Bats darted throughout the cool, dark Tunnel No. 3 beneath Eugene on Thursday as about 20 people escaped the humid afternoon heat to stroll through the Rock Island Line Corridor tunnel.
The group was led by Ameren Vice President Warren Wood, followed by members of trail advocacy group Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc. and the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Trailblazers.
Ameren, a major regional utility company, intends to donate 144 miles of the abandoned Rock Island rail corridor to Missouri State Parks for a recreational trail that could connect with the Katy Trail to create an ambitious state loop that proponents, like MORIT, laud as a potential economic windfall for communities around Missouri. The parks department is considering the associated costs and benefits of creating a world-class loop and plan to announce its decision in by December.
The Trailblazers are a group of cyclists who meet for an annual ride on trails that have been converted from former railway lines throughout the nation. This year, their members gathered in Missouri from states like New York, Michigan and California. The Trailblazers set off on a more than 180-mile ride Tuesday from Medford on the Rock Island Spur then transferred at Windsor to the Katy Trail, upon which they rode into Jefferson City on Thursday before heading to Hermann the next day.
Trailblazer Bob Clay, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, said this was his second trip on the Katy Trail in his 20 years riding conservancy trails.
"It's relaxing to just get out and ride," he said. "It's fun to be with people who come from all over the country who have similar interests."
Clay said Missouri already has great trails, and he is excited by the prospect of the system expanding with the Rock Island Trail.
"You've got so many people who are enthusiastic about it, so I'm very impressed with that," he said.
MORIT President Rick Peth stressed creation of the Rock Island Trail is not a sure thing yet, and he encouraged proponents to voice support of the trail and consider donating to efforts to help convert the former railroad into a nature trail that will connect 23 communities and potentially bring an economic boom to those areas.
"This kind of opportunity doesn't come around very often," he said.
The Trailblazers were invited to join a tour of a 1,600-foot-long tunnel, built in 1903, which may become a feature of the Rock Island Trail if Missouri State Parks accepts the corridor donation from Ameren.
Eugene resident Emily Kliethermes was excited to see the group park at the edge of town near the corridor because she is excited for the trail construction to begin so she can use the trail herself.
"Is it starting?" she asked as the group exited their passenger vans.
Wood led the group through the woods toward the corridor, saying, "This used to be a largely abandoned rail bed for years. (Ameren) owns it, and the Rock Island Trail reached out to us and said, 'What are you going to do with this thing?' We asked what kind of interest they had, and the next thing we know, they drop off boxes of about (12,000) letters from Missouri and other countries and other states, and we were really impress that this could be a world-class destination and one of the longest loop bike trails we would have in the world, certainly in the United States."
The air cooled as the group entered the damp, 1,600-foot tunnel. A distant light peaked from behind a slight bend on the far side. As they walked over the gravel rail bed, Wood commented on how well the concrete walls have lasted after more than a century holding back the cut rock on the other side.
Upon reaching the other side of the tunnel, Wood told the group that someday the tunnel may have solar-powered LED lights installed low in the walls to illuminate the way for trail users, but impatient Trailblazers said they would have their bike lanterns ready to ride through the dark with the bats as soon as they get the chance.