DuPage County celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Illinois Prairie Path, which prompted the rails-to-trials movement in the 1960s.
In honor of the Prairie Path’s 50th anniversary, DuPage County Board member Grant Eckhoff recently presented the Illinois Prairie Path Corporation with a resolution of commendation.
“We gather here to not only recognize the 50 years of beauty and recreation that the path has provided my family and yours, but we also commend the countless volunteers whose tireless efforts made this a reality. Thank you to all of the volunteers and county staff who continue to make the Illinois Prairie Path the pride of DuPage County,” said Eckhoff.
DuPage County, the Illinois Prairie Path Not-for-Profit Corporation, Morton Arboretum, Openlands and countless volunteers gathered at mile marker 0 in downtown Wheaton recently to reflect on the history of the 63-mile path that travels through Cook, DuPage and Kane counties.
The idea for the Prairie Path began on September 30, 1963, with a Chicago Tribune Voice of the People editorial titled “Future Footpath?” written by environmentalist May Theilgaard Watts.
She proposed a conversion of the abandoned right of way from the defunct Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railroad into a nature path. This letter has been credited for starting the first volunteer-driven rails-to-trails movement. In the United States there are now more than 20,000 miles of trails located along abandoned railroad right of ways.
“This simple idea was the impetus that fired up a group of volunteers who literally built the 63 miles of Illinois Prairie Path by hand,” said Bob Sobie, president of the Illinois Prairie Path Not-for-Profit Corporation. “These volunteers held fundraisers, bought materials, fought with municipalities, laid limestone by the wheel barrow and shovel full, built bridges and stairs by hand. They had the vision to start the Illinois Prairie Path Corporation to make sure that their work continued long past their time.”
Prior to the infamous Tribune editorial, Watts founded the Morton Arboretum’s education program in 1940. According to Katie VanMetre, exhibit developer at Morton Arboretum, Watts was a trained ecologist and botanist. Her nature walks, lectures and “whimsical” games “enchanted generations of students and inspired many devoted followers.”
“May was a world traveler. She walked the time-worn footpaths of Europe and yearned for something similar in her community,” she said.
Watts collaborated with a group of faithful volunteers and created the Illinois Prairie Path in an effort to make her vision into a reality.
Through the years, the Prairie Path was extended from Maywood in Cook County through the heart of DuPage County and continues into Kane County. The natural areas located along the path connect residents with a variety of wildlife, birds and plants.
“Openlands and the Illinois Prairie Path were two of the first organizations in the country to recognize that there are wonderful places within urban areas to expose people to nature,” said Glenda Daniel, associate director of Openlands. “This amazing path, the first volunteer-led rails-to-trails conversion in the nation, was an example of that, and Openlands is pleased to have been a partner in making it happen. It’s even more exciting that the path is still maintained and well-used today and that it started the trend that has led to so many more such trails, not only in our own area but in urban centers everywhere.”
The Prairie Path not only provides serene beauty and an abundance of recreational opportunities, but it also spurs economic and community development in addition to tourism, according to Eckhoff.
“Home values in DuPage County are increased and it’s easier to attract and retain businesses here. The Prairie Path and the trail system enhances the quality of life here in DuPage County,” said Eckhoff.
DuPage County Transportation Committee Chairman Don Puchalski said the county acquired the railroad right of way in the 1960s and has worked cooperatively with municipalities, park districts, the Forest Preserve of DuPage County, utility companies and path volunteers to maintain and enhance the trail system.
“A lot of attention to detail is required to the trails versus road maintenance. Since our users are not on four wheels or in a 2,000 pound steel box, they feel every washout, hoof print and tire rut. Our staff ensures the trail is well maintained, smooth and free of hazards,” said Puchalski. “The County works in conjunction with the Prairie Path Corporation’s volunteers who are out on the trails day and night assisting us in the maintenance and beautification of the path. We have a great working relationship that I hope will continue for at least another 50 years.”
Ron Burke, executive director of Active Transportation Alliance, said his organization plans to support the Prairie Path into the future.
“The Illinois Prairie Path is a regional treasure enjoyed year-round by a huge number of people,” said Burke. “The path’s absolute success is due to a dedicated army of long-term volunteers and support from government entities that understand the importance of creating inviting places to walk and ride a bike,” he said.