When Champlain Area Trails (CATS) Executive Director Chris Maron got word that a historic 132.5 farm in Westport had been placed on the market last August, he recognized immediately the significance of the property to CATS’ mission of making trails and saving land in the Champlain Valley.
“Viall’s Crossing is the only place where a hiking/skiing trail going directly north from the Westport train station to Essex could legally cross the Canadian Pacific railroad tracks. CATS has envisioned doing this for years,” Maron said. “The property is also a key link in protecting wildlife in the Split Rock Wildway, which connects New York’s Split Rock Wild Forest to the Adirondack Mountains.”
Maron added, “It had important historical value as well: the original owner’s son, Asa Viall, was a friend of abolitionist John Brown. Asa provided the wagon and took Brown’s body after his 1859 execution to its final resting place in North Elba, near Lake Placid.”
The farm‘s seller was Harold White, a 75-year old single man with no direct heirs, who said the property had been in his family since 1814. His ancestors built a log cabin that was replaced with the existing house in 1835, the year before his great grandfather, Asa Viall was born.
Well after the John Brown saga, White told Maron that Asa sold a narrow corridor across the property to the railroad company, which became the final link in the line connecting Montreal and New York. So when Maron mentioned building the trail, it was White who suggested the trail name of “Viall’s Crossing.”
Maron knew time was critical to protect the property and open it for trails for all to enjoy. “An adage I learned long ago came to mind, that ‘you have only one chance in your life to buy a desired property’ and I knew I had to act fast on a plan to buy the property, protect it with a conservation easement, and resell it. The problem was that CATS did not have funds to buy it.”
He turned to the Eddy Foundation, a non-profit that has conserved about 3,000 acres in New York’s Champlain Valley. The Eddy Foundation often uses its funds to make bridge loans to purchase properties, sell a conservation easement to a land trust, and then sell the property to a “conservation buyer” who shares the goal of protecting the land and allowing hikers to pass through, while practicing sound farming techniques that protect clean water, allow for wildlife movement and preserve the scenic vistas.
CATS coordinated the Eddy Foundation’s purchase of the farm with the intent of re-selling it to a conservation buyer, preferably a young farming family, with CATS purchasing a conservation easement from Eddy to ensure the property would be open for a trail for future generations of hikers to enjoy. A benefit of the conservation easement on the property for the potential buyer is a reduction in the sale price (due to a lower market value), providing a unique opportunity for a new farmer to enter the agriculture business with his or her own land.
Lindsay Willemain and Nick Rowe, a young couple from Brooklyn, fit that profile perfectly and have purchased the farm. Lindsay, a lawyer who changed careers, has worked at Essex Farm as well as farms in Jamaica and Maryland and will use that experience to manage the farm with a focus on heirloom fruits and vegetables. Her husband Nick, a retired U.S. Marine, is a musician and artist who will help on the farm and aims to create a retreat for artists and musicians. They will enroll their 3-year old son Augustus at Lakeside School in Essex.
On April 13, 2018, the plan succeeded when Eddy sold the conservation easement to CATS that conserved the historic farm, protected important forest in the Split Rock Wildway, secured a key section of the Westport-Essex Trail, and provided the opportunity for a young family to move to the Westport/Essex area.”
“Projects like Viall’s Crossing,” said Maron, “reduce haphazard rural development and steer growth toward our villages and hamlets where people can better support our local businesses. That ensures that the beauty of our area is preserved for the enjoyment of future generations. Plus in this case, it enabled Lindsay and Nick to join with other young families to reinvigorate a culture based on small-scale farming, education, and appreciation of nature.”
The Viall’s Crossing project has already received grants from the Cloudsplitter Foundation and NYS Environmental Protection Fund’s Conservation Partnership Program administered by the Land Trust Alliance. The remaining cost of conserving Viall’s Crossing and securing a permanent hiking/cross-country skiing trail on the property is $87,000, which CATS is raising through donations and grants; the CATS website has additional details.
“Viall’s Crossing is a wonderful success story,” said CATS Board Chair Evan George. “With tremendous help from many volunteers, we completed the Viall’s Crossing Trail just in time for the Grand Hike we’re hosting on Saturday, May 12. Hikers will start at the Westport train station and walk 13 miles to the Essex Inn to join the block party with music, food, and drinks.”