Plans are in the works to construct a 2.3-mile rail trail in a rural area of Piatt County.
As initially reported by columnist Tom Kacich in the News-Gazette, the proposed shared-used path would use the railroad right-of-way originally established for railroad tracks as a route for walking, running and cycling between the small towns of White Heath and Lodge. The rail trail would pass through Piatt County’s Shady Rest natural area on the Sangamon River.
Trails of Piatt County, a new group hoping to establish the rail trail, held a public meeting in White Heath to drum up interest in the project and gather input and ideas. The November 14 meeting drew 37 people to the town’s community center.
“Experience the nature”
The proposed rail trail would use part of a larger, 33-mile network of rail bed and right-of-way, which the late preservationist Dave Monk bought from the Illinois Central Railroad in 1988.
Dirk Mol, one of the organizers of the project, led the meeting at White Heath. He told IPM News that the trail would provide a setting where people could get away from highway traffic
“People can go on that trail and really experience the nature there,” said Mol. “There’s lots of birds in the woods. There’s spring ephemerals in the wetlands. We’ve had plants surveyed, and there’s an excellent inventory of native plants there. And people can just enjoy being out there without having to worry about being run over by a car or truck.”
“The corridor was purchased back in the 80s,” said Jeff Yockey, another project organizer, who spoke at the meeting in White Heath. “And so some people have spent decades waiting for some development to happen. And now the logjam is beginning to break, and we can really dream, with the anticipation that we can get something done.”
Both Mol and Yockey have spent a lot of time and many miles cycling on rail trails. They would like to see more of the trails open in central Illinois, which like other parts of the country, has seen railroad tracks closed down in many areas, becoming potential sites for rail trails.
Little has been done with the miles of rail bed purchased by Dave Monk, who died last year at age 91. But his organization, Heartland Pathways, has now teamed up with Friends of the Kickapoo Rail Trail, a group formed to support the trail established in recent years between Urbana and Danville, which is still under construction.
Trails of the Grand Prairie
While continuing as separate groups, the two organizations have formed a new identity, Trails of the Grand Prairie, to promote the development of rail corridor that Dave Monk acquired 35 years ago. Mol says Heartland Pathways is providing the miles of rail bed, while Friends of the Kickapoo Rail Trail has 501(c)(3) federal tax-exempt status that will aid in raising money for the project.
Mol says the meeting in White Heath served to increase local visibility for the new rail trail project.
“We got more and more people interested in this project and talking about it”, said Mol. “In the second half of the meeting, we sat down with them in small breakout groups and asked for their ideas about what they would like the trails to look like. So we have a list of things that we can try to incorporate into the trails once they’re put on the ground.”
Mol predicts that the development of the White Heath-Lodge trail will take three to five years. He says fundraising will be part of the work, as building the trail, including repairs to bridges and trestles, could cost anywhere from five to ten million dollars.
Mol says people interested in learning more or getting involved in the rail trail project may email him. He says Trails of the Grand Prairie will be setting up its own website soon.
Further rail trail plans
In addition to the White Heath to Lodge rail trail, Mol says Trails of the Grand Prairie is working with other groups to possibly open new sections of trail near Monticello and Clinton, which would involve transferring parts of the Monk/Heartland Pathways route to new owners. A mile of the route could be used by the city of Monticello to extend its 1.2-mile Sangamon River Bridge Trail. Another section of rail bed in nearby DeWitt County could go to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, creating a rail trail that links Weldon Springs State Park to the city of Clinton.
And although there are no definite plans at this point, Mol says he hopes that the rail bed that Dave Monk worked to preserve will be part of an even larger network of rail trails in central Illinois, linking to other rail trails, and connecting Decatur, Danville and Bloomington-Normal.
But for the near future, both Mol and Yockey say a lot of organizational and planning work will be needed to get started on the rail trail from White Heath to Lodge.
“What’s ahead for us is to build relationships with the key people that can come together and make this happen,” said Yockey. “To meet the local officials, to meet landowners. To walk all the corridor, to walk it on sunny days, to walk it when it rains, to really understand what’s there and take an inventory. And once we do that, we’ll know more of what we have to learn and study initially, urgently, and what can wait. And while all that’s happening on the ground, there’ll be people gathering in meetings and starting to sketch out what our priorities can be.”