Traveling along the tranquil Old Plank Road Trail today, you would never know the site was once the cause of heated debate and a contentious struggle lasting 20 years. The paved 22-mile rail-trail now offers a canopy of oak trees and sugar maples rustling overhead, delicate prairie grasses that stir with the passage of bicyclists, and soft purple wildflowers that peek up through the green underbrush.
The dream for this idyllic path in the southern suburbs of Chicago began in the mid-1970s, when the railroad line upon which the trail now rests was formally abandoned. By the end of the decade, locals were already casually using the corridor for nature hikes. The effort to fully convert it to a biking and walking path was championed by the Forest Preserve District of Will County, but as the trail plan took shape in the 1980s, they faced a big hurdle the public perception of what developing a trail would mean.
"At that time, the county was fairly rural," says Ralph Schultz, director of planning and operations for the district. "There were a lot of misunderstandings about what the trail would be, who it would serve, and what it would cost."
John Joyce remembers feeling the heat at presentations he gave about the project to drum up support. "The townships would have public meetings to involve the public on decisions about the trail," he says. "Some people hated the trail. They thought people would come into the neighborhood, steal things out of their homes, and go down the trail to make their escape."
Newly arrived from Minnesota, Joyce had become familiar with the emerging trend of rails-to-trails after hearing about Wisconsin's Elroy-Sparta State Trail that opened in 1967. He worked as director of parks and recreation for Park Forest, one of the communities along the trail, retiring just last year after nearly four decades of service.
Though the project had its vocal opponents, support for the trail was steadfastly building. "When the meeting was over and people were filing out, someone who lived along the trail would always come up to speak to you quietly about the project," recalls Joyce.
A united front was created in 1988 when the Old Plank Road Trail Management Commission was formed. Consisting of the city and county governments along the right-of-way, the group still meets regularly on topics affecting the entire trail. Recently, a friends group supporting the rail-trail has formed to assist with trail cleanup and beautification, including adding benches and signage. In recognition of these efforts, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) is providing financial support to the friends group through its Metropolitan Grants Program, sponsored by The Coca-Cola Foundation.
In 1992, the land for the trail was acquired from Penn Central Railroad. And after two decades of planning and perseverance, its first 12 miles—from Park Forest to Hickory Creek Forest Preserve—was completed in 1997. A highlight of the grand opening was a 24-foot-long cake decorated to look like the new trail.
Construction continued over the next several years on three more short sections before its planned 22 miles were fully realized. Today, the trail is one of the most widely visited in the state, according to data collected by statewide trail counts conducted last summer by Trails for Illinois in partnership with RTC.
"We had a counter on the Old Plank in Frankfort, and it recorded the highest annual use of any trail in Illinois that we surveyed," says Eric Oberg, trail development manager for RTC's Midwest Regional Office. "We looked at a lot of major trail systems in the state, but the Old Plank had the highest annual usage by far: 127,000." The next most-used trail was the Fox River Trail, with 86,500.
Frankfort is the trail's physical, and spiritual, center. The pathway runs through its historic downtown with many charming shops and restaurants within easy reach. A bustling Sunday farmer's market offers locally grown produce and homemade baked goods, May through October. And, as one enters town, a beautiful archway emblazoned with the trail's name curves overhead, a welcoming sight.
Oddly, the trail gets its name from something that never was. A wooden boardwalk stretching from Joliet to the Indiana border was planned in 1851, but never came to fruition. It was part of a short-lived transportation craze across the U.S. of wooden toll-roads that at first seemed a vast improvement over the crude dirt pathways of the day. But wood—subject to rot, warpage, and general wear and tear—proved too difficult and expensive to maintain as a roadway, and the trend sputtered out.
The corridor was put to better use in 1855, when trains begin running on the newly built Michigan Central Railroad. "They shipped products of agriculture: corn, soybeans, and wheat," says Bill Molony, president of the Blackhawk Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. "Even today, it's a strong agricultural area. By avoiding Chicago, they saved time and expense, so the railroad became known as the Joliet Cutoff."
Though these trains have been replaced by trail traffic, a number of railroads nearby are thriving. In Park Forest, just a stone's throw from the Old Plank Road Trail, rail fans are salivating over the new Rail Fan Park, where, from a raised observation platform, visitors can see something extraordinary. Here, a rare cloverleaf interchange for trains was needed at the intersection of two major rail routes, one going east-west and the other north-south.
"At that location, any train can change to any direction," says Molony, "It gives more flexibility to their whole system." Both freight trains and Metra and Amtrak passenger lines currently utilize the tracks.
Robert Gunther, director for Park Forest's recreation and parks department describes Canadian National Railway as "a good neighbor" in helping the community develop the two-acre site, which includes interpretive signage on the railroad industry and history in the area, a bright red 60-year-old caboose, and native vegetation that railroad travelers would have seen from their windows in the late 1800s.
"The north-south line is elevated, so it comes around on the loop going down to grade level and crosses under itself," says Gunther. "It's interesting to watch the dynamics of the movements."
With beautiful views, an interesting new attraction, and wide community usage and support, what could be next for the trail?
"On its western end, Joliet is developing a multi-modal center," says Schultz. "The Forest Preserve has four different trails that come into Joliet. The center will become ground zero for all of our transportation systems."
The new center—a state-of-the-art hub for rail, intercity buses, community shuttles, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians—will be built adjacent to a building from another era, the grand Joliet Union Station dating back to 1912.
"Having such a major trail artery connecting to that center, enhances it as a multi-modal transit facility," says Oberg. "It opens up the trail for more visitor use because you could get on a train from anywhere and get to Joliet. Joliet could be a launching point for one heck of a bike vacation."
Things are busy at the other end of the trail as well. "There are discussions of taking the trail to Chicago Heights," says Schultz. If completed, the extension would reach the Thorn Creek Trail and, eventually, connect into the northwestern Indiana and Chicago lakefront trail networks.
"The Chicago Heights connection is not long, only a mile or two, but the impact long-term would be huge," says Oberg.
Nearly 40 years since it was first envisioned, the well-loved and growing Old Plank Road Trail has proved its value. "I'm proud of the fact that we stuck with it," says Joyce. "We knew it was a darn good thing worth putting up the good fight for."
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