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What would it take to build a rail-trail?

Posted Tuesday, May 29, 2012, at 9:07 PM

Mark your calendars: If nothing is done by July 3, 2012, the owners of the railroad line between Gordonville and Delta will be able to scrap it, permanently removing the old Jackson Branch Railroad from the map.

To keep the rails intact, a new owner will need to come along and purchase the railroad property with a plan to put it back in service. This is an expensive proposition, but not insurmountable. The new owners may be able to make extra money by storing unused rail cars along the line, a service that could earn a few dollars per day per car.

If that isn't possible, then the next best alternative is to convert the rail line into a hiking and biking trail. This would at least keep the rail corridor intact for the future, while providing recreational and tourism opportunties for Cape Girardeau County.

So how difficult would it be to tackle a rail-to-trail project? And would it make practical sense?

I've been studying this topic for a couple weeks. In a nutshell, it's doable, and it does make sense. But it would require a well-coordinated grass-roots effort to act within a very tight schedule.

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the main advocacy group for these projects, publishes how-to guides for building rail-trails. Two of these, Secrets of Successful Rail-Trails and Acquiring Rail Corridors, outline the process in step-by-step fashion.

For the first step, they recommend putting together an initial assessment that weighs the pros and cons of the proposed trail. Then, an organizational meeting should be held, with potential supporters of a trail invited. The newly formed group can then tackle the rest of the steps: developing a formal feasibility study, partnering with a government agency, selling the idea to the community, filing the appropriate paperwork, negotiating with the railroad company, and -- of course -- raising funds to make it happen.

Let's dive right into the first step: performing an assessment and determining the potential benefits. We know that the owners of the railroad intend to abandon 13.3 miles of track connecting Gordonville, Dutchtown, Allenville, and Delta. Once the tracks are scrapped by the railroad company, a crushed-stone surface could be applied (same as the Katy Trail) to produce the trail. Some of the bridges, especially the washed-out trestle over Williams Creek, will need to be repaired.

[View larger map on Google]

At first glance, a Gordonville to Delta trail would appear to be out in the "middle of nowhere" without connecting to anything. But what if the trail could be built all the way to Jackson, running alongside the remaining tracks of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern tourist railroad? This would be a "rails-with-trails" project, a concept that has been gaining popularity in recent years. The city of Jackson, which has been working to build additional recreational trails, would find itself at the terminus of the longest dedicated bicycle trail in Southeast Missouri.

Between Allenville and Delta, the rail-trail would provide a safe crossing of the Diversion Channel, a formidable obstacle for bicyclists heading south from Cape Girardeau. This would eliminate the need to pedal -- and pray -- alongside Highway 25 traffic whizzing by at 60 MPH south of Dutchtown. In addition, the rail-trail would connect with the Mississippi River Trail, a designated national bike route running north-south through Southeast Missouri.

The Diversion Channel bridge would also serve as an emergency route for reaching the town of Allenville during floods. This is a lifeline that Allenville residents have used "countless" times in the past. With a rail-trail, this access would still be available. In fact, it would be better, since the steel bridge would be improved and made safer.

I've compiled these arguments in favor and against a rail-trail project:


  • Excellent recreational opportunity for the area, one that may never come along again
  • As the only rail-trail in Southeast Missouri, would provide a tourism boost
  • Solves the problem of providing a bicycle and pedestrian route across the Diversion Channel
  • Keeps the Allenville Bridge available for use during flooding
  • Preserves a piece of local history, especially the bridge at Allenville
  • Provides a much-needed economic boost for Delta, Allenville, and Dutchtown
  • Passes through scenic rural countryside


  • Bridges need serious work; unclear how much it would cost to repair
  • Stretch from Allenville to Dutchtown is flood prone, driving up maintenance costs
  • Towns along route offer few amenities for trail users
  • Wouldn't connect to any other trails, parks, or recreation areas (except maybe for fishing along the Diversion Channel)
  • Leaves the Jackson tourist railroad isolated from the rest of the U.S. rail network (but this would happen anyway if the tracks are removed as planned)
  • Lack of major attractions (tunnels, depots, rock formations, etc.) that are typically found along rail-trail projects

In parts of the country criss-crossed by many rail-trails, this particular project may not look too appealing since it has limited attractions and amenities. But right now Southeast Missouri doesn't have anything like this, so the Jackson railroad represents a huge opportunity. With no other suitable projects on the horizon, this might be the only chance within our lifetimes to construct a major long-distance trail near Cape Girardeau. We need to seize the day!

Showing comments in chronological order
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I've done a fair number of rails to trails, particularly in Florida. They've proven to be an asset to the communities they link.

The Withlacoochee trail west of Orlando, for example, goes through rural areas that you would think wouldn't attract riders, but there are two thriving bike shops on that 49-mile trail.

One of them actively promotes things like Full Moon Rides that draws riders from a hundred miles away.

The main reason for banking the local roadway is looking at the day when that area may not be as rural as it is. When my dad built Route W, it was a rural road. Now, I can tell when it's spring by all the people complaining about bike riders.

I've ridden Cape to Advance to retrace a ride my parents made when they were newlyweds. I didn't mind riding it eight or 10 years ago, but I noticed on one of my recent trips back to Cape that rumble strips had been cut into a shoulder that had been good riding before.

I'd love to have been able to ride that stretch on a rails to trails made out of the old Houck Railroad line.

Good luck. It's an admirable project.

-- Posted by Ken1 on Tue, May 29, 2012, at 9:58 PM

One con the writer failed to mention is that the people who live along this corridor do not want a bunch of people walking/running/riding in their back yards every day and lots of them on weekends. How would you feel about the security of your property with a bunch of strangers in your backyard????? These rails are about 50 yards from my back door and I don't want people running up and down my yard and bet you wouldn't either. There are lots of trails for people to use in this area without infringing on my property. Our deeds show that the land is to revert to the landowner should the railroad ever go out of business; these promises should be honored.

-- Posted by someonewhoknows on Mon, Jun 4, 2012, at 8:45 AM

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