By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Most of the great trails in American history — the Oregon, the Santa Fe, The Trail of Tears, even the route followed by Lewis and Clark — have one thing in common: Missouri.
Now the state known as the gateway to the west in the 19th century is making a name for itself as a trail state of another kind in the 21st.
Missouri was just named the “Best Trails State” in the nation by American Trails, a national not-for-profit group that advocates building trails for hiking, biking and riding.
Tugged by the same restless spirit that kept Missourians moving 200 years ago, these trail advocates haven’t reached their destination yet. They are pushing forward with plans for more, longer trails statewide and dream of one day connecting Southwest Missouri to perhaps the state’s most famous modern trail, the Katy.
A key means of getting to their goal is converting abandoned or unused rail lines into trails, an effort known as rails-to-trails. A similar effort on a smaller scale 20 years ago led to the creation of the popular Frisco Greenway Trail in Joplin, which can draw hundreds of runners, walkers and cyclists a day when the weather is good.
Brent Hugh, executive director of the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation, said trail projects are under way or slated to begin soon all over the state.
Currently, the Katy runs from Machens, near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, to Clinton, connecting an array of communities large and small. A spur already connects the trail to Columbia, and there’s a plan to connect the Kansas City metropolitan area with the Katy at Windsor via a 47-mile Rock Island route that has been transferred to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The department already oversees the Katy as a shoestring-shaped state park.
“These things take a long time,” Hugh said. “They take a coordinated effort over a long period of time. But when they do happen, it can change dramatically a whole community. Look at what the Katy has done for those communities along its route.”
extension to Nevada?
The Katy Trail, a 237-mile gravel-packed route, now draws 400,000 visitors a year who pedal, walk and run along it. An economic impact study last year concluded the Katy generates $18.5 million for more than 30 communities directly on the route. The annual weeklong bike ride along the Katy draws hundreds of riders each year.
Hugh dreams of one day pushing the Katy Trail out of Clinton, following its original rail route into Southwest Missouri.
Last week, the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation publicized a suggested plan and a map that would extend the Katy to Nevada and perhaps even to Fort Scott, Kan.
Officials involved with the Healthy Nevada initiative, which is trying to encourage and promote a healthy lifestyle for residents in that town, also like the idea.
The railroad, however, isn’t on board.
Rick Oeltjen, general manager for the Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad, which owns the line from Nevada to Clinton, said he has met with trail advocates and explained to them that the stretch from Nevada to Clinton is still an active line.
“We do supply coal to the Kansas City Power & Light plant at Montrose as well as multiple industries in Clinton and do not see that being even remotely considered to be something that we would abandon,” Oeltjen said.
Hugh said he understands that but said he is thinking in the long term.
“It may be a 50- to 100-year vision, but someone has to start somewhere. If someone would have been thinking of this in the 1940s, we would be there now,” Hugh said. “There were some rail lines then that were eventually let go, and they would have been put to great use.”
Nevada City Manager J.D. Kehrman expressed enthusiasm for the idea but also underscored it as being in its early phases.
“We had a meeting last Thursday, but it’s premature,” Kehrman said. “There are so many things we don’t know. We’re still trying to identify the go-to people. I think all of us could say we’d love to see this happen, but we’re just not there.
“It has started the conversation; at least now we’re all talking about this. Thirty days ago, nobody was talking about a trail coming to Nevada,” he said.
That’s progress, Hugh said.
“If no one is thinking about, planning for it, drawing a line on the map, then when the railroad does get done with the use of that corridor, they don’t have any reason to do anything other than let it revert back to original owners,” Hugh said. “And when that corridor disappears, a huge, potential project for the region loses any chances of anything for the future.”
Frisco and Ruby Jack
Railways that have been converted into trails for running, biking and even horseback riding are nothing new in Southwest Missouri.
Jasper County has the 3.5-mile long Frisco Greenway Trail from Joplin to Webb City, and the 16-mile Ruby Jack Trail.
The eastern eight miles of the Ruby Jack, from Carthage through Oronogo, are completely walkable and accessible by bike, while the western eight miles are rough and need improvement but are open to public use, according to Joplin Trails Coalition spokesman Paul Teverow.
Hugh said Joplin has been successful with rails-to-trails initiatives so far.
“In the Joplin area, the Joplin Trails Coalition has done amazing work to establish and maintain trails,” Hugh said.
Springfield-area residents have developed a 36-mile trail from Springfield to Bolivar along an abandoned railroad that President Harry Truman once used on his whistle-stop tours. It’s called the Frisco Highline Trail.
A few years ago, there was an effort to convert a 26-mile stretch of Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad from Pierce City to Carthage into a trail, but it never got past the talking stages, even though the line had been abandoned.
Legal questions surrounding ownership of the former rail lines as well as costs of converting them into trails are some of the challenges awaiting advocates.
Teverow said that in the case of the Ruby Jack and Frisco, compacting and preparing the surface and hauling in crushed rock went from about $10,000 per mile some 20 years ago to $30,000 today.
Although Southwest Missouri has enjoyed some success with rails-to-trails conversions, Hugh emphasized that some projects take years, even decades.
“This is for our grandkids, not us,” he said.
Cowboy vs. Katy
Missouri’s Katy Trail, at 237 miles, is currently the longest developed rails-to-trails project in the country, but the Cowboy Trail, running from Norfolk to Chadron in northern Nebraska, will be 321 miles when completed.