Fifty years ago, Morton Arboretum staff naturalist, May Watts dreamed of transforming the land around the abandoned Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Electric Railroad into a prairie path.
So on Oct. 2, 1963, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune. At the time, she was 70 years-of-age.
“Right now, there is a chance for Chicago and its suburbs to have a footpath, a long one,” wrote Watts. “The right-of-way of the Aurora electric road lies waiting.
Watts likened the trek to the Long Trail in Vermont, the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, and the network of public footpaths in Britain.
“That is all in the future, the possible future . . . many hands are itching for it. Many bulldozers are drooling.”
For eight years, the bulldozers stood at the ready. Some suburban officials dreamed of cementing over the rail lines. They wanted parking lots.
But Watts was determined. And in 1971, the Illinois Prairie Path (IPP) became the country’s first rails-to-trails transformation.
Today, the 61-mile nature trail delights hikers, bikers, joggers, and horse enthusiasts. The path meanders through Cook, DuPage, and Kane counties. Volunteers maintain the trails just as Watts would have wanted.
Every April, the Voluntary Chairman of the Friends of the Great Western Trails, Don Kirchenberg, organizes a clean-up project for that branch of the trail.
“If you enjoy the trails, don't take them for granted,” said Kirchenberg. “Contact your local, county and state level elected officials. Encourage them to continually support and maintain the trails.”
At least for the next 50 years.