Rail line becomes trail after 20-year abandonment

An initiative to reconstruct an abandoned rail line into a recreational trail from eastern Urbana to Kickapoo State Park is finally seeing results after the Champaign County Forest Preserve District purchased a portion of the rail line in early October.

In the mid-1990s, the Champaign County Design and Conservation Foundation began working on negotiations to acquire the railroad from Conrail and turn it into a recreational trail for the community, said Steve Rugg, executive director of the foundation.

“(We) worked with the then-owner of the rail line ... right to the point where they were prepared to donate the property to us without cost,” he said.

However, just when Conrail was going to give the property to the foundation, the rail company was split up between Norfolk Southern and CSX Corp. The new owner of the rail line, CSX, initially didn’t consider the rail-to-trail project to be “very high on the priority list,” Rugg said.

Now, about 20 years later, CSX has finally agreed to sell part of the railroad for $600,000. The price is below the appraised value, an action Rugg called “philanthropic.”

Several other organizations managed to keep the hope for a trail alive over the years. Not only has the foundation raised funds, but they have also leased the line under the National Trails Systems Act, which legally allows for the railroad to be used as a trail.

Lisa Sprinkle, marketing coordinator for the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, said CCFPD also had an important impact on the project, as it has worked since 1994 to acquire the portion of the railroad that runs through Champaign County.

However, the purchase made by the forest preserve district is only part of the future trail. The rest of the rail line runs through Vermilion County and will hopefully be purchased by the Vermilion County Conservation District by the end of the year, Rugg said.

He said federal organizations have also been essential to the rail-to-trail project. The Illinois Department of Transportation has approved the project and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources will own the portion of the rail line that crosses the Vermilion River. State and federal funds have allowed work to begin on preliminary engineering and environmental impact analysis.

Currently, the majority of the rail line is overgrown vegetation. But after construction, the trail will be a compressed crushed gravel bed suitable for bikers and hikers alike.

Catherine Kemp, sophomore in ACES, is part of Illini 4000, a registered student organization that organizes an annual cross-country bike ride to raise money for cancer. The group trains year-round to be able to bike an average of 70 miles per day.

“One of our training rides was to Kickapoo,” she said. “I think it would definitely benefit people who may be a little more cautious about riding on the roads. ... You don’t have to worry about cars.”

For those who are not as physically inclined, Rugg said, “Over time we expect to develop what we’re calling nodes ... little turnouts where folks might want to stop and rest.”

The Champaign County Water and Soil Conservation District, for example, plans to create one of these nodes that will overlook a wetland restoration project in St. Joseph, a village along the trail.

“It’s unusual, I think, for something that takes almost two decades to get done to have that kind of staying power,” Rugg said. “It’s really a terrific example of public and private interests coming together.”

Zila can be reached at zrenfro2@dailyillini.com.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Norfolk Southern Corp. went out of business before giving the property their rail line was on to the Champaign County Design and Conservation Foundation. Norfolk Southern did not go out of business, but at that time, Conrail (who owned the line in question) split their rail system between Norfolk Southern and CSX Corp. The Daily Illini regrets the error.