Trail of the Month: July 2013
Illinois' Rock Island Trail
By Laura Stark
"The trail has become part of the fabric of their lives."
Midway between Chicago and St. Louis, lies a rail-trail of such character and beauty that it inspired a lifetime of trail advocacy in not just one, but two recipients of our highest honor, the Doppelt Family Rail-Trail Champion Award. One of these champions, former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood grew up in Peoria, which anchors the southern end of the Rock Island Trail that winds through central Illinois.
"He's been a direct friend of the trails in Illinois and the Rock Island Trail—no doubt about it," says George Bellovics with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), which manages most of trail. "His legacy is well known and appreciated by people in the area."
The other is George M. Burrier, Jr., who heads the Friends of the Rock Island Trail group and has been involved in the trail's development for more than 30 years.
Such devotion to the trail is not unusual. "We get a lot of local users," says Bellovics. "The trail has become part of the fabric of their lives."
IDNR's portion of the trail, which stretches 26 miles from Toulon to Alta (just north of Peoria), has a distinct country feeling: rolling farmlands, splashes of wildflowers, and leafy canopies offering a cool respite in the warm summers. A railroad relic, the Spoon River trestle bridge, offers postcard-perfect views. "The trail is a slice of Midwestern Americana," says Bellovics.
Just a few months ago, the nonprofit organization Trails for Illinois released a report, Making Trails Count in Illinois, which shared the results of a 13-week usage study on six trails throughout the state, including the Rock Island Trail. The study, done in partnership with Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, showed that the trail's average estimated annual use ranged from 3,380 on its rural northern end to 36,535 on its urban southern side.
"Those figures may seem small compared to trails in larger metro areas," says Steve Buchtel, Trails for Illinois' executive director, "But for small communities outside Peoria, like Toulon with a population of less than 2,000, they're connected to a trail that sees thousands of people. That's quite an economic opportunity."
The small country towns that the trail goes through—Toulon, Wyoming, Princeville, Dunlap, and Alta—are known for their hospitality. Eric Oberg, trail development manager for RTC's Midwest Regional Office, recalls seeing a "Trail Users Welcome" sign outside a bar and grill right off the trail in Toulon with staff that "couldn't be more accommodating or nice."
And the trail is proving to be of value to residential developers, too. "Tons of residences are going up along the trail," says Michael Friberg, a project manager for the Peoria Park District. "They all have put in connections to the Rock Island Trail, which speaks highly of it being a benefit."
Buchtel hopes the report will help build the case for the economic value of trails. "The old mindset was: 'Trails just don't bring business,'" he says. "It's exciting to have data that shows otherwise and profoundly. We found that a third of survey respondents made a purchase while using the trail."
Oberg also points out that, "The trail counts showed the untapped potential of the trail. The counts could be even higher, but there's a lack of awareness. The trail is a wonderful amenity that's underused."
This lack of awareness is an issue that Buchtel agrees with and he hopes in the future that the state will promote more trail-based tourism.
"When I speak to groups, there will be 150 people in the room," says Buchtel. "I'll ask, 'Who's been on the Rock Island Trail?' and almost no one raises a hand. But if I ask who's been on the Elroy-Sparta, hands in the whole room go up. We have trails that can go toe-to-toe with theirs, but Wisconsin invites people to come."
At the time that the Elroy-Sparta State Trail opened in 1967, the history of the Rock Island Trail was just beginning. The trail's corridor was donated to IDNR in 1969 by a nonprofit group, the Forest Park Foundation, who had acquired it from the Peoria and Rock Island Railroad a few years earlier. In 1973, the land became a state park, but the idea soon arose to develop a rail-trail through it to increase its accessibility and value. Resistance from adjacent landowners who instead wanted to claim the property for their own was swift and furious. When trail work began between Toulon and Wyoming, trail champion Burrier helped to restore a bridge set on fire by opponents.
Progress continued, but sometimes covertly. In 1986, the Friends of the Rock Island Trail secretly purchased the last remaining depot on the line. Today, Wyoming Station serves as a visitor center and railroad museum.
"We bought it from one of our supporters and I did the legal work," says Burrier, a former attorney. "We spent a few years restoring the depot, then gave it to the IDNR. Now, those same people that opposed the trail are volunteering in the depot."
All 26 miles opened in 1989 and the rail-trail was officially dedicated the following year in a ceremony Burrier well remembers. "There was a lot of excitement for the people that had fought for so many years."
More than 20 years later, the Rock Island Trail continues to grow. "It's set to extend into downtown Peoria and on down to the Illinois River," says Oberg. "That extension is going to be huge. People will be able to use Peoria as a starting or stopping point for the trail with all the amenities that a big city has to offer."
This newer, urban section at the southern end of the Rock Island Trail is being managed by the Peoria Park District. Over the course of its development, this section has gone by a few other names, such as the Pimiteoui Trail and the Kellar Branch Trail, which are no longer officially used. When complete, the extension will run continuously from the state-owned section ending at Alta down to the Bob Michel Bridge, a distance of about 14 miles, all paved. A few short segments are currently open to the public, but the remainder is slated to be finished by the end of the year.
The extension provides access to two Peoria attractions that opened just last year: the stunning Riverfront Museum and the family-friendly Caterpillar Visitor Center, showcasing exhibits by the familiar black-and-yellow branded construction equipment company that's headquartered here. Older, but no less worthwhile attractions, include the historical Springdale Cemetery founded in 1855 and Glen Oak Park, which dates back to the late 1800s and houses a zoo, botanical garden, fishing lagoon and other recreational amenities.
Unfortunately, heavy rainfall has caused washouts and other problems for IDNR's portion of the trail, which has a crushed limestone surface. "Recently, there's been damage to the trail due to some wicked storms," says Bellovics. "We've closed off portions of the trail and are making repairs. There's a closed segment of three miles between Toulon and Wyoming that includes the Spoon River bridge. Although there's no detour signage, you can get around it easily with low-volume local roads."
In addition to the repair work, which IDNR hopes to have mostly completed over the next few weeks, the organization is upgrading and paving all six of the trail's access parking lots, adding new entrance signs, and creating trail kiosks. The projects should be done by the fall, in time to enjoy the trail's bright autumn hues.