Site to cel­e­brate Delta’s rail­road his­tory, park of­fi­cials say

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - KEN­NETH HEARD

A pro­posed fa­cil­ity at the south­ern end of the Delta Her­itage Trail in Arkansas City will repli­cate the ar­chi­tec­ture of an old train de­pot and em­brace the his­tory of the rail­road that helped de­velop the re­gion, state parks of­fi­cials said.

Con­struc­tion be­gan on the $890,000 trail­head build­ing Wed­nes­day and will fea­ture pic­nic sites, re­strooms and in­for­ma­tion about the area, said Meg Matthews, a spokesman for Arkansas State Parks. It an­chors the end of a 14.4-mile pedes­trian and bi­cy­cle trail that has been con­verted from old Union Pa­cific Rail­road tracks that trav­eled through the area.

The rail­way, the first to be built west of the Mississippi River, was called the Route of the Ea­gles and con­nected St. Louis with Lake Charles, La., and New Or­leans. The Delta Ea­gle car­ried pas­sen­gers through the Delta, and other trains hauled lum­ber and agri­cul­tural goods from Arkansas towns that were thriv­ing in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Matthews said.

In 1992, the Union Pa­cific Corp. do­nated its 73-mile right of way in Arkansas to the state to be con­verted into trails. The na­tional Rails to Trails Con­ser­vancy pro­gram, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion based in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., has over­seen the con­ver­sion of 22,880 miles of rail­ways to pedes­trian, hik­ing and bi­cy­cle trails in all 50 states.

The long­est Rails to Trails route in the coun­try is the Katy Trail State Park, a 240-mile cor­ri­dor that be­gins in Machens, Mo., and fol­lows the Mis­souri River un­til it veers southwest and ends near Clin­ton, Mo.

The trail is the tem­plate for the com­ple­tion of the Delta Her­itage Trail in Arkansas, Matthews said.

In ad­di­tion to the 14.4-mile trek from Ro­hwer to Arkansas City, an­other 20.6 miles of “rail-trails” run from He­lena-West He­lena to Elaine. The state Parks Depart­ment plans to con­nect the two stretches and cre­ate an 84.5-mile path, which will be one of the long­est pedes­trian and bi­cy­cle routes in the state.

Work on the trail­head fa­cil­ity is ex­pected to be com­pleted by early next sum­mer, said Randy Rober­son, man­ager of plan­ning and de­vel­op­ment with the Arkansas Depart­ment of Parks and Tourism.

“Arkansas City used to have an old train de­pot,” Rober­son said. “The con­cept is to make this [fa­cil­ity] look like that.”

Robert Moore, an Arkansas State High­way Com­mis­sion mem­ber who lives in Arkansas City, said in a state parks news re­lease the new fa­cil­ity should be a draw for tourism in the De­sha County town.

“The con­struc­tion of this new trail­head fa­cil­ity is ex­cit­ing for a lit­tle city of 366 peo­ple,” Moore said in the re­lease. “It is tremen­dously rich in his­tory. It has seven build­ings on the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places. It is sur­rounded by 10,000 pub­lic wildlife acres. It’s the only ma­jor pub­lic ac­cess to the Mississippi River in the state of Arkansas.

“Peo­ple are go­ing to go, ‘My good­ness, some­thing’s re­ally hap­pen­ing down here.’”

At the north­ern end of the trail, the Delta Her­itage Trail State Park in He­lena-West He­lena has seen in­creases in visi­tors over the past four years, said park in­ter­preter Mag­gie Howard.

From July 2013 to July 2014, 6,809 peo­ple vis­ited the park, she said. Two years later, from July 2015 to July 2016, 10,135 peo­ple came to the park.

That num­ber dou­bled dur­ing the next 12 months as 20,410 peo­ple vis­ited the trails, Howard said.

The park of­fers camp­sites and tours of the trail. Howard said kayak tours of the nearby Mississippi River also are avail­able.

“We fo­cus on the his­tory of the rail­road,” Howard said. “He­lena was a huge lum­ber town, and the trains used to haul it.”

Most of the Rails to Trails Con­ser­vancy trails fo­cus on the area’s his­tory and the preser­va­tion of the na­ture along the for­mer rail­ways, said Brandi Hor­ton, a spokesman for the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

The idea to con­vert rail­road tracks into trails be­gan in the 1950s but didn’t get much at­ten­tion un­til Sept. 25, 1963, when nat­u­ral­ist and il­lus­tra­tor May Watts wrote a let­ter to the ed­i­tor of the Chicago Tri­bune about us­ing aban­doned train tracks. She sug­gested turn­ing the for­mer Chicago, Aurora and El­gin Rail­way, which shut down in 1961, into a cor­ri­dor be­tween Chicago and its sub­urbs.

“If we have courage and fore­sight, such as made pos­si­ble the Long Trail in Ver­mont and the Ap­palachian Trail from Maine to Ge­or­gia … then we can cre­ate from this strip a proud re­source,” Watts wrote.

The let­ter gained an out­pour­ing of pub­lic sup­port, Hor­ton said, and within months Illi­nois Prairie Path Corp. was formed. The first trail along the Chicago, Aurora and El­gin Rail­way was de­vel­oped in 1967.

“This is an im­por­tant ef­fort to pre­serve pub­lic ac­cess to land,” Hor­ton said.

Howard said that while the trails are mostly used by out­door en­thu­si­asts for hik­ing and bik­ing, they also serve as con­nec­tors be­tween towns for peo­ple.

“Some who don’t have trans­porta­tion can use the trails to go to stores, to work or other places,” Howard said.

Re­cently, of­fi­cials in Mem­phis and West Mem­phis built a walk­way over the Mississippi River, con­nect­ing the two cities, bas­ing the project on the Rails to Trails Con­ser­vancy pro­grams. The walk­way also winds through sev­eral miles of trails along the west­ern edge of the river in West Mem­phis.

Parks of­fi­cials hope to even­tu­ally link that sec­tion with the Delta Her­itage Trail to cre­ate a path­way that tra­verses much of the state, Rober­son said.

“The big­gest ob­sta­cle is in the mid­dle [of the Delta Her­itage Trail] where we have to cross the Arkansas and White rivers,” Rober­son said. “We have some tres­tle bridges in place, but they will need to be re­habbed for pedes­trian traf­fic.

“Peo­ple of­ten think the Delta is flat, but there are a lot of trees in the bot­tom­land of the Big Woods,” he said, re­fer­ring to 550,000 square acres of hard­wood for­est near the con­ver­gence of the White and Arkansas rivers.

“It’ll take some time to con­nect it all, but we’re hop­ing it catches on,” he said.

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