Trail of the Month: June 2013
Iowa's Trolley Trail
By Laura Stark
"There are unique recreational opportunities in both towns and the trail allows access to both."
From nostalgic train buffs to cherubic Thomas the Tank Engine aficionados, the Trolley Trail in north-central Iowa has something for everyone. Although only six miles long, there are so many nearby attractions that a visitor could easily make a day trip out of it.
Brian Pauly, superintendent of recreation for Mason City, lives four blocks from the Trolley Trail. "It's a great trail that links Mason City and Clear Lake," he says. "There are unique recreational opportunities in both towns and the trail allows access to both."
The trail gets its name from the trolley line it parallels that began shuttling passengers between the two towns in 1897. Although it stopped carrying passengers in 1936, the Iowa Traction Railway continues to ship cargo. "It's the last electric freight railroad in North America," says Michael Johns, the general manager for the Iowa Traction Railway.
"It works the industries on the west side of Mason City," says Dennis Wilson, chairman of the Friends of the 457, a local volunteer group. "A lot of people come and photograph it."
Trains run several times a week, but when asked if they posed a risk for trail-goers, Johns says there are no safety concerns. This comes as no surprise to Kelly Pack, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy trail development director and the lead author of a new report on rail-with-trail projects like this one.
"It's been more than a decade since the last rail-with-trail report and we've seen a substantial growth in rail-with-trails around the country," says Pack. "And they continue to have an excellent safety record." The new report, anticipated to come out in July, will provide examples of rail-with-trail projects of varying lengths and styles, as well as updated technical resources and contacts for the trail-building community.
Before the Trolley Trail was built, the danger for bicyclists and walkers in the community wasn't trains—it was cars. Precipitating the push for the trail in 1988 was a tragic accident in which a teenager was killed as he was biking along the road between Mason City and Clear Lake. When the Trolley Trail was opened to the public in 1990, it was a welcome addition to the surrounding communities. Efforts now center on making more of these essential connections.
"Our goal is to make Mason City a bikeable and walkable user-friendly community," says Bill Stangler, the city's operations and maintenance manager. "We have a number of trails, but they just start and end. The concept is to link everything together." Mason City is also working on a Complete Streets initiative."
Long ago, Mason City sported a transportation network of another kind: railroads. "Mason City was a railroad hub a hundred years ago," says Johns. "At least five big railroads were in town."
An unusual remnant of this industrial past is Big Blue, an old quarry pit at the east end of the Trolley Trail that naturally filled with water over the years and is now a recreational hot spot, especially for fishing. Scuba divers that venture into its 80-foot depths can still see old mining equipment.
Less than two miles from Big Blue is a reminder of the town's more elegant past. Last year, Condé Nast Traveler named Mason City one of the World's Best Cities for Architecture Lovers, due to the large collection of "Prairie School" buildings in the community. This style of architecture, designed to be reminiscent of expansive prairie landscapes, was made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright, himself a Midwesterner, who lived in Mason City in the early 20th century. Wright's Stockman House, constructed in 1908, is now an interpretative center and can be toured. A few blocks away the Historic Park Inn Hotel, the last remaining hotel that he designed, is also worth a visit.
Another mile east from here is East Park, which Pauly calls "a gem of the community." Here, the Friends of the 457 are bringing a Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad steam engine back to its original 1912 look. Although the restoration is purely cosmetic, the engine gives the appearance of running courtesy of a strategically placed fogger in its smokestack and a CD of steam-engine sound that's played during demonstrations.
A local Rotary Club had started the project back in the 1950s and, after starts and stops, the restoration is now nearly complete. In 1959 the engine was dubbed "Cannonball" in a naming contest run by the local newspaper; the winner: an 8-year-old girl who spent her $25 earnings on a new puppy.
Over the past 10 years, the community has been incredibly supportive of the project. The display has been closed since last August, so that volunteers could work on repairing the engine's boiler jacket—the final piece of the restoration—and "every day they're asking, 'when are you going to be done?'" says Wilson. He hopes the answer is June 29, when the Friends of the 457 hosts its annual Cannonball Day. As their website proclaims, the event is for anyone that loves trains and will include a children's fun run, live music, talent contest, and chicken barbecue.
At the trail's opposite end lies Trolley Park, where another group of volunteers offers rides on a diesel locomotive around a short track as part of a private, educational museum. The big engine is especially popular with children. "When we get six-year-olds, they think they've died and gone to heaven," says Stan Gentry, president of the Mason City and Clear Lake Electric Railroad Historical Society.
But teaching railroad history to young crowds is not always easy, as Gentry explains: "When kids come, their minds go everywhere. Sometimes you'll have 15 seconds, sometimes 15 minutes, so you go with the flow."
In addition to the working diesel engine, the group is building a replica of an 1869 wood-burning steam locomotive. When completed next year, it will be a Victorian beauty in dark green and bright red with shiny brass and gold-leaf trimmings. An old handcar (like the kind Wile E. Coyote used to chase down the Road Runner) can also be pumped down the track. Gentry jokes that this ride is more popular with the hardier bicycle crowd.
From here, reaching Clear Lake itself is an easy journey of less than two miles. "Once you get off the trail, follow Main Avenue west, and you run right into the lake," says Libbey Patton, director of tourism for the Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce. Forged by glaciers, such a naturally made lake is unusual for the state and has helped propel the city into a tourist hub with visitors flocking here during the summer months.
"We got a bike rental program going last year because so many people came to town and wanted to ride bikes," says Patton. Available at the lake's visitor center, the rentals are a beach cruiser style to "fit the theme of the town," says Patton.
Less than a mile north of the visitor center is the Surf Ballroom, a rock-n-roll landmark and museum where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper gave their last concert before their tragic deaths in a plane crash. Concerts still play in the dancehall that sports a gleaming hardwood floor, a stage hugged by palm trees, and 50s-style diner booths.
The Trolley Trail already joins two great towns, Clear Lake and Mason City. In the future, more communities will be hooked into the network once plans develop for an as yet unnamed rail-trail along a corridor purchased from Union Pacific Railroad. Although salvage work has been completed, the corridor has 19 bridges that need to be redecked and railed.
"Our agency has a rail bed in the southwest corner of Mason City extending down through the county to Thornton," says Fred Heinz, director of the Cerro Gordo County Conservation Board, which manages the Trolley Trail and other public areas throughout the county. "It's 21 miles. Now we just need the funding to create it. It's a big undertaking."