The Illinois Prairie Path

Posted 08/01/08 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in America's Trails

Illinois Prairie Path | Photo by TrailLink user akbross

Trail of the Month: August 2008

Nearly 45 years ago, when the word "rail-trail" hadn't yet entered the American vocabulary, a naturalist in Chicago took note of a branching network of out-of-service tracks in the city's western suburbs. The Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railroad (CA&E), known as the "Roarin' Elgin," had built multiple corridors as part of its interurban railway—unusual in 1902 for its electrified third rail. In that unused right-of-way, May Theilgaard Watts saw enormous potential.

Watts had written a number of flower and tree guides, and she imagined how a trail might replace those rails as a natural sanctuary and community attraction—a place to stretch your legs as well as your imagination. On September 25, 1963, she published a letter-to-the-editor in the Chicago Tribune to share her vision.

Illinois Prairie Path | Photo by TrailLink user rmfredericksen
Illinois Prairie Path | Photo by TrailLink user rmfredericksen

"We are human beings," she wrote. "We are able to walk upright on two feet. We need a footpath. Right now there is a chance for Chicago and its suburbs to have a footpath, a long one.

"The right-of-way of the Aurora electric road lies waiting. If we have courage and foresight, such as made possible the Long Trail in Vermont and the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, and the network of public footpaths in Britain, then we can create from this strip a proud resource."

"Look ahead some years into the future," she continued. "Imagine yourself going for a walk on an autumn day. Choose some part of the famed Illinois footpath. Where the highway crosses it, you enter over a stile. The path lies ahead, curving around a hawthorn tree, then proceeding under the shade of a forest of sugar maple trees, dipping into a hollow with ferns, then skirting a thicket of wild plum, to straighten out for a long stretch of prairie, tall grass prairie, with big blue stem and blazing star and silphium and goldenrod."

"That is all in the future, the possible future. Right now the right-of-way lies waiting, and many hands are itching for it. Many bulldozers are drooling."

Watts' letter inspired an immediate outpouring of public support. Within months, a group of pioneering volunteers formed the nonprofit Illinois Prairie Path (IPP) corporation. Those advocates scraped together funding from membership dues, donations and a few small grants to lease the corridor from DuPage County in 1966. They took on full responsibility for developing the pathway, and by 1967 had hung the first trail signs. "It was not entirely up to snuff yet," says Paul Mooring, one of the original IPP members and longtime president, but still exciting to see Watt's dream realized.

As it turned out, she proved rather prescient in her imagining of the trail as a "proud resource" and popular outdoors haven. More than 800,000 users now visit the trail each year, says Deborah Fagan, chief planner and county trail system coordinator for DuPage County, and they have many directions to explore.

The pathway's hub begins west of Chicago in Wheaton and branches out in three directions in a rough "Y," including two other off-shoots. In all, the pathway's five legs cover 61 miles across three counties, Kane, Cook and DuPage. The trail needles out to the communities of Elgin, Geneva, Batavia and Aurora—all along the Fox River—and then east from Wheaton through Glen Ellyn and Lombard to I-284.

On the route, you won't need a naturalist's eye to appreciate the forested neighborhoods, wetlands and patches of prairie. "It's quite wooded, often shielded from the villages it passes," says Mooring, who still sits on the board with his wife after more than 40 years. "[And] where there are prairie remnants, we like to keep them intact."

Dick Wilson, vice president of the board, says IPP organizes a controlled burn each spring for the prairie restoration sites. These burns kill off early-arriving weed plants, so they won't choke out native prairie species that crop up later in the season.

Illinois Prairie Path | Photo by TrailLink user akbross
Illinois Prairie Path | Photo by TrailLink user akbross

"The rest," Mooring says, "is allowed to go as nature chooses." And on the Illinois Prairie Path, those choices have paid off. The IPP now passes through several forest preserves, including Lincoln Marsh—a restored 146-acre wildlife area with 300 species of prairie, savanna and wetland plants and animals—and the 470-acre Big Woods Forest Preserve in Aurora. For a trail so intertwined in its busy suburban neighborhoods, the IPP has a wonderful knack for solitude and scenery.

Watts' vision of the trail has endured and flourished, in large part, because of its dedicated volunteers. "Her inspiration was tremendous," Mooring says, and he and many other supporters have been stewards of the pathway since its first days. The IPP solely funded and managed the trail until the 1980s, in fact, when rising insurance costs compelled them to return management to DuPage County. The nonprofit's workload has shrunk, Wilson says, because the county picked up right where IPP left off. But members still help clean up the corridor, install and repair display cases and water fountains, and work on the prairie restoration sites. Their contribution remains central to the Illinois Prairie Path's groundbreaking legacy.

Always ahead of its time and a granddaddy of the rail-trail movement, Watts' "famed" little footpath has just been named the sixth inductee to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.

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