Prairie Path brought naturalist’s vision to reality 50 years ago

By Susan Frick Carlman
May 21, 2013 8:51PM

Source: Elgin Courier News

Mrs. Raymond Watts, one of the of the original 14 who founded the Illinois Prairie Path, walks west of Wheaton (background) in March of 1966. Leasing the path was her idea. After she had been to England, and hiked many footpaths. | Sun-Times Media file ORG XMIT: CST1304140907312665

Mrs. Raymond Watts, one of the of the original 14 who founded the Illinois Prairie Path, walks west of Wheaton (background) in March of 1966. Leasing the path was her idea. After she had been to England, and hiked many footpaths. | Sun-Times Media file ORG XMIT: CST1304140907312665

Years before anyone started talking very seriously about riverwalks and the like, May Theilgaard Watts had an idea.

“We are human beings. We are able to walk upright on two feet. We need a footpath,” the Naperville naturalist wrote in a 1963 letter to the editor. “Right now there is a chance for Chicago and its suburbs to have a footpath, a long one.”

Few anticipated that 50 years later, residents would fete the response to Watts’ words, which soon changed the region’s landscape — and the hikes, runs and bike rides taken by its residents — for good.

The Illinois Prairie Path, built by a group of intrepid volunteers spearheaded by Watts, is a linear park built around an abandoned rail line. It stretches quite a ways east to west, with a main stem that traverses DuPage County. The path today covers 61 miles in all, from Maywood to a fork near Wheaton that splits it into branches extending to Aurora and Elgin.

Along with access points from local trails, the path provides a connection to a regional non-motorized system that one day could enable residents to step out their back door, lace up their walking shoes or climb on a bike, and head for countless destinations far beyond those nearby, without once having to share the road with trucks and cars.

“We want to bring a trail experience within 10 minutes of everyone in Illinois, regardless of where they live,” said Steve Buchtel, executive director of Trails for Illinois, who sees myriad benefit to the concept. “At stake is only the health and well being of our towns, of our people, our neighbors and our friends. We want to make your home your trail head.”

Buchtel served as master of ceremonies at a presentation Saturday morning in North Central College’s Madden Theater that drew about 60 people. The program, titled “Experience the Illinois Prairie Path,” spotlighted the newly completed pedestrian and bike paths leading into the regional trail network, and the impetus for the undertaking that made it all happen — thanks to a highly motivated group of area residents.

“We are here in Naperville at North Central College because this is where the Illinois Prairie Path began,” Buchtel said. “This is mile marker zero, right here.”

The first step

The letter penned by Watts — for whom an elementary school in Indian Prairie School District 204 is named — planted the seeds of what was then a novel concept in adaptive reuse in the U.S., something that would come to be known as rails-to-trails.

An avid nature expert who had begun sharing her knowledge professionally when she was brought in to launch the education program at the Morton Arboretum in 1940, Watts was visiting England when she noticed the citizens there shared public foot paths, often winding through patches of natural areas, that were heavily used.

Back home, in her quest for locations suited to “pleasant functional walking,” she discovered the abandoned railroad right-of-way north of Naperville that had once held the tracks of the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin electric line — by then gradually becoming blighted.

“There are 53 miles of this right-of-way. Twenty-seven of them lie in our county,” Watts wrote. “The rails and ties have been removed. Prairie plants are surging back. … Here was a place to walk, leading from town to town, interrupted by a minimum of roads, well-drained, level, with open views across the Illinois countryside.”

Watts knew municipalities around the old tracks were looking at the route’s potential as a location for new roads. She saw that homeowners along the route already were unofficially stretching their backyards out toward the old rail line.

“Right now the right-of-way lies waiting, and many hands are itching for it. Many bulldozers are drooling,” Watts wrote.

Teaming up with more than a dozen others also focused on that vision, she launched on what would become a long journey through layers of government, overgrowth and crushed limestone, clearing the way for the Prairie Path.

“She helped people imagine a winding trail through prairies and forests, through cities and villages,” said Carol Doty, who was a student of Watts.

Barely two and a half years and many meetings later, the group had secured a lease to develop a 27-mile strip of prime DuPage County real estate for public enjoyment.

Working alongside Watts were more than a dozen other founders, including Jane Sindt — a significant force in the development of Naper Settlement and the Riverwalk, and founder of the city’s popular farmers market — and her husband August Sindt, Helen Turner and North Central College professor Warren Keck. Also among the formidable 14-member founding group were activists and attorneys, and Gunnar Peterson, the first executive director of the open space advocacy nonprofit Openlands, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year as well.

Teamwork at work

“The quality of that early organization does not exist in Illinois at this time,” Buchtel said.

Turner, a school teacher and neighbor of Watts, helped give words to the dream after the pivotal letter appeared in the newspaper.

“That morning May Watts showed it to me — an ‘over the fence gate’ chat — and said, ‘Let’s go see what I am asking for,’” Turner wrote in an account that appears on the Prairie Path website. “That started it. We drove out to look at the old right-of-way and to walk on it where possible.”

It’s possible now to walk, run or bike farther than ever. The Elgin and Aurora branches of the path both have spurs that provide additional connections to Geneva and Batavia, where they link with the Fox River Trail that parallels the waterway. To the east of the Batavia spur is a trail that leads to Fermilab, and east of there is the merging of the Prairie Path, near Butterfield and Winfield roads, with the trail that heads toward May Watts’ hometown.

Although the Batavia spur and the Aurora branch are closed this summer while Nicor completes an upgrade of its gas delivery system, a detour is available that uses Ferry Road and Eola Road, and the rest of the path network is open.

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