STERLING – A man who loved the Hennepin Canal in childhood, then devoted his career to preserving the 105-mile national landmark, has retired after 3 decades of working to transform the abandoned shipping route into a recreational state park.

Steve Moser grew up along the canal banks in Kewanee where he fished the Hennepin with his grandfather. He retired Thursday after 28 years as superintendent of the Hennepin Canal State Park.

“I was a fan of it from being a little guy on up,” said Moser, 60, now of Sterling. “I was lucky enough to get the [superintendent] position, and I fell in love with it even more … This is the second-best job I could have had [behind playing third base for the St. Louis Cardinals.]”

When he took the job, the Army Corps of Engineers recently had abandoned the commercially useless canal, and Illinois Department of Natural Resources had put little money into its upkeep.

The eastern 30-or-so miles were dry, with trees sprouting up from the canal bed. Levees were washed out and no one had the money to repair them.

“It wasn’t so much used as it was abused,” Moser said. But, “from small things come big things.”

Thanks largely to Moser’s advocacy, collaboration with area stakeholders, governments at all levels, and plenty of donations and volunteers, IDNR was able to repair the levees a few miles at a time, eventually refilling the canal and stocking it with fish.

“We were fortunate to be able to do it right,” Moser said.

Gary Wagle, 70, president and founder of the nonprofit Friends of the Hennepin Canal, sings Moser’s praises.

“There’s just all kinds of good things to say about the guy. … Because of him, we got to know the canal much, much better.”

Moser won’t take credit for transforming the waterway into a park – “I was in the right place at the right time for a lot of things,” he said.

Joanne Gernant, treasurer of the Friends, has been riding horseback along the canal’s towpath for 70 years. She calls the state park “my peacemaker.”

“Steve really wants to please all disciplines of recreation,” Gernant said. “I thought he was one of the gentlest, kindest people I knew. … The more I knew him, the more respect I had for him.”

Since 2003, Moser and his staff have had to work harder to maintain the park, plus thousands of acres of nearby wildlife preserves. In 6 years, IDNR has cut staff from a high of 22 to 13 this year, and no one has been announced to replace him, Moser said.

“I realize tough times call for tough decisions … but we’re spread really thin,” Moser said. “You can’t take a staff of 22 and cut it almost in half and expect to get the same quality of work.”

Among the projects Moser is most proud of are the levee repairs and paving towpaths, which were originally designed for animals to pull barges, turning them into bike trails.

He was at the visitor’s center in Sheffield when the Rock River Development Authority’s Rock Falls chapter asked what it could do to help restore the canal. That was 1988, and it marked the start of the trail initiative. To date, IDNR has finished 91 of the canal’s 105 miles.

“It’s just grown and grown to the point where it’s a part of the community, and that’s been rewarding.”

Help Moser

A retirement party has been planned for Steve Moser, who spent 28 years as superintendent of the Hennepin Canal State Park and largely oversaw its transformation from an abandoned shipping route to a popular bicycle, snowmobile and shipping path.

The party is from 4 to 7 p.m. Jan. 23 at the Latin American Social Club, 2708 W. Lincolnway, in Sterling.