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For 50 years, Illinois Prairie Path draws suburbanites back to nature

Brian Castro Aurorrides along Illinois Prairie Path through Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve Thursday October 4 2012 Warrenville. | Jeff Cagle~For

Brian Castro of Aurora rides along the Illinois Prairie Path through the Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve on Thursday, October 4, 2012, in Warrenville. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 8, 2012 12:10PM

For a 50-year-old, the Illinois Prairie Path still has a youthful vibe to it.

The nature trail, which runs for about 61 miles in DuPage, Kane and Cook counties, is regularly filled with bikers, runners and those just looking for a good walk.

For many in the area, the Prairie Path has been a part of the landscape their whole lives. That feeling, though, belies the unique nature of the project when it began in the early 1960s.

Along the rails

The trail runs along the former right-of-way of the old Chicago Aurora & Elgin electric railroad. The line carried commuters and freight between Chicago and the western suburbs to the towns along the Fox River from Elgin to Aurora. The rail line suspended commuter operations in 1957 and freight operations in 1959. The right-of-way was finally abandoned in 1961.

The concept of turning the right-of-way into a regional trail was brought up by May Theilgaard Watts of Naperville, a leading figure at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle. She called for the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Electric right-of-way to be preserved for future generations instead of being given over to commercial development.

Mary Jo Malach of Naperville, who for two years has served on the Illinois Prairie Path Corporation, a nonprofit organization that monitors the trail, said Watts was the true visionary for the project.

“Watts lived right here in Naperville on Jefferson Avenue and she and a number of other Naperville people were the real pioneers,” Malach said. “The key to their success was their inspired leadership, their tenacious volunteers, and the success that can be credited to the public and private partnerships. They were originally given a 12-year lease to do this and there were no county or state funds. All of the trail and the bridges were built by hand.”

President of the Illinois Prairie Path Corporation Bob Sobie, who lives in Glen Ellyn, said he “grew up along the Prairie Path” and recalled the day he found out that construction of the path was coming.

“The path has been a central part of my life and I remember one day when some friends of mine and I were building a fort and a pickup truck came by and someone asked if we knew people were going to build a path there,” Sobie said. “I ran home and told my dad, and he went out and bought me my first bike.”

A love affair

It is safe to say that many people are enthralled with the Prairie Path. Perhaps none more so that Nancy Wilson, 75, and her husband Richard, 86, of Des Plaines. They met on the trail years ago, fell in love and eventually got married.

“My husband took Boy Scouts out on cleanup projects years ago,” Nancy Wilson said. “For 40 years, we’ve been involved with the group that oversees this and we continue to enjoy the outdoors and the scenery.”

Exercise, enjoying nature and the chance to spend some quality time alone are among the reasons fans say they use the path regularly.

Felipe Legarreta, 43, of Villa Park, has been bicycling on the Prairie Path for a decade and said it affords him “time to be alone.”

“It’s relaxing and peaceful, and it’s something that it is close to my home,” Legarreta said. “I’ve been biking and running on the path for 10 years and I probably get in about 40 miles a week.”

Andrianna Liber, 53, of Wheaton and her husband Peter, 54, bike together when they can now that their kids are grown.

“For the kids, this was a great north-south route to get to the parks and it’s a nice way to ride without having to go on the streets,” Andrianna said. “It’s nice to just stretch out and enjoy the scenery. On Thursdays when the kids were at school from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m., this was sort of a date time for me and my husband.”

“She often asks me to go with her,” Peter Liber added. “It’s a good way to get some exercise and a chance to be together and get away from everything.”

Bartlett resident Eric Hoppe, 48, said he has been enjoying weekly rides on the Prairie Path for about 10 years and likes both the scenery and being outdoors.

“It’s kind of sad when November or December gets here and you have to hang the bike up until the spring,” Hoppe said. “I ride about 20 miles a week and think that being outdoors and seeing the trees is beautiful.”

One of the path’s biggest fans is Bob Barnshaw, 74, of Winfield, who said he has been using the path since 1979. Barnshaw calls the Prairie Path “the Eighth Wonder of the World.”

“I used to live in Wheaton where I was only one block from the path, and you could just step out of your house and be there and go on for what seemed like forever into the country,” he said. “I’ve run and biked and walked on the trail. My dad used to come out here with me and he used to talk about the different flowers and things you’d see throughout the year. He taught me a lot about this place and I’ve had a lot of fun.”

Big impact

The Prairie Path has been a hit with residents, and its impact isn’t just limited to the area. The trail has served as a model for many similar projects across the U.S.

With rail service declining in many parts of the country over the past few decades, abandoned rights-of-way have been popping up across the U.S. The conversion of the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin right-of-way into a popular pathway has become a blueprint for other groups to follow across the country.

Sobie said the Prairie Path still attracts national attention. While in Washington, D.C., recently, Sobie said he heard current Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood mention after a function that the Prairie Path “is the best there is anywhere.”

He urged people “to make sure they rode it.”

Ron Burke, executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, calls the Prairie Path “historic and iconic, and one of the best trails period.”

“What a treasure it is to have a ... path dedicated to people on foot and on bikes,” he said. “So much of the public right-of-way is dedicated to cars. This is quite a legacy we have here for thousands of people to use.”

The thousands of users also help area businesses, as joggers and bikers make stops along the way for lunch or a cold drink.

DuPage County Board member Grant Eckhoff said that the Prairie Path has impacted home values as well in the area.

“This is one of the jewels of DuPage County,” Eckhoff said. “We feel it increases home values in the area and makes it easier to attract and retain businesses. It’s an amenity that enhances the quality of life here in DuPage County.”

Many fans of the Prairie Path would readily agree with Eckhoff’s point of view.

“For those people who haven’t discovered this yet, I’d say get out and try it,” Barnshaw said. “For me, you can’t beat it.”

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