An abandoned rail line stretches for miles along the banks of the Susquehanna River in Harford County. Those who hike Susquehanna State Park know it well; they have used portions of Philadelphia Electric Co.'s right of way as a makeshift trail for years to glimpse some of the most beautiful river views in Maryland.
But many others in Harford County and elsewhere in Maryland remain ignorant of such treasures hidden away in the northeast corner of the state.
"There are an incredible amount of historic and recreational resources in this area," says John Wilson, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' central region chief for greenways and resource planning.
"We want to tell a story about the area and link these resources," he said.
That's what the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway Commission hopes to do with a circuit of trails that would connect cultural and environmental attractions along the Harford and Cecil county banks of the Susquehanna River from Conowingo Dam to Chesapeake Bay.
The commission, which issued its proposal this summer, now is visiting civic and governmental groups to sell the greenway as a way to promote the area and its amenities as a unit, Mr. Wilson says.
Visitors who make the circuit -- ultimately, almost entirely on foot -- would be able to stop at attractions as diverse as a decoy museum in Havre de Grace, a grist mill in Susquehanna State Park and a hydroelectric power plant in Conowingo.
Across the river, a similar route would guide visitors along nature walks, scenic overlooks and the historic towns of Perryville and Port Deposit.
The Lower Susquehanna is the first greenway effort in Harford and Cecil, where a local steering committee was formed in June 1992.
Representatives from the county and town governments, business interests, history buffs and environ mentalists have joined the committee.
The panel's discussions -- and a yearlong research study they commissioned from a team of Towson State University graduate students in geography and environmental planning -- generated a rough outline of the potential greenway and plans to start the loop this year along the abandoned rail line in Susquehanna State Park.
"This is still very much a concept," Mr. Wilson said. "What we're trying to do now is let people know about the concept and see if the local community is in favor of it before we commit a lot of time and money to it."
The idea of linking natural resources isn't new. The governor-appointed Maryland Greenways Commission, a panel of public and private sector representatives, was started in 1990.
Its goal, says executive director Teresa Moore, is to create a statewide infrastructure by connecting and protecting important natural corridors.
With help from DNR and the Maryland Office of Planning, the panel has instigated projects "all over the state in just about every county," Ms. Moore says.
In Harford, DNR has allotted $300,000 in the 1994 fiscal budget to design and construct a hiking trail along the railroad track, extending an existing trail at Conowingo Visitor's Center through Susquehanna State Park.
The railroad, built by Philadelphia Electric in 1926 to carry men and construction materials nine miles from Havre de Grace to Conowingo, was abandoned in 1928, when the dam was completed.
Today, DNR rents the railroad right of way within the park from Conowingo Power Co., a Philadelphia Electric subsidiary.
Ambitious hikers use it as a path along the river's edge.
Within a stone's throw of the proposed first leg of the trail are the historic Rock Run grist mill, picnicking areas, the Steppingstone Farm Museum and the boat ramp.
Further south along the Harford shoreline lies Havre de Grace, the historic town situated where the Susquehanna meets the bay.
Commission members would like to see the greenway eventually link to the town's new Bayside boardwalk that connects the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum with the Concord Point Lighthouse.
Across the river in Cecil County, planners hope to tap into the inactive Octoraro Railroad along the riverbank and connect the trail to planned waterfront walks in Perryville and Port Deposit.
Additional trails could take visitors further inland to higher ground, where scenic overlooks could be built, Ms. Moore says.
Estimates of the length of the proposed Lower Susquehanna loop vary from 20 miles to 50 miles because some of the riverside easements lie on private property and may force the trails to meander away from the river or to use inland roads.
Planners admit the river crossing will be the most challenging and expensive segment of the loop.
Currently, drivers can travel from one county to the other over U.S. 1, at the northern end of the circuit, or over bridges of I-95 and U.S. 40 at
the southern end.
But a walking bridge is not out of the question, Mr. Wilson said.
It could be built on existing pilings from a former railroad bridge at the south end of the river or cantilevered off an existing highway.
"Not all these sights have to be linked by a walking trail," he said. "It's possible that people would drive a short distance or, say, use a water taxi, to the next stop on the circuit."
While the greenway holds promise for economic development, planners are conscious of potential resistance to the concept from people concerned about the threat to wetlands and wildlife.
But DNR funding for the first leg includes an engineering study to determine the structural work needed to turn the track into a trail and to ensure that the surrounding wildlife habitat is protected.
"Any new idea, any change meets with some resistance," Ms. Moore says. "But we're not promoting development, we're promoting protection and conservation.
"Harford and Cecil counties are growing very fast," she said. "This is the time to put in restrictions and to see that it's done by environmentalists. We want to get to the river before the developers."