Cyclists and hikers on the Katy Trail encounter a majestic beauty that unfolds as they travel along the Missouri River and its bluffs. Heading west from St. Charles, they pass under canopies of trees that form chapel-like arches in dappled sunlight. Then, the leaves overhead thin and trail users find themselves pedaling or walking next to farmland and pastures dotted with cows.
This experience is a rural slice of heaven and puts Missouri on the map as having the longest developed rail-trail in the country — stretching 240 miles. On the Katy, there are no worries about navigating traffic and distracted drivers. It’s open year-round, sunrise to sunset, promising mile after mile of carefree cruising, with charming wineries, breweries, and cafes.
As if those aren’t enough reasons to frequent the 8-foot-wide crushed limestone path, which is formally known as Katy Trail State Park, there’s more. Much more.
For one, 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the completion of the first section of trail, which lies near Columbia, Missouri. Many cool events are planned to commemorate the occasion (more on this later).
Second, the trail, particularly the portion from St. Charles to Hermann, is loaded with history, starting with Native American communities hundreds of years ago and followed by French settlements in the fur-trapping days of the 1700s. Next came the iconic Lewis and Clark expedition up the Missouri River in 1804, Daniel Boone’s legendary exploits as a frontiersman, and the wave of Germans that immigrated in the 1830s to a region that reminded them of their homeland.
Visitors to the Katy Trail can step back in time and relive the remarkable saga of the river, the railroad, and the small towns that played a big part in the growth of our country. Signage and displays at many of the trailheads depict the history of each area.
Another reason to go: Interesting characters abound on the trail. All you need to do is start up a conversation.
Talking to Strangers
Andy Mayberry is one such character. He’s more than happy to chat you up about his prank-pulling group of cyclists, as well as his adventures on two wheels and the 8,000 hours he plans to volunteer this year for numerous nonprofits related to biking.
Mayberry, from St. Louis, has pedaled the entire length of the Katy Trail two dozen times since 2005. Every trip offers something new, he says.
“It’s the journey, not the destination, when you’re riding the Katy,” Mayberry said. “I like to really enjoy the ride, enjoy the people we meet. We pick up strays and invite them to ride with us.”
He recalls meeting a family on a triple-seater tandem bike that the father had custom built. “They were ‘bike schooling’ their 8-year-old son,” he said. “They sold everything and set out to ride across the country. They wrote a book about it. I love people that have that adventurous nature.”
Mayberry rides with a group that has grown to about 16 cyclists, called the Landsharks. Most hail from St. Louis and Kansas City, but some come from as far away as Tucson and Minneapolis. Two of their favorite stops include burgers at Treloar Bar & Grill and the peach and blueberry cobbler at Dotty’s Café in Hartsburg, Missouri. Even if the restaurant is closed, Mayberry says, “She opens up for us.”
Mayberry has come to know the history of many of the small towns on the route, as well as the ghost towns — river and railroad communities that are gone but memorialized with markers and storytelling displays. He was surprised to discover some pre-Civil War plantations on one trip and an old graveyard on another.
If you stop at one of the German-settled towns like Dutzow, Treloar, or Hermann, you’re likely to be greeted by people with last names like Glosemeyer, Schoppenhorst, Hellebusch, and Bruegenjohann. These descendants of the area’s founding families carry on the work of their ancestors, whether as farmers, restaurant owners, or winemakers. Ask them about their heritage — you’re likely to hear some interesting stories.
Absorbing the history and appreciating the beauty of the region are exactly what Dan Burkhardt of Magnificent Missouri wants more people to experience. The nonprofit organization promotes a conservation mindset, focusing on the last 100 miles of the Missouri River, from Hermann to the confluence of the Mississippi.
Burkhardt and his wife, Connie, are also founders of the Katy Land Trust, which was recently folded under the Magnificent Missouri umbrella. The Trust’s mission is to preserve farms and forests along the trail. Both organizations work with interested landowners and provide information on conservation practices, including voluntary land use agreements.
“We started the Trust…to emphasize that the secret sauce of the Katy Trail is it goes through unblemished countryside — fields and forests that haven’t been blighted by development,” Burkhardt said.
Conservation easements are one way for private landowners to protect their land from commercial development, Burkhardt says. These agreements limit future use of the land to agricultural, forestry, and recreational use.
The Burkhardts created a conservation easement for their own 240-acre farm and vineyard near Marthasville. Their farm is just a short distance from the Katy Trail. Some neighboring farms have done the same thing, protecting over 2,500 acres of land in southern Warren County from future development.
