Late in 1886, the people of Dubuque County celebrated the completion of the last major railroad to be built in the upper Midwest, linking Dubuque to St. Paul and Chicago. The Chicago Great Western Railroad developed a reputation for innovation, which allowed it to compete successfully with larger railroads and stimulate growth of the communities it served.
One hundred years later, the old railroad is again the focus of innovatively used energy, and once again it is promoting growth and improving the quality of life of the surrounding area. But now the banked and curved bridges crisscrossing the Little Maquoketa River are used by bicyclists, hikers, and cross-‐country skiers instead of speeding locomotives and 200-‐car trains.
Heritage Trail is a 380-‐acre, 26-‐mile long recreation and conservation trail, which exhibits remarkable diversity in its 400-‐foot ascension from Dubuque to Dyersville. Rising westward from the Mississippi Valley at Sageville near Dubuque, the trail’s numerous curves parallel the Little Maquoketa River. Rugged woodland and sheer limestone bluffs give way to native prairie as the trail climbs out of what has become known as the “Driftless Area” into the gentle rolling uplands of the Maquoketa River basin to Dyersville.
Construction of the railroad changed the face of nearly all the land contained in the 100-‐foot right-‐of-‐way, requiring either cutting through the rock bluffs or building up low areas. But a century of time has healed the wounds of railroad construction, leaving behind a narrow, nearly level corridor through a land with many of its original characteristics once again in evidence. In fact, a recently completed study of biotic communities along Heritage Trail by Thomas Blewett and Susan Miller of Clarke College reveals an inventory of 410 plant species including many rare prairie plants.
Heritage Trail illustrates why the Chicago Great Western was known as the “mountain railroad in prairie country.” Construction techniques more akin to rail lines in the mountains to the east or west were used to minimize the expense of cutting through or building up the roadway where possible. Meandering along the valley’s “path of least resistance,” the trail’s 53 curves and more than 30 bridges now give it special appeal for recreational use. The I% grade (one foot rise for each 100 linear feet), which required as many as eight helper engines for the largest of the heavily laden freight trains travelling west from Graf, now seems practically level to touring bicyclists and hikers.
A great deal of the interest shown by naturalists in Heritage Trail seems to revolve around its unique interface of two very different types of landscapes and habitats. Perhaps that
inspired the organizational structure, which led to its preservation, combining private initiative with public ownership. When the concept of Heritage Trail emerged, there was no clear idea of what was in store. In 1973, a county recreation plan was approved by a panel of 20 residents drawn from across the county. One of the major recommendations was for the Dubuque County Conservation Board to purchase the railroad from Dubuque to Dyersville if it was abandoned. Six years later, in 1979, railroad authorities declared the bridges unsafe for trains and ended service. Early 1981 brought official abandonment approval and the formation of Heritage Trail, Inc., a voluntary non-‐profit group formed to promote and assist the Dubuque County Conservation Board in acquiring the trail. Heartened by petitions signed by 2700 local residents urging trail acquisition, the group raised $12,000 for a non-‐refundable down payment, and then another $43,000 to add to county funds for the purchase of 25 miles of trail. An agreement was signed making the corporation responsible for planning, fundraising, and development of the county-‐owned trail. In all about $235,000 was needed to acquire the land, and about $5500 per mile for surfacing and fencing. Over
half of the total cost of the trail was donated by local businesses and more than 1200 individuals, and the rest was matched by state and local funds.