Local, state and federal elected officials attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday for the Michael N. Castle Trail, a 9-mile paved, pathway along the northern shore of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

Josh and Addie Cummings were just looking for somewhere nice to take their 22-month-old daughter, Sadie, on a bike ride when they headed out to St. Georges on Friday morning.

"I knew there was a trail here, but I thought it was just dirt," Josh said. "So we were really surprised when we got here and saw all this."

What the Wilmington residents found was the Michael N. Castle Trail, a newly-paved pathway that stretches 9 miles along the northern shore of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal from the Branch Canal to Summit Bridge.

Coincidentally, they also happened to find former governor and U.S. Congressman Mike Castle, as well as dozens of other federal, state and local officials, bicycling enthusiasts and others, who were there to officially mark the opening of the new trail.

"I never been a fan of having anything named for me [because] I feel like maybe it's the beginning of the end," Castle said with a smile at the conclusion of the ceremony. "But having said that, if they're going to name something for you, this trail is as good as it gets."

Castle is credited with playing a central role in bringing the trail to fruition; having started working on project with constituents in 2004 and leading the public workshops that resulted in a final trail design in 2008.

Following Castle's Republican primary defeat in 2011, Delaware's Congressional delegation continued the effort by securing $3.2 million in federal funding that was later matched Delaware General Assembly and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), which will manage the trail.

Daisy Construction of New Castle completed work on the initial, $6-million phase of the trail in August, and more than 5,000 bicyclists, pedestrians, anglers and equestrians have already visited the pathway.

Work on a second, $1.4 million phase of the trail began in September and is slated to connect Castle Trail to Delaware City's Canalfront Promenade by late 2014. The plan is to eventually extend the trail a full 16 miles from Delaware City to Chesapeake City in Cecil County, Md.

In addition to providing a scenic path along the canal, the Castle Trail is also part of Gov. Jack Markell's First State Trails and Pathways Initiative, which seeks to connect the state's 500 miles of public trails and pathways to create an uninterrupted network for non-motorized travel between towns and communities throughout the state.

"I think, Congressman Castle, we owe you such an unbelievable debt of gratitude," Markell said during Friday's ribbon cutting. "This pathway is going to be enjoyed for generations to come … [And] they may not know a lot about you 100 years from now, but they're going to know back in 2013 and the years before that, there was a great leader in Delaware who was willing to do what he had to do to ensure generations to come would be better off in our state."

Delaware City Town Manager Dick Cathcart said he's looking forward to Castle Trail making an impact on his town much sooner.

"It is literally going to be a game changer for out little town," he said, noting the 1,700-resident town's efforts to rebrand itself as a center for eco-tourism. "You heard mention earlier that 5,000 people have already been on this trail already. Can you imagine when it gets open all the way from city to city?"

The Cummings family said they made plans to return to the Castle Trail before their first visit was complete.

"We're glad we found it," Jeff said. "We've been trying to get back into bike riding since Sadie was born, so we'll definitely be back again soon."

Castle Trail is open to the public from dawn to dusk, seven days a week.