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Messenger: Will old Rock Island rail line get new life as a trail? Missouri waits.

Messenger: Will old Rock Island rail line get new life as a trail? Missouri waits.

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New Rails to Trails project underway in Missouri - Osage River bridge

The old railroad bridge over the Osage River can be seen from rails that have been cleared for a new hiking and biking trail near Henley, Mo., on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. Photo by J.B. Forbes,

The drive through Rosebud, Mo., took me back to another era.

To a similar small town that was a shell of its former self, as though time stood still on the day the railroad stopped running.

It was in Buffalo Creek, Colo., where I met Katherine Ramus. She was in her mid-80s then, living in the historic Blue Jay Inn, a bed-and-breakfast that was once the hub of activity in the small mountain town southwest of Denver. Ramus died in 2006. She was 94.

As a child in the 1930s, Ramus would wait for the train to get to town on a summer day. Buffalo Creek was bustling then, as the Denver, South Park and Pacific railway connected the city to the mountain towns to the west. The engineer on the train had a daughter her age and he would sometimes bring her along for summer rides. On more than one occasion, Ramus would get on the train and take a day trip.

I was editor of the High Timber Times in Conifer and was interviewing Ramus for a feature story.

“What was the engineer’s name?” I asked.

With perfect recall, she remembered: Tommy St. John.

St. John was my great-great grandfather. His daughter, Bertha, was my great grandmother. It was a serendipitous moment of connection to a woman I had never met and a town I barely knew.

Rosebud strikes me as a place chock-full of those kinds of stories.

Driving west on Highway 50 as you enter the town that’s about halfway between Wildwood and Jefferson City, a steady bump of ground rising 10 feet high or so runs parallel to the road. It’s the bed of the old Rock Island line, which once connected St. Louis to Kansas City. It turns to the right as you enter Rosebud, behind Loeb’s Mill Bar and Grill and Clancy’s Irish Pub. Further east the railbed runs through the heart of Gerald, past Legion Park on one end and City Hall on the other.

Decades ago, these were the sorts of towns that, like Buffalo Creek, depended on the railroad line for much of their economy. But the Rock Island never quite reached its promise and it was abandoned decades ago.

In his last few weeks leading the state, former Gov. Jay Nixon announced a plan to revive the corridor.

Rock Island Trail map

Ameren Missouri, which owns the 144-mile abandoned railway line, planned to donate the corridor and its right of way to the state, which would then create a second cross-state bike and pedestrian trail like the Katy Trail, built on the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas railway line, along the Missouri River.

“The new trail will bolster Missouri’s position as the nation’s premier hiking and biking destination — and strengthen local economies all along its path,” Nixon, a Democrat, said at the time.

But then politics, time and money intervened.

During his first year as governor of the state, Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, put on hold some of Nixon’s work to expand the state’s park system. Even as Ameren was removing rail ties and tracks from the old Rock Island line, Greitens was suggesting there might not be enough money in the state budget to complete the new trail.

The delay now might last through next year.

On Jan. 19, the federal Surface Transportation Board, which oversees the national rails-to-trails program, gave the state an additional year to make up its mind on what to do with the old Rock Island line. By Feb. 21, 2019, the state and Ameren will have to complete negotiations on the proposed new trail, or decide to walk away from the plan.

“Now that the extension has been granted, Missouri State Parks intends to obtain a right of entry to the corridor to gain a better understanding of the condition and potential costs involved in developing a trail,” said Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Connie Patterson.

Of the more than 8,500 comments the state received when seeking input on the Rock Island proposal, an overwhelming number of them were positive, saying the trail was a “no-brainer” that would bring economic growth to rural Missouri and take advantage of the state’s growing national reputation as an outdoor recreation haven.

So Rosebud waits for its revival.

About 40 miles or so northeast of Rosebud there is the Peers Store. A few years ago this old general store that was once on the banks of the Missouri River was run down and in danger of being bulldozed. St. Louisans Dan and Connie Burkhardt bought it and this summer it will be a stopping point for bicyclists along the Katy Trail, where they might hear the sounds of bluegrass or just stop and get some ice cream. Maybe they’ll head a few miles west to the Treloar Bar & Grill for a burger.

They’ll stop and think of the train whistle from decades past, and the sounds of Missouri’s past will be kept alive.

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