Trails History

The Railroad

The combination of the Rock Island Greenway and the Rock Island State Trail extend from Peoria to the town of Toulon, 32 miles of rail-trail.

These two connected rail-trails are along the right-of-way of the former Rock Island & Peoria Railroad (RI&P). The railroad originally ran northwest from Peoria connecting with the City of Rock Island on the Mississippi River.

Evolution into a Trail

The Rock Island State Trail

The rails and ties from Alta to Toulon were removed by 1960 and the right-of-way grew wild with trees, prairie grass and flowering native plants. In 1965, Peoria’s Forest Park Foundation, under the leadership of William Rutherford, acquired the abandoned RI&P right-of-way from Alta to Toulon. The Foundation donated the property to the State of Illinois in 1969 for the purpose of constructing a recreation trail – a “linear park” – along that length of the former rail line.

It is probable that no piece of public land in Illinois ever caused so much controversy as the proposed Rock Island State Trail. It was to be the state’s first “rails-to-trails” project. Construction of several bridges and improvement to the surface began in 1975.

However a group opposed to the project sprang up immediately. Their objective was for the property owners on each side of the right-of-way to claim the property for their personal ownership. The group brought legal challenges which caused the construction to be halted in December, 1975. Emotions ran high with some vandalism committed by the opponents including setting fire to a newly competed wooden deck of the Spoon River Bridge.

Trail advocates volunteered to work on the construction, under the leadership of The Friends of the Rock Island Trail (FRIT). George Burrier was the first president of FRIT and served in that capacity for 28 years. The state legislature finally permitted the project to go forward with a combination of contractors paid by the state and work by volunteers. The first five-mile segment between Dunlap and Princeville opened to the public in 1981, followed by other segments over the next several years.

The Rock Island Greenway

The ten mile mile portion of the RI&P that ran from downtown Peoria northward to Pioneer Park remained in place after the abandonment of the rail line north of Alta. This was because several clients still used the line RI&P occasionally for deliveries of freight.

This portion of the railroad was called the Kellar Branch Line. In 1984, the Kellar Branch was abandoned by the bankrupt Chicago Rock Island and Pacific Railway Company. The City of Peoria and the Village of Peoria Heights acquired the line for $875,000 with additional expenses that brought the total cost to $1.3 million and leased it to Peoria and Pekin Union Railroad(P&PU) for 20 years. It was estimated that 264 railcars annually would be required to retire the debt. Usage was far less than that projection. The P&PU could not increase the traffic on the line and appealed for financial assistance from the communities who refused the request.

In 1997, P&PU assigned their remaining interest in the 20 year lease (seven years) to Pioneer Industrial Railcorp, (PIR). That same year, as there was no rail business on the line, Peoria Park District proposed to convert the rail line into a recreation trail.

In 2000, PIR parked rail cars on the line to stop hikers from using the trail for a group hike. In 2004, PIR refused to abandon the line even after the 20 year lease agreement expired. The Federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) supported PIR in this claim rather than the communities which owned the railroad.

In 2005, The City of Peoria committed to build a rail link to connect the end of the Kellar Branch Railroad with the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad to serve any possible customers in Pioneer Industrial Park and obviate the need for the Kellar BranchTo date: there has not yet been a single railcar to use this new link to serve any customer within Pioneer Industrial Park.

Finally, in 2008, PIR and another short line railroad which had become involved, along with one former rail customer in Pioneer Industrial Park, demanded to be “bought out” before they will give up their claim to the Kellar Branch.

In 2009, upon agreement with the payoff, the communities and the two railroads petitioned the STB to rail bank the Kellar Branch and permit a portion of the line to be converted into a recreation trail. In 2010, The STB agreed. The two railroads and the former rail customer were paid off so the trail could be built.

The Trails Today

The Rock Island Greenway extends along the former rail bed from War Memorial Drive in Peoria 6 miles to Alta just north of Peoria where it joins the 26 mile long Rock Island State Trail. The combination of these two rail trails now extend through the towns of Dunlap, Princeville, Wyoming and ends at Toulon.

In 2014, the Peoria Park District dedicated a new $8.1 million trail bridge over Knoxville Ave. near the Junction City Shopping Center. The new bridge allows trail users to travel more quickly and safely, while still allowing access to Junction City. Former Congressman and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was on hand for the dedication ceremony.