interview. I said, sure, be glad to. And I had no idea where the park was even at. [laughs]

Andrew Glasier [00:03:16] When you got here then, they divided your workload with... Or did you guys, the two people that were hired, yourself and the other person, decide to divide between roads and trails, so to speak?

Tim Atkinson [00:03:26] No, it's just the way it kind of worked out. The foreman came in and two of us as operators came in exactly the same day to work out of the Virginia Kendall maintenance department. And like I said, we basically did a little bit of everything. But John kind of went with the road side of it and I kind of went with the trail side, but yet we both dealt with both things. We both would work in both areas. It's just that when we wasn't operating, we kind of moved to those ways. I guess. I don't really how to explain it. It's just the way it kind of worked out.

Andrew Glasier [00:04:02] Like a natural flow, so to speak?

Tim Atkinson [00:04:03] Yeah, yeah, yeah. My first job was working up at the... where there used to be the old motorcycle track up on across from Happy Days Visitor Center. It was removing that and taking up part of that was the trails back in there where they are now but motorcycles and stuff had really made bogs and stuff back in there and took the dozer back in there and moved all that stuff around, leveled it out. Basically did away with the motorcycle track that was up there. And that's when Birdsell was the superintendent and the headquarters was right up there next to it. So I don't think he liked the noise that much, but that pretty well took care of the motorcycle track up there and the snowmobiles.

Andrew Glasier [00:04:47] So it was a snowmobile motorcycle track across from the Happy Days Visitor Center?

Tim Atkinson [00:04:50] Yeah.

Andrew Glasier [00:04:52] And that was purchased... And the land was purchased by the park?

Tim Atkinson [00:04:54] Well, all of that land was purchased by the park. It was all part of the Happy Days area, you know, so, yeah, it was all taken over at that time.

Andrew Glasier [00:05:09] And you would work... Had you worked in trail maintenance projects before?

Tim Atkinson [00:05:13] No, I'd really never dealt much at all with trails. It was a good opportunity for me and an experience just getting into that. But I like the outdoors, so it just kind of came naturally. Yes.

Andrew Glasier [00:05:26] And how is that different? What kind of what things did you have to learn about trail maintenance that you... [inaudible]

Tim Atkinson [00:05:32] Well, you have to learn about the lay of the land more, you know, and how the trail would naturally go and try to keep it so that, you know, you were still seeing good vistas and so forth from and making the trail work for what type of use it was gonna be for. You know, there's some cases where you can have a steeper terrain than you can in others, but you have to... Depends upon what the trail is. It just... Just a lot of things you have to look at. The way the ground goes, the diversified different foliage and stuff. You have the different type trees you have without impacting those things, but yet still being able to make it work so that the trail's a nice, pleasant place to go and some trails you have to have... So like the Towpath, you know, you've got a certain elevation you have to be so at that it's accessible for everybody. On some of the other trails that go back in the woods, you don't have that as bad. You know, you don't want to get a great slope, but yet you can get a little steeper incline on some places. So it just kind of, I guess, come natural. I don't know. I'm just an outdoors person.

Andrew Glasier [00:06:42] How did you... How were trails designed? I mean, the Towpath is a long trail. It's obviously designed next to the canal. But these other trails, were you part of the design process? Did you make help make decisions about where the trails would go?

Tim Atkinson [00:06:56] Well, you know, it's kind of funny about that, when I first got here, there was no trail plan for the park yet. I joined part of a committee with people from the outside, local residents, people interested in a lot of different type of trails. And that's when the trail plan first got started by that group that was put together. We went out and looked at a lot of different places, a lot of different sites and said, well, this would be a good place, this wouldn't be a good place for a trail. And that's how we kind of got going with it. And there was already some trails that were preexisting in the area. So, you know, those you kind of were already there. You know, what is now the Forest Point Trail now and then you've got what used to be the old West Forest, West Forest Trail. I can't remember the name of the place now. Anyway, it's over where Pine Grove Trail is now. That trail used to be back in there. It was totally different because it went back into the Boy Scout camp a different way. It was all part of... The A Trail joined into it in certain sections. But some of that stuff was there. So you kind of worked with what you had. So you already had kind of a reference point to go with, you know, but we laid out a lot of other trails that wasn't there before and expanded on those. So then the new ones, all that was part of the trail plan or the master trail plan that was put together that identified trailheads, identified trails, even some of those today still aren't built, but they're there. Then even the trail plan today is still due to be updated because it's getting too far gone now.

