• Posted Aug 25, 2013
This review was written by Laura Stark for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. View Original

From nostalgic train buffs to cherubic Thomas the Tank Engine aficionados, the Trolley Trail in north-central Iowa has something for everyone. Although only six miles long, there are so many nearby attractions that a visitor could easily make a day trip out of it.

Brian Pauly, superintendent of recreation for Mason City, lives four blocks from the Trolley Trail. "It's a great trail that links Mason City and Clear Lake," he says. "There are unique recreational opportunities in both towns and the trail allows access to both."

The trail gets its name from the trolley line it parallels that began shuttling passengers between the two towns in 1897. Although it stopped carrying passengers in 1936, the Iowa Traction Railway continues to ship cargo. "It's the last electric freight railroad in North America," says Michael Johns, the general manager for the Iowa Traction Railway.

"It works the industries on the west side of Mason City," says Dennis Wilson, chairman of the Friends of the 457, a local volunteer group. "A lot of people come and photograph it."

Trains run several times a week, but when asked if they posed a risk for trail-goers, Johns says there are no safety concerns. This comes as no surprise to Kelly Pack, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy trail development director and the lead author of a new report on rail-with-trail projects like this one.

"It's been more than a decade since the last rail-with-trail report and we've seen a substantial growth in rail-with-trails around the country," says Pack. "And they continue to have an excellent safety record." The new report, anticipated to come out in July, will provide examples of rail-with-trail projects of varying lengths and styles, as well as updated technical resources and contacts for the trail-building community.

Before the Trolley Trail was built, the danger for bicyclists and walkers in the community wasn't trainsit was cars. Precipitating the push for the trail in 1988 was a tragic accident in which a teenager was killed as he was biking along the road between Mason City and Clear Lake. When the Trolley Trail was opened to the public in 1990, it was a welcome addition to the surrounding communities. Efforts now center on making more of these essential connections.

"Our goal is to make Mason City a bikeable and walkable user-friendly community," says Bill Stangler, the city's operations and maintenance manager. "We have a number of trails, but they just start and end. The concept is to link everything together." Mason City is also working on a Complete Streets initiative."

Long ago, Mason City sported a transportation network of another kind: railroads. "Mason City was a railroad hub a hundred years ago," says Johns. "At least five big railroads were in town."

An unusual remnant of this industrial past is Big Blue, an old quarry pit at the east end of the Trolley Trail that naturally filled with water over the years and is now a recreational hot spot, especially for fishing. Scuba divers that venture into its 80-foot depths can still see old mining equipment.

Less than two miles from Big Blue is a reminder of the town's more elegant past. Last year, Condé Nast Traveler named Mason City one of the World's Best Cities for Architecture Lovers, due to the large collection of "Prairie School" buildings in the community. This style of architecture, designed to be reminiscent of expansive prairie landscapes, was made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright, himself a Midwesterner, who lived in Mason City in the early 20th century. Wright's Stockman House, constructed in 1908, is now an interpretative center and can be toured. A few blocks away the Historic Park Inn Hotel, the last remaining hotel that he designed, is also worth a visit.






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