Missourians with a hankering to do so can now pleasantly stroll or bike across the state, from Pleasant Hill to St. Louis, on strips of land once used for hauling freight across the nation.
Gov. Jay Nixon cut a ribbon Saturday on a 47.5 mile hike-and-bike trail linking Pleasant Hill, southeast of Kansas City, to the Katy Trail State Park, a meandering path of abandoned railroad land reclaimed for use by the state.
“You’ll be able to go 287 miles on an incredible asset,” Nixon said before cutting the ribbon and taking a walk down the trail with more than 100 well-wishers.
For decades, it seemed unlikely the Kansas City area would ever connect with the Katy Trail. But Pat Jones never lost hope.
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“I won’t consider it complete until it goes from border to border,” the woman who made the trail possible told a Star reporter two decades ago. “One way or the other,” she said, the Katy had to connect St. Louis with Kansas City.
Now, Nixon said, the trail is “eerily close” to reaching that goal.
If everything goes right, Jackson County will extend the path to the Truman Sports Complex by 2018. That will make it possible to connect with the extensive metro-area trail system, allowing someone in Johnson County, for instance, to cycle to the Gateway Arch.
“It’s gratifying to know they finally did it,” said the 91-year-old Jones, who with her late financier husband, Edward D. “Ted” Jones Jr., underwrote the state’s $2.2 million purchase of more than 200 miles of the railbed once belonging to the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (or Katy for short).
“You might say it’s the end of the trail,” she said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
The first sections of the Katy opened in central Missouri in 1990. By the end of the decade, with the exception of several miles at the St. Louis-area trailhead, the trail was substantially finished.
But connecting the trail with Kansas City proved more difficult. The Mid-America Regional Council studied three options, none promising.
Eventually, planners settled on a stretch of abandoned Rock Island Railroad right-of-way between Pleasant Hill and Windsor, Mo., on the western end of the park.
Problem was, the corridor’s owner, St. Louis-based utility Ameren Inc., didn’t want to sell the land, in the off chance rail service resumed.
But Pleasant Hill officials kept pressing, because they felt their town would benefit from trail tourism. “We didn’t take no for an answer,” former Pleasant Hill City Administrator Mark Randall said.
That persistence paid off in 2005.
The Ameren-owned Taum Sauk reservoir had failed that December, ruining a state park below it. Nixon, a Katy Trail supporter, was attorney general at the time and sued for damages.
As part of the 2007 settlement, Ameren agreed to give up the rail corridor and let the state build the connector to the Kansas City area. Ameren even put up some of the money for its construction.
When he became governor in 2009, Nixon pledged to get the job done. While it took several years longer than expected, he’s gratified he helped fulfill the dream Pat Jones had all along.
“Quite frankly, it mirrors almost the entirety of my time in public service,” Nixon said, adding that he was in the Missouri Senate when the Katy was created, and during his 16 years as attorney general defended court challenges from trail foes.
He listed the trail’s benefits: Increased tourism. More recreational opportunities for state residents. National exposure, as the Katy is the second longest rails-to-trail path in the country.
Pleasant Hill is one of several communities along the new route, but is likely to benefit the most for its proximity to Kansas City.
“Pleasant Hill rebranded itself to a certain extent as a trail town,” said Randall, the former city administrator who now works for the city government of Independence.
The city built a trail that will eventually connect the Rock Island Trail with the metro-wide system, and several businesses started up with the trail in mind.
Among the first, in 2013, was New Town Bicycle and Coffee Shop near the trailhead in downtown Pleasant Hill.
Owner Alan Voss figured that selling coffee would support the enterprise in the short term, until the trail riders showed up wanting repairs and bike supplies.
He hung in there. So has Jeff Wilson, who has two trail-related businesses downtown that specialize in selling or restoring vintage items, including antique bikes.
“The trail is going to be awesome for Pleasant Hill,” he said. It will entice people who’ve never been there to discover what he describes as “a picturesque little train town.”
Indeed, trains still pass through at a steady clip, Union Pacific freights mostly, although perhaps not as many as when the Rock Island was still active.
But now with a layer of gravel instead of steel rails topping the roadbed, that length of the Rock Island Line has come alive again.
“It’s a pretty ride,” Voss said.