Andrew Glasier [00:08:45] And the trail... The master trail plan, that was decided by this committee, so to speak?

Tim Atkinson [00:08:49] Well, it was kind of put together that way. It was all of everybody's thoughts that were put together and says, you know, this would be good or this wouldn't be good or and so forth, to kind of put together what these trails were. And then the park staff did a lot of that, as far as, you know, putting it all down and say, okay, this is where we'll go. This is a proposed route to do this way and that way, looking at all the topo maps and everything. And that's how you kind of, you know, go with that stuff. Then going out in a field and walking it. It could be two or three different times and different times of the season, too. And that's important because you never know what's going to be happening during a particular season. So I know there's a lot of times that we would go out and we'd walk the same area, gee, three or four times just to see what it looked like and how it was going to react, because it makes a big difference in how you build a trail and where you build it. So...

Andrew Glasier [00:09:45] Would you walk with this committee?

Tim Atkinson [00:09:47] Well, not so much the committee. It'd basically be the staff from in the park. And also there was a lot of volunteers that would come in and were very, very beneficial in how this park was designed and built at the end. So all of that kind of would be put together and make a cohesive type of a trail system and make it work. So... 'Cause a lot of that today is taken care of and walked and helped maintain by the volunteers in the park. That's been a major asset to this park.

Andrew Glasier [00:10:25] The volunteers.

Tim Atkinson [00:10:26] Oh, yes. Yeah, the Cuyahoga Valley Trails ssociation, the Ohio Horseman's Council, Medina County chapter, and so forth. That's been a major, major thing with this park. Yeah. That was a big part of my job, was working with those folks and keeping, and keeping things kind of going and in line, and it just... It's a big thing.

Andrew Glasier [00:10:53] So part of your job was helping to coordinate the volunteers to work on these trails?

Tim Atkinson [00:10:57] Yeah, a lot of that is there. You know, I worked with them. A lot of it is done through other staff in the park. But I would basically be out there with them. I'd coordinate with them as far as stuff that they would need, materials they would need. If they needed any other type of equipment or assistance and so forth, we would deliver stuff out there for them so that it was ready for them on the day that they were going to do their work, and basically go out and we would kind of lay the trail out together. Yeah. And make it work. And if there was problems out there, because we finally ended up with a system so that they could... When they would go out and do their monthly walk or their weekend walks that they would do, they would send the papers back in to us at the park and I would get a copy of those papers and they would identify problems that were out there that they dealt with or problems that they couldn't deal with and we would have to deal with, it was a big asset to us because we couldn't cover the kind of ground and miles of trails that was out there with the small staff that we had. So, yeah, we worked together in doing that. Mm hmm.

Andrew Glasier [00:12:14] So those volunteers were astronomically important to some of the trails, and you started off talking about, a little bit, about your background before as a machine operator. A lot of the smaller trails, would you use machines on those?

Tim Atkinson [00:12:28] Oh, no.

Andrew Glasier [00:12:28] Those were all done by hand basically?

Tim Atkinson [00:12:29] Right. Well, we try to do, naturally, each trail is different because of whatever its use was. If it was just a hiking trail, you know, you're only talking maybe five to eight feet wide at the most. So we would try to do these trails and make 'em accessible because at the time we had a small trail type buggies that we could get out there and be able to take stuff out there and work on these trails. If we had to do it all by walking and so forth again there, we wouldn't be at the mileage that we were at when I left by anyway. There's just no way we could make that. So a lot of these trails were designed that way. But ski trails had their certain list, horse trails, naturally, we had a certain way for them, had a certain height set for them. A lot of this is all dictated by guidelines that were set down and so forth by the Park Service in other areas and so forth. So all of this comes together to how you would actually approach a trail, how you would make the width, how you'd make the height and so forth. Ski trails, naturally, when you come down a hill, curves, you had to have a little wider area to make that, you know, going across the bridges and so forth. So all that would come into play.

Andrew Glasier [00:13:46] How many mileage of trails do you think you were...

Tim Atkinson [00:13:48] We were we were approaching... Pardon?

Andrew Glasier [00:13:52] That you were part of.

Tim Atkinson [00:13:53] Oh, I don't know. I think when I got here, we had close to about 16 miles of trail in the park. When I left, we were close to a little over 100 miles of trail in the park. See, it expanded quite a bit. But between the park staff and the volunteers, that's the way it was able to get there. Naturally, the Towpath opened up a big chunk of mileage through the park. And that was an experience by itself.

