The Rock Ridges Trail: A Lasting Testament to the Work of Minna Anthony Common
Whether you travel by air, land or water, the trees of Wellesley Island are a sight to behold. They define the landscape of TI Park, gracing it with their expansive green in the summer, beautiful colors in the fall and white-tipped stillness in the winter. People from all walks of life travel here every year to experience these forests firsthand. It is hard to imagine the Park without them.
Minna. Anthony Common spent nearly all of her summers surrounded by this beauty. It served as the foundation for her life’s work. A self-taught botanist, she was passionate about preserving, educating and observing the natural world. Her work reinforced the importance of maintaining, preserving and enjoying the incredible nature this area has to offer. The Rock Ridges Trail was the physical embodiment of this mission. It stands today as a testament to the influence one person can have on the human footprint in a region.
Minna Anthony Common spent as much of her life in nature as possible. Behind her cottage in TI Park, were woods that stretched for miles. Minna often walked these woods, following the hard-packed Native American foot path that wound through the forest. It was on one of these walks that she found slashes of paint across many of the trees. Curious, she went over to the Office of the Association to inquire about the meaning behind them.
Upon her arrival she was told they would be lumbering behind the woods near her cottage. Horrified, she offered the Association a proposition. In exchange for lumbering elsewhere, she would make and maintain a nature trail that followed the old Native American path in the woods. In August 1934, at the annual meeting of the TI Park Garden Club, Minna asked if they would sponsor this nature trail. Awarded $10 and the promise of help for any heavy lifting, Minna and her children set about their work. In August 1935, the Rock Ridges Nature Trail opened. A mile and a half long, it included a water garden made in the reservoir for TI Park.
The name Rock Ridges came from a long granite stretch of rock, which the Trail crossed. It is believed that the deep scratches running north and south along the rock face were made by a glacier thousands of years ago. Maintaining the Rock Ridges Nature Trail was hard work. Minna and her daughters worked year-round to keep the Trail running. Winters were spent making signs and planning the garden at the entrance of the Trail. Spring involved weeding, planting and replacing signs that had disappeared or been broken over the winter months.
While the TI Garden Club purchased plants for the Rock Ridges Trail, Minna transplanted additional plants from other areas of the Trail and put them where she wanted. Her detailed journal on this work creates a map of the terrain that stretches almost 20 years. It is in these notes that we begin to see the care that Minna took of this Trail and the impact it had on the people who traveled it.
By the time summer arrived, the Trail was ready for visitors to traverse. Even in summer there was work to do. Minna and her daughters weeded the gardens and watered the plants during dry summers. From the Trail’s opening in 1936 until Minna’s death in January of 1950, hundreds of people signed the logbook and immerse themselves in nature. During the height of the Trail people from 11 states, Washington D.C. and Canada visited. Students from Potsdam and Syracuse University traveled to TI Park to participate in field trips that Minna led.
But what is really incredible about this Trail was not its length or its uniqueness but how Minna used it to teach others about nature. Every year 75-100+ signs were installed along this mile-long nature Trail. Some identified the plants and trees along the edges of the path. Others pointed out birds that could be heard or seen. The most important signs taught visitors how to “Look and Learn.” The Rock Ridges Trail was more than just a walk in the woods, it was an education about the nature around us.
The Rock Ridges Trail still traverses the hill of Wellesley Island today. Reopened in July 1985, it follows the original path as close as Minna’s daughters and TI Park resident and family friend, Nellie Taylor could remember. Continuing Minna’s mission of teaching nature appreciation to children and adults, the Rock Ridges Friends Group works to maintain and protect the Trail today.
Minna’s work reminds us that one person can make a difference. That one person’s passion and focus can change the landscape of an entire region for the better. Her belief in the importance of the forests on TI Park provided her with the opportunity to educate people from places far beyond the Thousand Islands. While we cannot measure the long-term effect that has had, we can surmise that forests across North America are better off because of the education that occurred along a mile and half Trail in the heart of beautiful woods on Thousand Island Park.
By Becky Ferrigno
Becky Ferrigno is on a mission to write about children and adults who overcome adversity and live incredible lives. She is the author of the children's book Blazing A Trail: The Story of Minna Anthony Common. Her work on Sensory Processing Disorder, Parenting and Loss can be found on The Mighty, Parent.co (now Motherly.) Today's Parent and Modern Loss, Her View From Home and her website, BeckyFerrigno.com
Blazing A Trail: The Minna Anthony Common Story (Pocket Jennifer Publishing, June 2019) is a narrative non-fiction book that recognizes a north country woman whose vast contributions to nature education and botany have been virtually unexplored.