Supporters have 180 more days to firm up partnerships and reinforce the extraordinary value of a plan that would convert the former Rock Island rail line into a second hiking and biking trail across Missouri, similar to the Katy Trail.

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board last week granted the state and Ameren, the owner of the property, a six-month negotiation extension until August 20 to reach an agreement on the donation and use of the corridor.

The proposed 144-mile stretch of the Rock Island Trail would run from Beaufort, which is about an hour outside of St. Louis, to Windsor, where it would intersect with the Katy. But supporters must first convince the state to take possession of the former railroad line and then find funding to develop it. And neither of those steps are certain to happen.

“I really appreciate the towns along the corridor and them wanting to have the corridor add to their economic opportunities, but beyond that there has been a lot of talk but not much action in other ways,” said Mike Sutherland, deputy director of resources for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Trail Meetings Held
A series of meetings were held over the winter to discuss the potential effect on communities along the proposed Rock Island Trail. About 20 people gathered recently at the Bistro at the Mill, in Gerald, Missouri, to hear a presentation from Greg Harris, executive director of Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc., a coalition of communities and trail proponents.

Greg Harris of Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc.

Greg Harris of Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc. addresses the community of Gerald, Mo.

Harris argues that people riding on the trail could have a “massive economic impact” on small towns like Gerald the same way that the Katy has helped its neighbors. A 2012 report commissioned by the state parks department found that the Katy attracted about 400,000 visitors each year who spend $18.5 million.

“[Gerald] was a great town to grow up in. It’s a great town now,” said Linda Trest, a reporter with the Gasconade County Republican. “However, we have fallen on hard times. Several things happened that have not been good for the town. We are working very hard to rebuild our image…and the [trail] seems like the most feasible idea to bring economic growth.”

(In 2008, a man impersonating a federal officer arrived in Gerald and along with local police officers, arrested suspected drug users. The scandal attracted international attention.)

Residents who attended a meeting at the Bistro asked Harris what actions they could take to make the trail a reality. He and others suggested that individuals and groups like the Gerald Lions Club contact state lawmakers and the parks department to inform them that they want the trail developed.

The Missouri Farm Bureau sent a letter to the state in 2017 arguing that residents of local towns were opposed to the trail because of concerns about privacy, cost and potential negative impact on livestock.

But Carrie Pack and her daughter, Katelin, attended the meeting at the Bistro because they lead an adventure club, Venturing Crew 2448, for people ages 13 to 21, and they currently must drive to places like Elephant Rock, Johnson Shut-Ins and Meramec State Park to hike or bike. The two wanted to find out if they could organize a service project, such as cleaning up the corridor.

“There are many, many people who want to get out and bike and walk, but there are not a lot of places locally,” said Carrie, who lives just outside Gerald.

While Sutherland recognizes that there is support from people like the Packs, he thinks the project needs “a philanthropic group, a conservancy group, a private individual” to provide funding.

Rock Island Trail Map

A map of the proposed Rock Island Trail in Missouri.

According to Sutherland, the state estimated in 2017 that developing the trail in a similar manner to the Katy would cost between $65 and $85 million.

“There’s no way that would fit within our budget,” he said. “We are looking at the corridor as something that could be a great resource for the state, but we also have to make sure that any decision we make doesn’t have a negative impact on the rest of the state park system.”

Harris responds to concerns about funding by suggesting that the state would not need to fund the entire development at once. Nonprofit organizations and towns along the trail could gradually develop different stretches over a number of years. And parts of the trail could also use a cheaper grade of rock than on pathways like the Katy, which would save money.

“This is a project that can be scaled up or down,” he said.

Harris and others said that the state must first take possession of the corridor before his group can begin applying for grants to fund the trail.

“Nothing big and important happens easily, and what we are working on now is making sure that Missouri State Parks knows that the communities want this to happen,” said Harris.

Chrysa Niewald, an Owensville resident, has been advocating for developing the trail for 10 years. In her town, they have established a fund to help build the trail — should the state agree to take possession of the corridor.

“I’m getting old, and I intend to ride this thing before I have to be in a wheelchair,” said Niewald. “If I can’t do the whole thing, I’m going to settle for the 30-something miles between Beaufort and Bell.”

Author: Eric Berger is a contributor to Terrain Magazine