Andrew Glasier [00:14:24] Let's talk about the Towpath for a while. You know, it's probably the most well-known trail in the area.

Tim Atkinson [00:14:29] Yeah.

Andrew Glasier [00:14:30] It's beloved by many people, used by thousands of people all the time.

Tim Atkinson [00:14:34] Yes.

Andrew Glasier [00:14:35] You know, let's talk about the construction of that and the ideas that got to that point.

Tim Atkinson [00:14:39] It was interesting. Before we actually... John Debo sat down and said, Okay, we're going to do the Towpath Trail. We used part of the Towpath Trail for the Environmental Education Center. They used it to be able to get down to the river and so forth. And that was in the southern part of the park. And we used to go in there with weed eaters and just—you're really only talking maybe a couple foot wide of the Towpath, that was always there—but we would do a section down through there in places so that they could use that for their work that they wanted to do. But then there was other sections like from here at Boston up to Highland Road that was already there, you know, it needed work, but it was already there because of the paper mill that was up there. But then there was other sections where there was absolutely nothing at all. But it was an experience. It had its bad times, had a lot of those, and it had good times too. Like I told you before, that the big issue with the Towpath was getting the sites to be able to work on the Towpath, certain areas to be able to work out of and to be able to cover directions going north or south. That was really a big thing because there just wasn't a place that you could go in and just take over that kind of fit. You know? So we couldn't use our site at the... Where the maintenance yard, because it was just too far to have to take things back and forth and everything. So we had everything to deal with. You know, we had... In a lot of areas, we had a lot of trees to deal with, the stumps to deal with, actually remaking the Towpath itself, getting it back to where it belonged. Bridges, calder pipes, people. That was one of the things with building the Towpath that... I can remember an instance where we were actually under construction in a section and the guys actually stopped to eat lunch, and a guy went by on his bicycle trying to get by and put his foot on the back of the one guy because he was trying to get through. You know? It was... It was interesting. [laughs] You always had to be aware because people were going through, no matter what. And, you know, and we were trying to get it done ahead of time and keep going and keep it working and get it completed. And they were using it just about as fast as we could put it down. So it was interesting. The southern end from Ira Road south was, basically, all had to be put in because Riverview Road took up a lot of where the Towpath was originally. And so we had to kind of meander down through there and work our way through the low part of that area. There's places down there where we've probably got 30, 40 inches of stone in the ground because it was that kind of material down in there in order to keep it solid enough to make it work, and then bring it through the two half locks and then continue on down to Bath Road. So it was interesting. It was. I... That was an experience that... I was glad to see it done. But yet you really felt like you was part of the history, you know, because we come across a lot of the old surveyor marks that were there for the Towpath. So it was pretty much on line with where it was going in a lot of the area. So... And it was pretty. You could be going through a field one minute, next to a cornfield, the next, next to a road the next time, and then you're right next to the river again. But like anything else, it's got its problems, you know? When you're next to water like that, it's hard to hard to maintain something that way.. But it is nice and people do use it. Weekends, that's one place you kind of avoid if you've been around it much at all. [laughs]

Andrew Glasier [00:18:42] Is the maintenance of the Towpath as big an issue as the construction was or because so many people use it?

Tim Atkinson [00:18:52] Well... I'd have to say, yes. It is a big issue. As you know, that a lot of the other connections, connectors to this are asphalt. John had always wanted to see it maintained as it was, you know, the historic part of it. So that's why it's always been a stone-type surface on it. But it's nice that way. But it does present its problems, too. Like anything else, you know, you get water on it, you get bicycles on it, you get people on it, you name it. It wears that stone down and it gets dusty. That was always one of the big complaints in the summertime is the dust. We tried a lot of different things that we could with equipment to keep the dust down, but it gets dusty. But, yeah, it's difficult to deal with it. You still have to maintain it, you still have to keep the ruts out of it. You still have to keep whether it gets washed out when the river gets up and you get the floods, you gotta go back in and work on it. It's always something to do. There's never a down time on the Towpath. You know, you still mow it, you still keep the leaves and the stuff off of... especially like we used to have the marathon and so forth. You know, you always kind of worried about that because you never knew what it was going to be like that day. And, you know, you'd try to get the walnuts, that type stuff off of it for the runners. But even for people that are on bicycles, you always had trees that come down, storms and stuff. There's always something going on. Up north, you'd have the river that played a big role with the Towpath. I remember the big flood we had and we had a lot of damage on the Towpath. But it was always part of the job. You know, you still went out and you maintain it to keep it going because you'd always have stretches that were not harmed at all, you know, and you still had people and people still wanted to go. They still wanted to ride. I know one time we had a flood. It's been maybe four or five years ago now up north. And I was out walking, looking at the damage and I was walking through muck on the Towpath, and here come a guy on a bicycle. He was going through no matter what, and he'd get off and pick his bike up and carry it over the downed trees that were laid across the Towpath, and go on. You know? You can't keep the people off.

