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Eye On
Nevada's Union Pacific Railroad Trail

By Mark Cheater

For most of its short life, Henderson has existed in relative obscurity, eclipsed by its world-famous neighbor, Las Vegas. But Nevada's second-largest city is working hard to separate itself from the neon-lit metropolis next door—and its own industrial past—by creating a dazzling system of multi-use trails. The latest evidence of the city's rise is the Union Pacific Railroad Trail.

The southern phase of this rail-with-trail project, a six-mile segment starting near the campus of Nevada State College and running to downtown Henderson, is scheduled to open in the next few weeks. Design and planning work on the northern phase is under way, and officials hope to open it by the end of 2013—creating a 12-mile corridor through the heart of the city.

© John Holman
Recently completed section of Union Pacific Railroad Trail,
heading north at Horizon Drive.

Not only will the trail provide "convenient connections between parks, schools and neighborhoods," says city parks and recreation department spokesperson Kim Becker; it will also be "an important addition to Henderson's trail system, connecting to regional trails, open spaces and federal lands such as Lake Mead and the River Mountains."

One of the elements distinguishing this pathway from others in the area is the working rail line that runs beside it. This branch line was built by Union Pacific in the early 1930s to bring machinery and construction materials from Las Vegas to Hoover Dam, which is just 18 miles east of Henderson. (The easternmost section of this rail corridor, which went out of service in the 1960s, is now the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail and part of the River Mountains Loop Trail.)

Back in the 1930s, Henderson was little more than a stretch of federally owned desert between Vegas and the dam. But early in World War II, the area was chosen as the site for a huge factory to process magnesium—a crucial element in weapons and aircraft. Work on the facility, known as Basic Magnesium Inc. (BMI), started in 1942. The project soon dwarfed even the gargantuan Hoover Dam effort, with more than 13,000 employees, many of whom lived in temporary housing in Henderson.

After the war, magnesium production ceased, and the U.S. government offered the factory and the town site for sale as war surplus until Nevada officials intervened. The state bought the property and officially incorporated Henderson as a city in 1953. The BMI site became home to a variety of industries, from a titanium processing facility to firms that produced ingredients for rocket fuel. (One of these companies, PEPCON, was destroyed in 1988 in a spectacular explosion that registered 3.5 on the Richter scale and killed two people.)

© John Holman
The Union Pacific Railroad Trail is the city's first rail-with-trail project, seen here paralelling active Union Pacific tracks.

The industries kept trains rolling into the city, even as Las Vegas expanded and portions of Henderson began morphing into suburbs of Sin City. During the last three decades, Henderson has grown and transformed into a diverse metropolis. "I've seen it go from a little industrial town to America's next premier city," says John Holman, a resident since 1978 and chair of the River Mountains Loop Trail Partnership.

© John Holman
With approximately 50,000 residents living in close
proximity to the trail, planners expect the pathway to see
heavy use.

One key to that transformation is the city's large and growing network of multi-use pathways. That network includes more than 60 miles of greenways, including the Amargosa Trail, the Anthem East Trail, the Boulder Highway Trail, the Burkholder Trail, the Cactus Wren Trail, the Downs 5 and Saguaro trails, the Pittman Wash Trail, the St. Rose Parkway Trail as well as the 35-mile River Mountains Loop Trail. This extensive trail system led Prevention magazine to rank Henderson as the sixth-best walking city in the country in 2007.

The Union Pacific project is the city's first rail-with-trail effort. The southern phase connects various existing segments of trail along both sides of the railroad tracks into a continuous pathway, adds landscaping and benches, and includes safety improvements such as lighting and signed street crossings.

"Previously there were three miles of unconnected trail that saw heavy daily traffic, mostly recreational riders and children going back and forth to school," says Becker. "There are approximately 50,000 residents in the immediate vicinity, and we expect a large percentage of them to use this trail for recreation and non-motorized transportation purposes."

Funding for the $12 million southern section came from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management through a program that sells surplus federal land in the Las Vegas area and returns the money to the community as grants for conservation and recreation projects. In the past decade, Henderson has received more than $238 million for its parks and trails under this program.


Trail Under Construction: Union Pacific Railroad Trail

Location: Henderson, Nevada

Used Railroad Corridor: Union Pacific Railroad

Length: 12 miles

Surface: Asphalt

The next phase of the Union Pacific trail (which is also being funded through the federal program) will take the pathway northwest past the downtown area, through the edge of the industrial park where the PEPCON explosion took place and into residential areas on the border with Las Vegas.

"A lot of these neighborhoods already have trail systems in place—this will hook up to all of them, creating a network of trails and bikeways," says Holman. "This will be a major artery for hiking and biking right through the heart of the community. I see it as a real success story."

For more information, visit the city of Henderson website or call 702.267.4000.


Mark Cheater is senior editor of Rails to Trails magazine.

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