While initial proposals suggesting trail alignments within utility corridors met with opposition, other avenues provided greater prospects for success. By the 1970s - about the same time that cycling was making its comeback - rail transportation across the United States was near the end of a long period of steady decline brought on by the development of the Interstate Highway System. As the few surviving freight lines consolidated to remain solvent, thousands of rail miles were abandoned across the country, and Hennepin County was no exception. With Minneapolis’ former prominence as the flour milling capital of the world, rail lines had been built in all directions across Hennepin County during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like the spokes of a wheel converging at the hub, these lines pointed to St. Anthony Falls, connecting the Mill City with the wheat fields of Minnesota, the Dakotas and points west. As these right-of-ways were abandoned, the vacant corridors quickly presented opportunities for development. In 1980, the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority (HCRRA) was established with a mission to acquire these abandoned railroad corridors in order to preserve them for future use in the development of a suburban mass-transit system. However, the acquisition of these corridors was based on a long-term vision. There was little funding or political will to support immediate
development of a suburban light-rail system in 1980. To utilize the properties in the short-term, HCRRA entered into agreements with other regional agencies like the Park District to develop the abandoned rail corridors for recreational use. The properties were perfectly suited for cycling. Railroad engineers preferred straight paths at steady grades that were generally separated from other forms of traffic – a design garnering equal approval from recreational cyclists. The first of these rails-to-trails initiatives developed by the Park District followed the old lines of the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad in southwestern Hennepin County. Borne from the vacant railroad alignment, both the Minnesota River Bluffs and Lake Minnetonka LRT Regional Trails opened in the fall of 1994 – just two years after the development agreement with HCRRA was signed. In their first year of operation, roughly 80,000 visitors biked the trails. The overwhelming success of these trails helped spur development of other rails-to-trails initiatives. Throughout the late 1990s, several additional connections were completed, eventually linking the suburban Hennepin County trail system with the popular Minneapolis Midtown Greenway and Kenilworth Regional Trails in 2001. The HCRRA took advantage of another opportunity to secure a vacant rail line in the early 2000s when it purchased a former rail line running from Wayzata to St. Bonifacius. In June of 2009, the Dakota Rail Regional Trail - which follows a spur line of the Great Northern Railway along Lake Minnetonka’s scenic north shore - was completed. An estimated 350,000 visitors made use of that trail following its opening.
North Hennepin Regional Trail users in the early 1980s, prior to residential development.
image credit: Three Rivers Park District
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