The recent announcement of the potential abandonment of the Iowa River Railroad from Marshalltown to Steamboat Rock is bittersweet. This railroad line has a fascinating history attached to it, and was once an important means of transportation through the Iowa River Valley going back to the 1860s, contributing greatly to the settlement of many of the communities along the line. As technology, highway infrastructure and economics have gradually shifted traffic away from this rail line, it was only a matter of time before abandonment would occur as has been the fate of so many other branch railroad lines in Iowa. As someone who is a railroading aficionado, it is unfortunate to see this finally come to pass.
However, both Marshall and Hardin County have a very unique opportunity ahead of them to preserve this corridor as a future recreational asset to the area. The development of a trail on this soon-to-be former railroad right-of-way has the potential to become a significant tourist draw, and ultimately an economic development instrument, to both counties. What makes this corridor so unique is the natural beauty that already exists along this path, thanks to the Iowa River and its adjoining Greenbelt. With the outdoor and recreational assets that already exist throughout the Iowa River Greenbelt, a trail linking these areas would be a natural fit and would greatly reinforce Marshall and Hardin County as a recreational destination to visitors from far and wide. One of the best parts about this possibility is that the infrastructure for such a trail is already there with the rail bed and bridges intact making development of trail much more feasible than trying to build something from scratch.
One does not have to look far to see the benefits that trails constructed on abandoned railroad lines are bringing to central Iowa. Here in Dallas County, construction on the north loop of the Raccoon River Valley Trail is slated for completion later this year, with some segments now complete. In the past couple of years, new restaurants, bed and breakfasts, bicycle shops and a host of other businesses have opened their doors and are already starting to reap the benefits of the trail. It's creating an infusion of new vitality in a number of small communities who have long awaited for a "shot in the arm" economically, culturally and recreationally. The High Trestle Trail is doing similar things just north of the Des Moines metro, in small communities like Slater, Madrid and Woodward. And to our north in Minnesota, ask folks in Lanesboro what the Root River Trail has done to completely turn around the former economic decay in this rural area of Minnesota.
Interestingly, most folks who were initially against such endeavors have become some of their staunchest supporters, finding that these trails actually increase land values, do not inhibit agriculture or other commercial activities and do not create many of the liability problems that are mostly misconceptions. Rather, they become a significant asset to the communities fortunate enough to have one bringing economic, health, cultural and environmental benefits with them. Consider the possibilities that something like this could bring to the communities along the line places like Albion, Liscomb, Union and Eldora. I believe that development of this corridor into a trail would rival some of the best trail systems in Iowa and surrounding states simply because of the natural beauty that already exists here, becoming the envy of several other "trail towns" in Iowa and even the Midwest. Furthermore, what a great way to preserve the history that is intertwined along this rail line.
I implore the government entities along this railroad to deeply consider the benefits of developing this corridor, if abandoned by IARR, into a recreational trail. As a native of the area, it's exciting to think about the future possibilities that could come along with such a project to Hardin and Marshall Counties.