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Illinois' Only National Trail


Louise Headen

LAST YEAR, AT A National Symposium on Trails in Washington, D.C., the 30-mile Illinois Prairie Path in DuPage County was one of 27 trails in 19 states designated a National Trail.

During designation ceremonies Secretary of The Interior Rogers C. B. Morton singled out the Prairie Path for special recognition and its fame has spread throughout the country as an outstanding example of an urban trail achieved by private citizens.

Ten years ago the Illinois Prairie Path was an abandoned railroad right-of-way. As the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin electric railroad it had served Chicago's western suburbs for fifty years. But the fine old line fell upon hard times as did many like it across the country and it could no longer function profitably. On June 10, 1961, the power was shut off and shortly thereafter the rails were ripped up and the ties removed.

A Letter to the Editor

While there was much speculation as to the eventual use of the vacant property the idea of utilizing it as a footpath emerged. The idea was first publicized in 1963 in a letter-to-the-editor column of a Chicago paper. There was an exploratory hike attended by representatives of several important conservancy groups and interested individuals and the idea gained momentum.

This early testing of public response to the footpath idea met with such success the Illinois Prairie Path, incorporated as a non-profit organization, was formed and a promotional campaign was launched to gain supporters.

At the same time the DuPage County Board of Supervisors sought to purchase the right-of-way regarding it as an answer to future needs of the County. A corridor for a water line from Lake Michigan, possibly an inter community highway, or a monorail to Chicago were suggested. As the late Paul Ronske, then County Board Chairman, put it "Future needs would determine future uses."

There was no County Board opposition to the footpath and when in 1966 the purchase of the property by the County was consumated the Illinois Prairie Path was granted a 12-year lease.

Leases were also granted the municipalities along the right-of-way but the Prairie Path was protected by lease terms that stipulated it was to have a continuous strip not less than 10 feet wide.

Problems and Volunteers

The Illinois Prairie Path had become a reality. But this was only the beginning of monumental problems and a tough struggle for recognition and cooperation from the municipalities and the county.

The Path's chief asset was its supporters. Available funds were a mere trickle of dollars that came in through membership dues. Although memberships increased steadily there was, at first, barely enough to cover expenses for insurance, trail signs, maps, mailings and postage.

Volunteers were immediately available for Path clean-up and committed themselves to the task on a continuing basis. This was no minor job since the property had remained vacant for five years and since that time accumulated a great variety of human discardsóold tires, worn-out appliances and other refuse.

Planned outings brought the public to the Path. There were guided nature and bird walks. Natural science classes soon found it a rich resource. The Boy Scouts dedicated 10 miles as the Red Caboose Trail. Badges and medals were earned for hiking that distance. Families, hiking groups, individuals found the Path a unique recreational facility attracted by its beauty and interesting stretches.

Gradually development of the Path was undertaken as civic and citizen groups initiated improvements. Crushed limestone was used to smooth portions of the stony surface. Two miles in Elmhurst, one in Wheaton, another section in Wayne received the limestone and where this improvement was made, use of the Path increased dramatically, especially by bicycles.

Garden Clubs contributed plantings. An old fashioned station park was established in Glen Ellyn and an entire bare-earth block was planted in Wheaton as a Demonstration Area. Trees and shrubs were planted in Elmhurst.

But for a long time the Prairie Path was largely ignored by municipal and county governments. Many claimed no one used the Path so why bother with it. Lease terms were broken. There were abusesódumping, illegal uses of the Path, even senseless bulldozing. Always there were

Louise Headen is Coordinator of Volunteers for the Illinois Prairie Path.

Illinois Parks and Recreation 8 November/December, 1972

threats of a highway. The fight was on to protest and restrain this erosion of the trail.

National Trails Act

In 1968 the National Trails Act was passed empowering the Department of the Interior to encourage the development of abandoned rights-of-way, utility easements and other vacant and idle properties as recreation trails. Inclusion in the National Trail System would be accorded those meeting National Trail standards.

The Illinois Prairie Path was the first trail to apply. In the spring of 1969 an evaluating field inspection of the Path was made by the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation. The report was highly laudatory while pointing out the need to correct certain deficiences of safety and maintenance. The greatest deficiency was time.

To qualify as a National Trail the Prairie Path lease with the county would have to be extended to meet the requirement that it be available for not less than ten years into the future.

By seeking National status the Prairie Path focused attention on its most important problem. Would the Prairie Path continue to exist? Although the Prairie Path did not lack friends among the Supervisors there seemed to be a general lack of conviction that a hiking-nature trail had long range value.

It was some time before the request for lease extension brought response from the County Board and forced its action. Several Supervisors, fearful that Department of The Interior influence would interfere with future needed uses of the right-of-way, were against the lease extension. The question was hotly debated.

But floods of telephone calls and letters poured in from the public urging that the lease be extended. Citizens crowded County Board meetings and the press, throughout metropolitan Chicago, headlined the story. The Prairie Path won.

Paradoxically, while the County Board resisted action on the lease, it was persuaded to improve the Path. A motion was passed to surface the unincorporated areas at an expenditure of $10,000. Benefit to the Path was inestimable. Utilization soared as bicycle enthusiasts and equestrians joined the hikers and hikers enjoyed a more comfortable trail.

Following the motion to grant the Prairie Path lease extension two additional field inspection trips were made by the B.O.R. The deficiencies had been corrected with the exception of a safe pedestrian crossing over the West Branch of the DuPage river. Under two separate actions 23 miles of the Prairie Path were included in the National Trails System.

The Illinois Prairie Path has earned recognition nationally and locally as a valuable and much needed recreation resource. The public has demonstrated its desire to preserve it and a willingness to fight for it. The Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission has listed it in an inventory of existing open lands in DuPage County while pointing out that DuPage ranks second lowest among the six regional counties in open land.

Still the Prairie Path's future within DuPage county remains an enigma. "Future needs" and "future uses" of the former right-of-way are still undetermined. While this situation

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Illinois Parks and Recreation 9 November/December, 1972


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exists the Prairie Path is vulnerable to city planning and political maneuver. Once lost it is irretrievable.


In Kane county the Path has fared better. The DuKane Valley Council and the Prairie Path board have worked together to secure the right-of-way specifically for a trail. Assistance was sought in Springfield to purchase the property. After long negotiation the purchase was made by the State and is now leased by the Kane County Forest Preserve Commission for 20 years. Subleases are granted to city and park districts for trail development.

The Prairie Path Board has long hoped that the trail would be placed under DuPage County Forest Preserve jurisdiction thereby guaranteeing its permanence and protecting it from misuse. Considering that the Path connects seven Forest Preserve properties in the county this would be a logical move and would add immeasurably to Forest Preserve lands.

Opposition has been voiced that maintenance of the trail would be too great a problem for the Forest Preserve. However, such a move need not preempt the now existing citizen involvement. The Path is surprisingly well cared for and clean. Volunteers have kept it so and in addition perform the necessary watch-dog surveillance restraining abuses. It would seem unlikely they would willingly abandon a project to which they had contributed so much.

Illinois Parks and Recreation 24 November/December, 1972

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