Andrew Glasier [00:21:29] What do you think is the success of this trail? What is it about this trail that draws so many people?

Tim Atkinson [00:21:34] I think a lot of it has to do with just the area that it's in. I mean, you get on the Towpath and you look at what you can see. You know, you got eagles' nests now that are actually on the Towpath or close to the Towpath, within sight anyway. But everything. I don't care what it is, you know, just about any kind of animal you can find on the Towpath, from turtles to snakes to deer to coyotes now to any kind of critters, they're out there. We had a big thing we was building with turtles that would come up here and try to bury their eggs into the fresh part, you know, because it was soft and they would try to do that and make their nest in there. But people enjoy the area. It has a lot to offer. It's scenic. You know, it gives you the forest-type view in some places and it gives you the open area in another. So it just has a good feel to it. You have a lot of shade, you have a lot of sun, you name it. Wherever you want it, you've got it there. But yet you're still close to where you live or other things you may want to do. And it was a bright idea and a brainstorm to put that through the Valley because I think that really kept this area going. I really do. You look at Peninsula on weekends down there. That place was bustling because of the people that would come in there. And then when you have the train and so forth involved in it too now. It all ties together. But yeah, I can't envision this place right now without that Towpath going through it. I think it made that big of an impact on this park.

Andrew Glasier [00:23:17] How long did it take for the total construction of the park?

Tim Atkinson [00:23:21] Just about four year... Oh. Excuse me?

Andrew Glasier [00:23:22] Go ahead.

Tim Atkinson [00:23:24] I thought you was gonna say the Towpath

Andrew Glasier [00:23:25] Yeah, the Towpath.

Tim Atkinson [00:23:25] Yeah, it was about four years. Yeah. And there's still pieces that are being done, you know, to fix it. And as long as you continue to have the the floods and stuff, you're always gonna have those type of scenarios going on. But yeah, it took about that length of time to actually from start to completion because we had the what you'd call the grand opening or the start of it, you know, and we'd actually started Towpath before that. It's just that that's when they wanted to have their, you know, the shovel event. [laughs].

Andrew Glasier [00:24:02] And did you start in the south and head north, or was there, just whatever parts made sense?

Tim Atkinson [00:24:07] It kind of depended on... Well, we kind of worked with areas that were already starting to... That were there, you know? You figure it was easier to go in and start doing areas that were like from Boston north in places because it was primarily there. You didn't have as much to do. You could open up some sections to let people onto to get them done. You start thinking about places that were south. There was some contractor work there, naturally, getting through the Beaver Marsh and that type of thing, and just north of Peninsula, the boardwalk and so forth. Those had to be done and they were being done by contract. So you couldn't get in there and do some of that stuff. We had a lot of trees deal with and that's what we do a lot of times. The wintertime was we'd have a crew in that dealt with doing nothing but getting the trees down and taking care of all that and the stumps and everything, and then we started doing the actual construction of the Towpath, you know, when the good weather came around. So we would skip and jump into different places. And probably the last place that was done was from Ira south to get that section put in. And then we had the guardrail, the wooden guardrail and everything had to be put up. You know, the landscape architect had a major chore of getting all this stuff ready and making all the contacts with the right people and the counties and so forth in the townships and everything else just to keep it going. But, you know, we'd get out there and we'd get it staked out and figure out what we needed as far as materials and stuff, and then we'd go from there. Each year with the budget and so forth, we'd work in how we were going to deal with certain things. But it was a... It was an interesting and I'd say satisfying goal by the time we got done with it.

Andrew Glasier [00:26:06] Each section?

