Illinois Prairie Path marks 60 years since the start of rails-to-trails movement

Inspired? Speak up!

Thanks to naturalist May Theilgaard Watts's vision, bikers and trail users are now reaping the benefits in Cook, DuPage and Kane counties.

Her September 1963 letter to the Chicago Tribune proposing a nature corridor to replace the abandoned Chicago, Aurora and Elgin electric rail line led not only to "a proud resource," the Illinois Prairie Path, but also a national rails-to-trails movement.

Watts imagined abundant native prairies and woodlands, Scouts earning badges, students observing nature, bikers riding "far and fast without being endangered by cars."

Fast forward 60 years and her vision is spot on. The 62-mile Illinois Prairie Path welcomes bikers, runners, birders, and nature lovers.

Three main branches converge at Wheaton's zero mile-marker: the Main Stem west from Maywood and the eastward branches from Aurora and Elgin on the Fox River.

The Batavia spur trail connects to the Aurora branch, one from Geneva to the Elgin branch.

To honor its 60th anniversary, the Illinois Prairie Path not-for-profit corporation (IPPc) and Glen Ellyn Park District are hosting family bike rides on Saturday, Sept. 30.

The leisurely 3- and 10-mile rides roll from 1 to 4 p.m. from Glen Ellyn's Prairie Path Park, between Forest Avenue and Park Boulevard, with frequent stops to explain prairie path history and amenities. Nonriders are welcome.

Per IPPc board member Ken McClurg, ride leaders will include DuPage County amateur historians Brian and Joyce Ostberg.

Since retiring, respectively, as scientists from AT&T Bell Labs and Abbott Labs, the Ostbergs have researched the Illinois Prairie Path as part of their BeHistoric video channel.

"Our first series focused on the CA & E Railroad and Winfield Mounds - sites of historic and prehistoric interest," Brian Ostberg said. "Many railway artifacts still linger along the former right-of-way: bridges, culverts, signal bases, etc.

"We've spent many hours cycling and walking, looking for and documenting CA & E artifacts. Along the Elgin branch alone, we've documented about 80 artifacts thus far - a bit of a treasure hunt."

A good summation is their video: "History and Prehistory along the Illinois Prairie Path."

The celebration also includes music, games and giveaways, anniversary souvenirs, food from Heavenly Hot Dogs, and goody bags for registered participants.

Five anniversary sweatshirts will be raffled. Register for the free event at

Rails-to-Trails Movement

In his 2023 edition of "Best Rail Trails Illinois," Chicago author Ted Villaire provides maps, trail characteristics - length, surface, difficulty - parking access and historical notes, among other information, for more than 40 rail-trails across Illinois, including two sections covering the Illinois Prairie Path.

Villaire notes that Watts's letter, and the outpouring of local support it generated, helped inspire the national rail-trails movement.

While some argue Wisconsin's 32-mile Elroy-Sparta State Trail opened before the Illinois Prairie Path, Brandi Horton, vice president of communications for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, declared the Illinois Prairie Path very significant to the national movement.

Located in densely populated metropolitan Chicago vs. rural Wisconsin, Illinois Prairie Path's underlying concept garnered widespread public attention.

Today, more than 2,000 U.S. rail-trails exist, extending over 25,000 miles, roughly 10% of the nation's total railroad network at its height.

Illinois currently claims 1,063 miles of rail-trails, eighth among U.S. states in mileage.

Volunteers are key

From an original 14 founders to over 800 members today, Illinois Prairie Path volunteers have played important roles working alongside numerous governmental organizations. Watts and colleagues spread the corridor preservation notion widely, collaborating with regional authorities, plus state and federal legislators.

While most trail maintenance is done by governmental entities, volunteers continue similar collaborative efforts like scheduling cleanups and weed/brush removal events at trailheads, resting areas, kiosks and near mile markers. Approximately 400 volunteers turned out April 29 for the annual cleanup headed by 19 site coordinators on both the Illinois Prairie Path and nearby Great Western Trail.

"IPPc purchases some amenities," like informational signs, benches, kiosks and mile marker posts, McClurg said, noting a new water fountain at Wheaton's mile zero.

"But municipalities and the county also purchase and install amenities."

IPPc recently donated $23,000 for the Founders Memorial kiosk unveiled at the July 27 ribbon-cutting of the new Warrenville trailhead. While IPPc did not lead that trailhead project, it still shaped the outcome along with multiple municipal and county entities.

Trail advocates continue to envision even more improvements. An eastern extension is proposed, leading from its First Avenue terminus in Maywood to Forest Park's CTA Blue Line, less than a mile away.

IPPc board member Ralph DiFebo said, "Construction of this extension is key to closing the gap between the Salt Creek Path, Prairie Path and proposed Des Plaines River Trail."

A Forest Park resident, DiFebo has fostered this extension since 2017-18.

"Brandon Johnson (now Chicago Mayor Johnson) had just been elected Cook County Commissioner in 2018. I approached him before he was sworn in. He really liked the idea and has been one of its biggest backers ever since," DiFebo said.

"He and his staff helped us navigate various county departments to get us to where we are today. Commissioner Tara Stamps succeeded Johnson and is as committed as he was to see the project completed."

Superhero Hustle

Watts's "proud resource" will host another anniversary celebration on Saturday, Sept. 30.

Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley's 20th Superhero Hustle: Run for the Kids, a 5K run and 2-mile walk along the Illinois Prairie Path and streets in Villa Park, starts at 7:30 a.m. at the Rosalie Dold Center, 830 S. Addison in Villa Park.

Besides superheroes, this fundraiser boasts live music from Northern Trust's band The Exceptions, the Legoland Discovery Center, LaGrange Area Department of Special Education, and the Jesse White Tumblers.

Cost is $30. Register by Thursday, Sept. 28, at

• Join the ride. Contact Ralph Banasiak at

The recently installed Founders Memorial salutes May Theilgaard Watts and colleagues at the Warrenville trailhead. Courtesy of Jeremy Behnken/Recycled Cycling Bike Shop
The Warrenville trailhead at Butterfield and Batavia roads was dedicated on July 27. Courtesy of Jeremy Behnken/Recycled Cycling Bike Shop
Runners take off at the 2022 <a href="">Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley</a> Superhero Hustle: Run for the Kids. This year's event will be held Saturday, Sept. 30, beginning in Villa Park. Courtesy of EasterSeals DuPage & Fox Valley
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