The current segment of the trail that has been cleared and is ready for construction is 38 miles long connecting Windsor to Versailles.

Citizens from Eldon to Versailles turned out to get a glimpse of the proposed Rock Island Trail project at  a public meeting with representatives of Missouri State Parks.

About 130 community leaders and citizens packed the meeting room of the Morgan County Library to let their opinions of the project be known and ask questions of staff from the Missouri State Park System.  

Representatives from Missouri Department of Natural Resources, a division of the state parks, were presenting information as well as the Rock Island Trails group. The current segment of the trail that has been cleared and is ready for construction is 38 miles long connecting Windsor to Versailles. Clearing of the Versailles to Eldon corridor is still a work in progress.  

Deputy Director Mike Sutherland of Missouri State Parks estimated the operating cost of the project will be $6,494 per mile per year. There are 144 total miles that will be given to the Missouri State Parks if they choose to accept it from Ameren Missouri, the current owner.  

Sutherland said it’s not really a gift, it’s more of a responsibility that the adjoining communities will have to support and accept before the state park system decides to get on board.  

That’s what a series of three meetings being held by the Rock Island Trails group was about. Versailles was one of the three locations chosen, to give residents along the Versailles and Eldon corridor an opportunity to meet with state park representatives. 

A dozen small communities that were once thriving railroad towns now hope that Missouri State Parks will accept the gift of the old Rock Island Line from Ameren Electric, clearing the way for a recreational trail that will bring thousands of tourist to replace the revenue and jobs that left when the trains stopped running three decades ago.

In 2015 Ameren agreed to donate 144 miles – valued at many millions of dollars - after the rails and ties were removed and the surface graded. Salvage was completed this summer. Under Governor Mike Parson, Missouri State Parks is to announce its acceptance decision in late 2018. 

The first 47 miles from Pleasant Hill to Windsor opened December, 2016, Harris said, connecting the 240 mile Katy Trail State Park from STL to KC. The next 144 mile segment could be used with minimal surface improvements for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. 

MoRIT Executive Director Greg Harris said the economic impact that the completed segment at Windsor has already been realized. The small town of 2,900 people have built businesses supporting the trail system. With little more than a hotel, and a Dairy Queen, the boom of bicyclers is requiring more resources, he said. 

One enterprising lady opened such a business at the junction of the two trails three years ago. Just a small snack stand with picnic tables originally, Kim Henderson now owns Kim’s Cabins, an overnight stop for weary hikers and bikers. She is  putting in a fifth cabin. Henderson is a former city administrator for the city of Windsor who is now a full-time trail keeper, Harris said. 

That’s just one example of the impact the trail corridor can have on local communities. She has since become a full time trail keeper.  

The Missouri State Parks have a February 2019 deadline to accept ownership of the Rock Island Corridor. Community impact plays a big part in their decision on how the funding of the project can be created.  

The city of Windsor has taken ownership of some parts of the trail that are in city limits. The community of Belle has pledged money to pay for the project through their town. The undertaking seems to be connecting a lot of creative funding.  There will be costs that Missouri State Parks will cover. One such cost relates to adjoining landowners.  They will not be forced to construct fencing where their land meets the trail, but should they choose to, the state parks will provide the fencing materials.  

Adding the next 144 miles of Rock Island is expected to produce more than a 20:1 return on investment. The problem for Missouri State Parks is their agency will get little additional revenue from the trail. They are funded primarily by a 1/20 of 1 percent sales tax . The solution is to be more creative about partnerships with communities, individuals and philanthropists. Accepting the corridor is the first, necessary step, with further development happening as fast as funding allows, according to information provided by MoRIT.