Trail of the Month: August 2011
Just what is "prairie spirit"? Is it the vitality of the original inhabitants of this region—the waving long-stemmed grasses, colorful wildflowers, thundering herds of bison, the tribes of native people?
Or is it the fortitude of the pioneers who plowed the land and built log cabins here?
Or maybe it's the boldness of the businessmen who, more than 150 years ago, proposed to build a railway from the city of Lawrence, Kan., south to the Gulf of Mexico?
Or perhaps it's the foresight of the residents and government officials who succeeded in turning the unused rail corridor into the state's first major rail-trail in 1996, paving the way for similar projects in Kansas?
The answer is, "all of the above"—and then some. Running 51 miles between the towns of Ottawa and Iola in eastern Kansas, the Prairie Spirit Rail Trail State Park offers visitors a taste of rural, middle America at its finest—rolling pastures, lazy streams, wooded ravines, friendly townspeople, colorful wildflowers, big farms and an endless sky. And as the Prairie Spirit marks its 15th anniversary, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is adding the trail to its Rail-Trail Hall of Fame for embodying the unique natural and cultural history of the region and acting as a vanguard for other rail-trail projects.
Two centuries ago, this area was part of a vast and largely untouched prairie ecosystem that sustained not only millions of bison and other wild creatures, but also native Kanza and Osage people who hunted game and grew crops here. Change came quickly in the 19th century, as European settlers began to move in to what was then the territory of Kansas, building homes and towns, grazing cattle and creating farms.
Railroads followed the settlers west, and in 1858 a group of businessmen from Lawrence broached the idea of the first north-south rail line through the state—one that they hoped would boost their town in its race against fast-growing Kansas City to the east. That idea became a reality in the 1860s with the opening of the Leavenworth, Lawrence and Fort Gibson Railroad (which later became the Leavenworth, Lawrence and Galveston Railroad).
Although this rail line never made it all the way to Texas, it did eventually become part of the larger Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company—and for many decades played a crucial role in sustaining the eastern Kansas towns along its route.
By the mid-1970s, however, the line fell into disuse. In 1990, it was sold to the Kansas City Terminal Railway Company (KCT), which filed for abandonment not long after. Fortunately, government officials saw an opening to create the state's first rail-trail along this corridor.
"We have very little in the way of public lands in Kansas, with over 97 percent of our land base in private property, and most of our state trails are around reservoirs," says Trent McCown, trail manager for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. "This was a perfect opportunity to create a linear park that would be within reach of quite a few people in three different counties—and do it without having to put it through on privately held property."
The wildlife and parks department took title to the land and began construction in 1992. The first section, 17 miles from Richmond to Welda, opened in 1996. The northern 16-mile section, from Ottawa to Richmond, opened in 1998. And the final 18-mile section in the south, from Welda to Iola, opened in 2008.
Not only has the trail proven popular with Kansans—regularly drawing visitors from Kansas City, Topeka and Lawrence—but it's helped allay citizens' concerns about rail-trails, says McCown. "There was a lot of fear of trail development here, due to the possibility of people going off the trails and causing damage to private property and trespassing and such," he says. "But since the Prairie Spirit has been in operation we have not had those problems, and so this has helped lay the foundation for future trails in Kansas."
Among the many trails that have followed in the Prairie Spirit's wake, perhaps the best-known is the Flint Hills Nature Trail, a 117-mile-long rail-trail that follows an east-west course between Osawatomie and Herington. This trail, which upon completion will be the longest in Kansas, connects to the Prairie Spirit in Ottawa.
But the precedent-setting nature of the trail, while important, isn't what draws most riders to the Prairie Spirit. According to McCown, it's the variety of ecosystems and geography on display that makes the trail inviting. "It gives you the opportunity to see different aspects of Kansas, from urban areas to smaller towns," he says. "It also goes through wooded areas, through farmland, through prairies."
Regular trail rider Sam Schimek puts it in simpler terms. "It's pretty natural along the trail—different from your usual city-park-type nature," says the resident of Lawrence. Schimek, a professor at the University of Kansas, bikes the trail about once a week, and he's built his own website—Bike Prairie Spirit—to give visitors advice on where to eat, what conditions to expect and other useful news and information. "There's always a nice feeling of solitude along the trail, but most places have cell phone reception, so you've always got that safety net."
Among Schimek's favorite parts of the journey are the native prairie preserves near the trail (one of which, The Nature Conservancy's Anderson County Prairie Preserve, protects the rare Mead's milkweed and other vanishing species of the tallgrass prairie). "Those are really interesting," he says. "People tend to forget the prairie is actually very pretty terrain."
Then there are the more tangible benefits of the trailside vegetation. "Between the blackberries and the wild strawberries and the chickasaw plums and all sorts of other things, you could probably eat your way up and down this trail at certain times of the year," Schimek says.
Looks like we'll have to add another quality to "prairie spirit": tastiness.
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