Taking Roots
The trail’s origins go back to Reconstruc-
tion, when Ambrose Burnside, an incom-
petent Civil War general who gave his
name to sideburn whiskers, and partners
built the Vincennes and Cairo Railroad.
Named for its termini in Vincennes, Ind.,
and Cairo, Ill., the line opened in 1872,
when trains began transporting coal, lum-
ber, salt, apples, peaches and passengers.
Enterprising locals collected turtles out
of nearby creeks and bayous and packed
them in barrels to be shipped up to
Chicago to be made into soup.
The railroad changed hands several
times over the next century, with Norfolk
Southern as the final owner. After creation
of the interstate highway system in the
s, shipping goods to market via truck
rather than train became more common,
and by the 1960s traffic along the line
had slowed to a trickle. Norfolk Southern
ended operations on the line in 1988.
Phillip Morris, a rail fan who worked
as a barber in Vienna for 50 years,
dreamed of running an excursion and
dining train on the dormant railroad.
The Norfolk Southern said, ‘We’re in
the freight business, not the tourism
business,’” he recalls. “They told me if I
wanted to buy it I could have it for seven
million dollars.’ That’s a lot of haircuts.”
Understandably, Morris didn’t buy.
Nowadays he runs Kornbread Junction,
a dinner theater a stone’s throw from the
trail in the village of Tunnel Hill.
But others had ideas for the corridor
too. Mizell, now the director of a local
family-counseling center, was a member
of the Johnson County Revitalization
Corporation when the trains stopped
running. Much of the corridor was in
Johnson County and, he says, “When we
heard that Norfolk Southern was pulling
up the tracks, we had the idea to build a
bike trail. I contacted George Camille, a
vice president and lobbyist from the rail-
road. I bought him lunch and told him
the county was going to lose $30,000
in tax revenue from the railroad leaving.
That’s how I persuaded him [that the
company should donate the right-of-
way]. He and I talked to Governor Jim
Edgar’s office,” says Mizell, and the idea
took hold.
In 1991 Norfolk Southern donated to
Illinois the rail line right-of-way between
Harrisburg and Karnak. At the time, says
Morris,“I had no idea what a rail-trail
was. I researched the John Wayne Trail
in eastern Washington] and the Elroy-
Sparta Trail [in southern Wisconsin] and
decided this would be a good thing for
the community. Rural people don’t like
change, and there were folks who were
against it because they thought people
would come from out of town and start
stealing things. I said, ‘My God, it’s hard
to steal a plow on a bicycle.’ I got people
to sign petitions to develop the trail.”
To help fund trail construction, the
state legislature passed a bill in the early
s raising the license plate fee by
$3. Over the next decade the Illinois
Department of Natural Resources
IDNR) worked to develop the path, sur-
facing the trail and installing privy toilets
and water fountains at various trailheads.
The first segments opened in 1998 and
the trail was completed in 2001.
Bill Reynolds, the IDNR site supervi-
sor for the Tunnel Hill State Trail, agrees
with Morris that it took a while for some
locals to appreciate the path’s benefits.
Early on people were asking, ‘Where are
all these bicyclists going to come from?’
But there’s nothing else like it in this part
of the state and people come here from
all over the world. The trail goes through
seven communities and they’ve all got res-
taurants and gas stations, so they’ve had
some economic benefits. It’s been nice to
see the nonbelievers come around to see
the value of the trail.”
Trail Charms
After catching Amtrak’s Saluki train from
Chicago to Carbondale, home of Southern
Illinois University, and pedaling 40 miles
east, I arrived in Harrisburg. This town of
county seat of Saline County, was
established in the 1820s when James A.
Harris built a mule barn and sawmill here.
The Saline County Pioneer Village &
Museum, located in a former poor house
two blocks north of the trail, offers more
background on the area.
That night I chowed down on a
toothsome pulled-pork sandwich at the
Barbecue Barn and enjoyed a pint at E.L.
BrianWeiss of
Carbondale rides
across the Breeden
Trestle; (right)
local Tony Gerard
leads a nature
hike through
the surrounding
wetlands; (below-
right) the restored
depot at Stonefort
provides a historic
backdrop for Kevin
MacDonald and his
service dog, Buck.