Wow. Today my heart is full.
I’m just coming off of a trip to Jefferson City, Missouri, where I met dozens of people who live along the Rock Island rail corridor. Hearing their stories about what this future trail means to their lives affirmed the importance of the work that we are doing. Beyond that, though, it affirmed how critical this trail is to the well-being of the small towns it will pass through.
It’s easy to get excited about the Rock Island Trail; at 144 miles in length, this trail has the potential to be epic. It has tunnels and amazing bridges (like the Gasconade River Bridge) and weaves in and out of rural towns that are the length of its route. It promises beauty and adventure.
The connections to the Katy Trail—more than 450 miles when the whole thing is completed—will be beyond epic. It will be an international sensation. Nothing like it will exist in the country or the world.
12/05/16 by Laura Stark
But when you listen to people like April Siegfried, who recently opened a general store in Chilhowee, you understand that what makes this trail epic isn’t just its vistas and its infrastructure—it’s the promise of a new economy to small towns that don’t have much else to count on. Siegfried told the more than 150 people at the Missouri State Capitol that since her store opened a few months ago, more than 170 have signed her guest book—more than half the population of Chilhowee, which boasts 329 residents—some from as far away as Alaska and Germany. In her words, they wouldn’t have any other reason to visit Chilhowee. The trail brings them—and their tourism dollars.
When the railroad stopped running in the 1980s, it also stopped bringing new people and new cash flow to the small towns along the corridor. Towns like Leeton and Belle, with populations of 555 and 1,510 respectively, struggled. There weren’t many new opportunities in these small towns for entrepreneurism to take root. That all changes with the Rock Island Trail, which promises so much: new tourism, new financial opportunity, new energy for these towns and the people who live there.
On Aug. 11, we were boisterous and happy—with everyone sharing how excited they are about this future trail. Those lucky enough to live along the 47-mile corridor that opened in December were offering the wisdom they’ve gained about preparing for the influx of trail users. We had people from all walks of life, all political parties and all ages sharing their plans for the Rock Island Trail. We had land owners and shop owners. We had mayors and little kids. Heck, we even had a puppy.
Despite the enthusiasm that was bubbling over, though, a slight undercurrent of tension was present. A twinge of concern … of “what if.” What if the state decides against the trail? We’ve worked so hard to get here. But we all agreed that’s simply not an option.