The first eight miles were opened for public use in 1983, and a trail ranger was hired in 1984, as additional funds were raised and new sections were opened. After bridge repairs and grading, two major activities were required to open each trail section: surfacing and fencing. Eight hundred tons of crushed, compacted limestone were applied to each mile of trail, creating a smooth, easily maintained surface similar to a baseball infield. More fencing was renovated along the trail in two months than had been repaired by the railroad in 12 years.
Volunteer workers and donated equipment were used to smooth the railbed, remove old ties, cut down overgrown trees, and clean out debris from bridges and culverts. Others were involved in fundraising, public relations with trail neighbors, and promotion activities, keeping administrative costs low. In addition to the estimated 25,000 hours of work accomplished by volunteers, their sense of personal investment and community ownership created a broad, growing base of support. While volunteer support was a critical ingredient in the project’s early months, more formal support systems were just as important. As Heritage Trail, Inc. President Doug Cheever relates, “Volunteer energy can burn white hot sometimes, and that’s exciting to see. But that energy can burn out. Fortunately, there are public and private agencies who will fan the flames and add more fuel to the fire.” The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, for example, helped set the initial direction and then provided much needed technical assistance, legal and political intervention, interim funding, and encouragement during the first difficult years. The Foundation also provided a role model for Heritage Trail: the Cedar Valley Nature Trail was about two years
ahead of Heritage Trail in planning, development, and fundraising experience.
On June 7, Governor Terry Branstad formally opened Heritage Trail by removing the last railroad spike at Graf, the trail’s midpoint. From his restaurant and tavern across the street, Arvel “Smitty” Smith was watching and smiling. The winter before, he had remodeled and doubled the size of the kitchen in “Smitty’s Place.” Good thing, too: in this town of 70 that nearly died when the railroad left seven years ago, Smitty’s business has more than doubled since last year. He attributes it to the completion of the final segments of the trail, allowing a 26-mile round trip from either end of the trail to Graf and back. Completion of the $554,000 project of acquiring and developing Heritage Trail has economic significance for Dubuque, Dyersville, and other adjoining communities as well. The trail is expected to have 35,000 visitors in 1986, with a potential for 50-60,000 per year by 1988. As the total number of users grows, the portion of those who come from outside the area and out of state will be as high as 50% based on the experience of the more successful Wisconsin railroad trails.
Way back when….
Picnic along the Heritage Trail at Twin Springs circa 1880s or 1890s. (Photo courtesy of Art Roche)