Train Tracks to Bike Racks

Photos by Anna Steenson

You might expect to find some of the most breathtaking footbridges in the world in cities known for their architecture. It wouldn’t come as a surprise to see Paris on the list, or Singapore, or London (twice). Iowa, on the other hand, might come as a bit of a shock.

But when the BBC published a list of the eight most amazing footbridges in the world, Iowa’s High Trestle Trail Bridge made the cut, alongside other architectural marvels like the Rolling Bridge in London and Simone de Beauvoir Bridge in Paris.

Opened to the public in April 2011, High Trestle Trail Bridge was designed by Des Moines artist David Dahlquist and is part of a 25-mile bike trail running through five towns and four counties in central Iowa. The trail is built on land purchased from the Union Pacific Railroad and was once host to chugging engines and methodical train wheels before the way was paved for bicyclists.

Building High Trestle Trail Bridge

Converting an abandoned railway into one of Iowa’s most iconic trails is no small feat. Thanks to the support of the community, the leadership of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF), and countless grants and donations, the first 20 miles of High Trestle Trail opened in 2008 after breaking ground in 2005. The bridge connecting the two sides of the trail over the Des Moines River, on the other hand, was a bit more complicated.

“The big bridge over the Des Moines River was a challenge because there was a bridge structure there when the [Union Pacific Railroad] decided to discontinue the line,” Lisa Hein, the senior director for conservation programs for the INHF, says. She explains that Union Pacific Railroad wanted to reuse the structure from the original bridge as part of a major renovation project on another bridge in Boone, Iowa. After Union Pacific Railroad took the original bridge structure away for the bridge in Boone, the two completed sections of High Trestle Trail were left separated by the Des Moines River with no way across.

“In the end it made more sense for them to keep it and we were able to design a bridge that was more appropriate for trail usage. And it gave the opportunity to look at making the bridge more interesting,” Hein says.

Knowing that the final bridge would be spectacular, the INHF received a grant from the Iowa Arts Council that allowed it to start looking at proposals and selecting an artist to help make the bridge unique. Hein says Dahlquist’s artistic concepts were instrumental in the final fundraising push for the project. At this point, INHF had the trail completed on both sides of the Des Moines River, and were just waiting to build the bridge. “So [the bridge] was like the last piece of the puzzle,” Hein says.

More Than Just a Trail

The trail’s impact on the community has been enormous. “When we were building the trail, we got letters from folks talking about how much just having the trail there has improved their health and wellness because they’re out walking every day. How do you put a value on that?” Hein says.

The trail has also had a positive impact on local businesses in the towns the trail runs through, like Slater, Madrid, and Woodward. Scott Bellis, general manager for the Nite Hawk Bar & Grill in Slater, which opened at about the same time as the trail, says a substantial portion of the bar’s business comes from bicyclists. “Our particular business has benefited from biking extensively and tremendously, and we probably wouldn’t be here in the same capacity without the High Trestle Trail,” Bellis says.

The trail, Bellis says, runs right through the bar’s back yard, and he and other bar and restaurant owners along the trail host events like Sunday Fundays, which encourage families to come out and bike together.

Across the Midwest (and the United States)

Of course, converting old railways into new walking and biking trails isn’t new, and isn’t just limited to Iowa. Organizations like Rails-to-Trails Conservancy have made it their mission to help communities transform abandoned railways into trails that can have just as big of an impact on local economies as High Trestle Trail has had.

Liz Thorstensen, the vice president of trail development for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, says that more projects with the potential for huge community benefits are in the works all across the country. The Trail Nation projects focus on building trail networks in eight regions around the United States. “We’re working with hundreds of partners within those regions to try to fast-track building out connected trail networks, with the goal of improving community outcomes, economic outcomes, environmental outcomes, and equity outcomes,” Thorstensen says.

One goal of these projects is to make each trail specific to its region, but also to create it in a way that can be replicated by future communities and to inspire other regions to build up their trail networks using abandoned railway corridors. “It’s really kind of thinking about trails as not just recreation, but also as a form of infrastructure that’s really embedded into all communities in a way that you can one day, hopefully, go traveling trail to trail,” Thorstensen says.

One of these projects is under way in the Milwaukee and Racine area in Wisconsin. “They’ve already got a lot of good trails there, and we saw the opportunity a few years ago that with not much more mileage, you could really connect those existing trails in a way that would support not only those community outcomes, but also hopefully spur trail walking-biking tourism and make it kind of a destination place for people to use trails,” Thorstensen says. Called the Route of the Badger, this rails-to-trails project could easily boost rural economies in the area as the High Trestle Trail has in Iowa. “There’s just a lot of excitement in that region for the project, and a lot of great partners involved in the city cores there, but also in the suburban and more rural communities,” Thorstensen says.

Aside from huge community benefits, turning rails into trails is also a form of conservation in case rail lines ever need to be put back into place. As railroads began to fall out of use in the 1980s, there was some concern that it would be difficult to reopen rail lines in the future if the land the rail lines had been on was divided up into different properties and sold. That’s where Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and projects like the High Trestle Trail came in.

“It was really to preserve those corridors for future use, but then also recognizing the amazing amenity that you could get to support those communities by putting a trail there,” Thorstensen says.

But there’s no need to worry about the High Trestle Trail being converted back into a railway anytime soon. As Thorstensen explains, even though several trails have been converted back into railways since the 1980s, most are likely to remain as trails for the foreseeable future, with more new trails on the way.

To help local bicyclists find rail trails near them, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy created TrailLink, a website that allows riders to explore maps of trails and plan their next ride.

With planning under way to construct a nine-mile connector trail that will link High Trestle Trail with the Raccoon River Valley Trail, the Des Moines metro area will soon have over 100 miles of connected trails.

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