Tim Atkinson [00:26:08] Yeah, yeah, each section had its own little quirks to it that you had to deal with. And some places we would have two or three bridges we'd have to put in in a section, you know, and then those would have to be fabricated and made and then brought to the park. And then we would have to get everything done as far as all the concrete work and everything for the walls and everything and the foundations and get out and then get it set in place and build the Towpath after that. So yeah, it was... It was interesting.

Andrew Glasier [00:26:41] While you guys were working on the Towpath, were other trails, did other trails kind of get left behind a little bit?

Tim Atkinson [00:26:46] Well, no, not really, because the Towpath was kind of a set crew. You know, it really wasn't the park trail crew that worked on the Towpath, at least all the time. I mean, there was times that that would take place, but we had a crew that we brought in strictly for Towpath construction because there's no other way we could do it and still try to keep going and maintain the other sites. You just... There just wasn't. We only had three people as far as park staff that dealt with trails. And that's not not very many at all. So it was kind of you still dealt with the Towpath but yet you dealt with everything else, too. You had to keep it all going. But there was a set crew that came in for the Towpath, and we would have certain people that came in and that works during the summer. And some of them would be there. Some of 'em wouldn't be there for the wintertime as far as doing tree work because you didn't need as many at that time. But you start thinking about the trucks, we know we would rent trucks and still have our park trucks, but we'd have to rent trucks, too. So we kept both things still going. But you always had more drivers, you had operators, you had people that are just doing the basic labor-type work. So. It was different.

Andrew Glasier [00:28:06] It seems like it had a lot more equipment to it than the normal trail maintenance.

Andrew Glasier [00:28:12] Yeah. Yeah, it would. Oh yeah. As far as regular trail maintenance goes, yeah, because you're we're talking about an eight-foot-wide trail, the Towpath. So, yeah, you know, we still had to do those or we still had an excavator. We'd have a paver that we would bring in to actually lay the stone down. Yeah, he still had a lot of different type stuff by the time he's finished with it, you know, sheep's-foot rollers, smooth rollers. So, yeah, you'd have more there than what you would out on a regular trail because when you're out working on a regular trail, you're doing most of that work by hand. You know, there would be times you'd have where you'd have a piece of equipment there, but not that much. You know, the impact there was trying not to impact the ground so much itself. But the Towpath's a different scenario because of what it was going to have to carry and so forth. You know, it was a wheelchair accessible thing, so, you know, five percent or less is the grade on that. So everything had to be worked in to do that, you know. You had bridges to put in and culverts to put in. You can't do all of that by hand, not this premade stuff. So, yeah, there's a lot of equipment.

Andrew Glasier [00:29:28] You talk about the wheelchair accessible, that means it has a five percent rate is the maximum it could have?

Tim Atkinson [00:29:33] Yes.

Andrew Glasier [00:29:34] And was that a conscious choice to keep it kind of a flat trail?

Tim Atkinson [00:29:38] It was. Well, the Towpath itself is basically a flat-type trail. And but the idea was to make it accessible for everybody. So when you talk about the Towpath Trail, it's accessible for everybody, whether you're in a wheelchair or walking or in places, even horses, you know, it comes onto the Towpath. But, yeah, anybody could be out there on just about anything and do it. And it still gives us the accessibility with the equipment when we need to get out there and do work and so forth.

Andrew Glasier [00:30:12] You talked earlier about the seasonality of trails, like certain trails are better during certain seasons. Can you explain that a little bit more?

Tim Atkinson [00:30:22] Well, when you start thinking about a ski trail, for instance, and you want it to go through certain areas, if it's an area where summertime it's really dry, well, it's no, no, problem. You're not skiing naturally, but yet you know this area is good. If you come back in the same area in the wintertime, there may be a lot of standing water and so forth going through that area. So is that where you want the trail to be? And, you know, when you're making that trail, you're going over and looking at all these places and thinking about it in different seasons because of how it's going to lend itself to what you're wanting to use the trail for. If it's an area that's really wet, well you can't naturally have a ski trail in here so much because the snow isn't going to stay there because it's going to get wet all the time and it's not going to be snow anymore. But yet, if you reroute the trail in certain ways and take it through certain spots, you can get around some of that. You don't want to be under a lot of growth all the time either that's probably predominantly going to have trees on it that, you know, like the evergreens and stuff. They're not going to shed their leaves like the other trees do. So you've got to kind of work your way through some of these places in different seasons and determine exactly where you want that trail to go. And that's

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