WINDSOR — After more than a decade of development, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MoDNR) officially declared the Rock Island Trail State Park as the state’s 93rd state …
WINDSOR — After more than a decade of development, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MoDNR) officially declared the Rock Island Trail State Park as the state’s 93rd state park.
At a press conference near the intersection of the Rock Island Trail and the Katy Trail in Windsor on June 30, Missouri State Parks Director David Kelly made the announcement. Only 47.5 miles of trail from Pleasant Hill to Windsor is open to the public right now, but another 144 miles are in various stages of development. Area communities that could house potential trailheads include Meta, Argyle, Freeburg, Belle, Bland, Owensville, Rosebud and Gerald. As communities develop their sections, they will join the publicly accessible trail. Until then, Missouri State Parks prohibits the use of the undeveloped trail.
The trail follows what was once the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, which ran through more than a dozen states. In 1980, the operation of the railroad ended after nearly 130 years.
Kelly began by acknowledging people who so far have made the trail possible including donors, members of the state parks team, volunteers who advocate for the trail, elected officials who support the trail and members of the National Park Service (NPS). Missouri is a leader with 450 miles of rail trail corridors, which is the most of any state. Later this year, teams from Indiana will meet with Missouri State Parks for advice on how to develop 60 miles of rail trail there.
Officials from cities along the trail spoke on topics such as how the trail has affected their community or how their cities have been working toward funding their sections of the trail.
Belle Mayor Daryl White thanked everyone for the work they put into developing the trail.
“It’s brought a new breath of life to our town,” he said. “We’re in the engineering stage of it right now. At a city standpoint, we’ve made great strides. We’ve already put our campground in and everything. We’re really looking forward to stuff to happen. I wake up every morning hoping to see heavy equipment in Belle getting started. It hasn’t happened yet, but we pray.”
White also recognized State Rep. Bruce Sassmann, who is a supporter of the trail in the state legislature.
Owensville Mayor John Kamler said the city has been working diligently to receive its $500,000 in grant money to complete the city’s section of the trail, which is about three miles long. One of the focuses of the trail in Owensville is providing residents with a safe route to walk or bike to school.
“Our kids can’t even ride a bike or walk to school,” he said. “When this is done, they’ll be able to do that, so it’s a wonderful thing.”
Kamler said he hoped to have shovels ready to begin trail work in Owensville by September.
After Kamler spoke, Kelly said that safe routes to school are something the trail developers keep in mind. Another public safety consideration is lights on trails to provide an opportunity for athletes to have a safe walking route home if practices or games end after dark.
A project manager with Missouri State Parks was unable to attend the event because he was delivering a trail agreement to the city of Gerald. The stretch of the trail through Gerald is about one mile long, and the city hopes to fund it through private donations.
“There’s kind of a competition on who’s going to get started first,” Kelly said. “Gerald may be starting today.”
Former Gerald Mayor Cary Parker represented the community at the conference. He said the celebration of the trail in Gerald goes beyond the trail itself. The city is working on a new flag that represents the old railroad. New city shirts label Gerald as “A Rock Island Town.” A new paint job on the water tower will feature a train.
“I think excitement for the trail is an understatement,” Parker said.
Pleasant Hill City Administrator Shelby Teufel spoke about the trail in her city, which is the westernmost point on the state-developed section of the trail.
“For decades, our community waited for the Rock Island Trail,” she said. “We saw businesses open in anticipation, sometimes a little too early, and they would have to close. There was doubt.”
Pleasant Hill was one of the cities along the trail that secured funding to develop its section of the trail. In December 2016, the stretch of trail between Pleasant Hill and Windsor opened to the public as the Rock Island Spur of the Katy Trail.
“I truly believe that the time between 2016 when the Rock Island opened and today was transformative for our downtown,” Teufel said.
After the opening in 2016, Pleasant Hill held a meeting with business owners asking if they could open to accommodate trail riders.
“They opened businesses, and with each business came a new business,” Teufel said. “They don’t all cater to trail riders, but that’s okay because that is still a positive for our community.”
As the city officials concluded their remarks, many took a moment to claim their towns had the best ice cream on the trail. Windsor Mayor Rick Rollins pointed to the city’s Dairy Queen. Eldon City Administrator Don Smith countered with Eldon’s Ice Cream Factory. White did not specify a place, but he did challenge the crowd to try some of the ice creams in Belle. Kamler recommended Owensville’s Sno Town. Parker joked that his Bistro at the Mill in Gerald would be a one-stop spot for all the ice cream on the trail.
“I’m seeing a theme developing here: an ice cream ride on the Rock Island,” Kelly said.
Rep. Jim Kalberloh of Missouri House District 126, which includes parts of Benton, Henry, Hickory and St. Clair counties said he became engaged with the Rock Island Trail project in 2021 during his first legislative session. Federal money was available to the state at the time, and the trail was one of the big projects discussed in Jefferson City. At first, he was skeptical about the trail because he wanted to respect landowner rights. After Sassmann told him about some of the intricacies of the legal aspect of the trail, Kalberloh changed his mind.
“(Sassmann) has transferred me to a big supporter of this and what it is,” Kalberloh said. “We’re trying (to get funding). Every year we’re trying. Every year it’s passed the House. I know it’s (Sassmann’s) goal, and mine, too, in the next five years that we’re going to get some money to this because we know what it would do for the local communities and what it does for the state.”
Mike Ward, deputy regional director of NPS’s Omaha, Nebraska, office, said NPS is committed to helping the Rock Island Trail Project in any way it can. The project’s goals of getting people active and connecting communities align with NPS’s goals.
“The communities are what makes these things work,” Ward said.
Friends of the Rock Island Trail Vice-President Kim Henderson spoke about the group’s efforts to help with the trail’s completion. The organization works with agencies, groups and trail communities to develop the trail. The group also presented a plaque to MoDNR Director Dru Buntin in recognition of his work on the trail. The plaque included a small cross-section of a rail removed from the railroad.
Later, Buntin addressed the crowd to close the ceremony.
“What better opportunity to strengthen rural communities and provide opportunities for agritourism and improvement of quality of life, improvement of public health than to further expand on an already existing asset that we have in terms of the Katy Trail?” he said.
At the conclusion of his speech, Buntin declared the Rock Island Trail a state park and unveiled the sign.