Ralph Pfremmer, executive director of Magnificent Missouri, says St. Charles County’s recent approval of a large subdivision to be built along the Katy in Weldon Spring is a lesson in lost opportunities.
“This upcoming Weldon Spring housing development illustrates how important it is to organize a movement that influences public opinion in favor of land conservation,” Pfremmer said.
More than 17,000 acres of land in Weldon Spring is protected from development due its status as a conservation area. Contamination from TNT manufacturing and uranium processing decades ago was the catalyst for remediation and turning the region into protected land.
“Ironically, the contamination of land prevented the commercial development of the area, and now it’s a pristine area for hiking and biking,” Pfremmer said.
Magnificent Missouri uses many different methods to get its message out. The group has partnered with award-winning chefs and vineyards to showcase locally sourced food and wine, and for the last nine years it has held an outdoor party at the grain elevator in Treloar, bringing in musicians and offering tram rides to and from the nearby community of Peers. Proceeds go to the Marthasville Volunteer Fire Department.
Preservation and Celebration
The Burkhardts, who have written two books promoting the Missouri River valley through which the Katy ambles, love the beauty and history of the trail but also view it as an important regional asset.
“We want people who come to St. Louis to work at our universities and major corporations to know we’ve got this resource,” said Burkhardt. “When people think of St. Louis, we want them to think of the Katy Trail and Missouri River Country. This is our Napa Valley and Texas Hill Country. It makes St. Louis better, a more interesting place.”
Burkhardt and his wife protect what they love. They purchased and reopened the old Peers Store, an 1896 establishment that was built the same year the railroad came through. They also bought the Treloar Mercantile and Bank Building, which closed during the Depression. Original items from the store still sit on shelves and under glass display cases. The Burkhardts are considering how to best preserve and utilize the building to benefit the community.
“There’s much more to explore on the Katy than most people realize. We encourage people to try different starting points to take them further out past the usual stops,” Burkhardt said. “Some of the most beautiful parts of the trail are along the river itself. The trail between Treloar and McKittrick, where the bluffs, river, and trail come together, is really beautiful.”
If you’d like to discover, or rediscover, this treasure of a trail in 2020, planning is underway for numerous events commemorating the Katy’s 30th anniversary. Here are just some of the rides, preservation efforts, and celebrations you can participate in this year:
- Pedaler’s Jamboree, presented by Off Track Events (May)
- 20th Annual Katy Trail Ride, presented by Missouri State Parks (June)
- Rail to Katy Trail Ride, presented by Trailnet (June)
- Big BAM on the Katy, presented by Missouri Life (October)
- Treloar Elevator Party, presented by Magnificent Missouri (October)
- Meet Me in Treloar, presented by Magnificent Missouri (TBD)
In addition, in April, Missouri State Parks and Magnificent Missouri are teaming up with Forest ReLeaf to plant bur oak trees at all the Katy trailheads from Hermann to Machens in St. Charles County. Why bur oaks? The tree has become a symbol of the trail because of its majestic size, trademark 2-inch-wide acorns, and long life — up to 350 years.
Here’s hoping the Katy Trail lives as long as the oaks being planted in its honor this year.
From Abandoned Railroad to Beloved Trail
It all started with a bike ride in the 1980s. Ted Jones, senior partner at Edward Jones in St. Louis, rode on a trail that had been built on an abandoned railroad in Wisconsin. He was smitten. The conservation-minded Jones, who preferred living in rural Callaway County to the city, wanted to bring that idea to Missouri.
When the railroad abandoned its MKT (Missouri-Kansas-Texas) line in 1986, Jones began lobbying the Missouri Legislature to use the abandoned MKT, known as the Katy, for a trail. He eventually won over then-Governor John Ashcroft, and the deal was made. Jones and his wife, Pat, donated $2.2 million to purchase the land and turn it into a trail. Missouri State Parks oversaw construction and continues to maintain the trail.
Not everyone was happy with the trail, however. Property owners along the route expected the land would be returned to them when the railroad was abandoned. After all, the railroad didn’t own the land; it was an easement and, technically, the farmers owned it. But a new federal law in 1983 allowed the government to “preserve established railroad corridors for interim trail and future trail use.”
A group of landowners filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for the land. After a decade of legal fights, a federal claims court said that taking property for public use without compensation was illegal. The farmers were compensated, but bitter feelings remained for some.
Today, the trail is used by about 375,000 people a year. The most heavily used portion is from Frontier Park in old St. Charles to Augusta, according to Melanie Smith, a deputy regional director at Missouri State Parks and coordinator for the Katy Trail.
Author: Terri Waters is a regular contributor for Terrain Magazine.
Lead Image: Dennis Coello.