What Could Be: Visionary Thinking Builds the B&O Trail

Posted 11/25/14 by Katie Harris in Building Trails

On the B&O Trail | Photo by Diana Virgil

When Diana Virgil, president of the B&O Trail Association, first started on the B&O Trail in Indiana back in 1992, she had a clear vision of what could be. But, like many big thinkers, she was a little before her time, and resistance to her trail vision was standard. In fact, she believes she probably had more opponents than supporters during those beginning years! “I would get cussed out all the time in the beginning,” she says. “Folks were not too hot about the idea. People had concerns—mainly based in fear of the unknown,” she explains.

Virgil would go to conferences and hear about great trails across the country, but upon her arrival home, the resounding opinion was that Indiana was different, and for some reason, the state could never be home to a successful trail system.

Lucky for the folks in the Hoosier State, Virgil didn’t listen.

East bridge of the B&O Trail | Photo by Diana Virgil

Fourteen years later, the vision of the B&O Trail is becoming a reality as the former 65-mile Baltimore and Ohio Railroad corridor is slowly but surely transforming into a showcase trail for the state of Indiana. Currently, 3.1 miles of the trail are paved and open, but many more miles, trailheads and bridges are in various parts of the trail development pipeline. When complete, the trail will be a practical and scenic non-motorized superhighway extending into the rural reaches of four counties to the west of Indianapolis.

And the trail can’t be built fast enough for the “trail converts” of the Hoosier State.

According to Richard Vonnegut, vice chair of the Hoosier Rails to Trails Council, the B&O Trail has great support from the community as a whole and from individual citizens. “The trail is developing its own support system, because the public just loves it,” he says. “Communities are seeing the benefit of the trail, even though it’s early on in the process.”

That’s not to say that the shift came easily, and the B&O Trail certainly isn’t immune to the struggles of land rights issues that accompany many trail development projects. But the change of attitude over the last decade and a half has been helped by prominent figures in Indiana, most notably Governor Mitch Daniels who, in 2008, dedicated $19 million for 28 Indiana trails. The governor’s involvement with and prioritization of trails helped shift the discussion, says Virgil, and contributed to the change in people’s attitudes about the value of trails.

A framework of trails is being created, says Vonnegut, a trifecta of trails branching out from the city of Indianapolis. To the north, the Monon Trail extends more than 18 miles. The Pennsy Trail shoots 10 miles to the east, and the B&O Trail is the integral spine that stretches west.  

The big picture for Indianapolis absolutely includes the B&O, he says, because it is these spines that will create the framework for more trails in the future. Spurs to other towns and connector trails to smaller communities will rely on the B&O as the backbone of the system.

It’s the concept of connectivity that has captured people’s interest and support. In many ways, the framework is an invitation to join Virgil’s vision from years ago about what could be.

“It’s been a major attitude change,” says Virgil. “It’s taken a considerable amount of explaining and convincing, and yes, there were skeptics…but if you stick with it long enough, skeptics become trail lovers.”

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