Trail of the Month: September 2007
Heath Meriwether, former executive editor of the Detroit Free Press, spent his childhood in Columbia, Mo., in the 1950s and 60s. His family lived only a few miles from the once sprawling Missouri-Kansas-Texas (or Katy) Railroad, but Meriwether mostly remembered the rail corridor as a forlorn, almost dislocated strip of community history. "When I was growing up," he says, "the Katy was a down-at-the-mouth, dilapidated railroad."
After he graduated from the University of Missouri and moved away in 1966, Meriwether rarely saw his hometown again until 1990, when his mother was in the final stages of an illness. The railroad of his memories, though, had vanished. "I was visiting my mom in the hospital," he says, "and then sort of to unwind, I found the Katy Railroad in its new form, which was the Katy Trail," now operated by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR).
Meriwether had stumbled onto an incredible resource—an unbroken, 225-mile rail-trail running from St. Charles, right outside of St. Louis on Missouri's eastern border, nearly all the way across the state to Clinton (and connected to Columbia by a trail spur). The change was all the more abrupt since he had missed the years-long conversion process. "I was astounded by and thrilled that something that had been such an eyesore," he says, "had been turned into this absolutely wonderful linear park along these beautiful Missouri River bluffs."
What soon defined his relationship to the new rail-trail was its developing emotional association with his mother. "I just found the trail extremely peaceful and calming and regenerative," he says. "It gave me spiritual sanctuary at a time when my mother was dying."
His Katy Trail experience—his first with a rail-trail—inspired Meriwether on his return to Detroit to promote the trail-building movement. "I was really gung-ho," he says, and he culminated years of active support by serving on Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Board of Directors from 1998 until the beginning of 2007. Meriwether, in this respect, was among the least challenging advocates the Katy Trail had to convert locally.
"The big opposition was mainly a lot of noise," says Pat Jones of Williamsburg, Mo., who, with her late husband Ted, helped fast-track the trail's development. She recalls that some local organizations, including the Missouri Farm Bureau, stirred up groundless fears of crime on the trail and local landowners losing property rights. "Any change makes you worry," she says, "but a little sharing goes a long way."
Indeed the Jones family gave the Katy Trail a hearty two-handed push when they bought 200 miles of the corridor's right-of-way and then donated it to the state to get the trail built. Their only stipulation in the hand-over? Be a good neighbor.
The project quickly took-off, and Jones enjoyed watching the Katy Trail attract new commerce and resurrect many of the rural communities along its banks—it passes more than 40. Rocheport, which Jones says used to offer only a few antique stores, has now become a recreational destination complete with bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and even a winery. This last development has Jones especially gushing. You can find a number of vineyards right off the Katy Trail, some within a tenth of a mile, as Missouri has sprouted into a small yet ambitious player in the American wine industry.
Economic advantage and recreation, of course, are hardly the trail's only mass appeals. More than half of the crushed limestone pathway—the longest continuous rail-trail in the country—re-traces prominent historical footsteps as it follows the original route of Lewis and Clark's westward exploration. The trail hugs the Missouri River and its knobby entourage of hills and forested valleys during this eastern stretch. Then, when the Katy Trail splits from the river near Boonville, the corridor strolls through the state's crop-striped countryside and prairie, with community pit-stops never more than a handful of miles apart.
"The thing that always stuck with me was the emotional experience of the Katy Trail," Meriwether says. While not everyone may share his particular relationship with the trail, few people who use the corridor—including many of those who initially opposed it—still doubt the trail's enormous value.
From Marthasville to Hartsburg to Defiance, says Sue Holst of the MDNR, the Katy Trail brought "new life" to once struggling railroad communities, even in its first few years. The pathway has since entrenched itself in Missouri's landscape and personality, as both a recreational and an economic boon. So this September, to recognize the corridor's many successes, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy inducted it as the second member of the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.