8. Rails-to-Trails Conversion It only took 6 years to build the Joliet and Northern Indiana railroad. The original plank road company was formed in 1849 and the inaugural run of the railroad was in 1855. It took over 20 years to unbuild the railroad. Railroad service had been discontinued for 4 years when many Penn Central rail lines were taken over by Conrail in 1976. It was at this time that the first moves were taken to buy the right-of-way and convert it to other uses. It took 20 years to get the job done. In 1975 when the abandonment story hit the papers, the Will County Forest Preserve District organized a group of 14 municipalities to submit a federal Land and Water Conservation grant request. The request was turned down. In the late 1970s area residents started using the abandoned railroad as a walking trail. Around the same time the "Illinois Natural Areas Inventory" brought to light the extent of original prairie remnants along the abandoned right-of-way. In 1980 a Trail Association was formed by a group of Park Forest citizens. Carl Glassford, a Homewood resident, was elected the first director. In 1982, Craig Hullinger, a planning consultant who worked for both Will County and the Village of Frankfort and Bob Sullivan from Orland Park produced a plan for the right-of-way. Hullinger was concerned that the project name, "Abandoned Penn Central Railroad Right-of-Way," didn't have the magic to stir men's souls. Recalling the "Oswego and Indiana Plank Road" name that had been proposed for the route in 1849, they decided to call their new plan the "Old Plank Road Trail." That same year, 1982, Tom Hahn started working at the Openland Project in Chicago. It was associated with a conservation group called CorLands. One of the first things Tom did on his new job was to give a talk about the proposed OPRT. Hahn was intrigued by the trail proposal and decided to have the Chicago Title and Trust company do title searches on the original deeds to the right-of-way property. The title company discovered reversion clauses in the original deeds that they thought might impede a rail-trail conversion. The next group to get involved in the trail project was the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). They investigated condemning the right-of-way and building a bikeway. In the mid-eighties local opposition to the trail surfaced and became organized. Vocal opposition and some lobbying in Springfield appeared to cool IDOTs support for the trail. Later in the decade, local voters passed a non-binding referendum opposed to using tax dollars for a trail. As the opposition grew, supporters of the trail also decided to organize. The Sierra Club, local conservation groups, and The Nature Conservancy became more involved. A special support group called the "Old Plank Road Trail Association," was formed to raise public awareness, publish a newsletter and organize special events. In response to local opposition, IDOT disengaged from trail acquisition activities in Will County and concentrated on the Cook County portion. Then in 1988 Will County voters approved a referendum for a $50 million bond issue for forest preserve land acquistion. The funding to buy the trail property was in place. The Old Plank Road Trail Management Commission was formed in 1988 to coordinate the activities of the five governments along the right-of-way (Park Forest, Matteson, Frankfort, Rich Township, and the Will County Forest Preserve District). Citizens continued to agitate against the trail with legislators in Springfield. In 1991 the Illinois Legislature responded by drafting a law restricting the powers of county forest preserve districts. Before signing the bill, Governor Jim Edgar amended the draft because he thought it restricted forest preserve district powers too much. In 1992 the Will County Forest Preserve was awarded a $1 million grant from the Illinois Bicycle Path Grant Program. The 20-mile stretch of Penn Central right-of-way was finally bought for $3.4 million in December of 1992. An Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program (ISTEA) grant of $1,662,935 was awarded for trail development costs by IDOT in 1993 and another $200,000 was received from the Illinois Department of Conservation's Bikeways program. Ground was broken for trail construction during the summer of 1996 and the first 12 miles were paved by the next spring. On April 3, 1997 the CorTen steel bridge over U.S. 30 was installed to connect the OPRT to the Hickory Creek Preserve and on July 19 the trail was opened for use with a progressive ribbon cutting along the trail.
photo by Jim Nugent
Old Plank Road Trail
A 22-mile recreation and nature trail in northeastern Illinois
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