On Friday, the city of Merrill closed on the purchase of land from Canadian National Railroad for the purpose of constructing the River Bend Trail. The River District Development Foundation, a group of volunteers, raised the funds necessary to purchase the property through their capital campaign drive that kicked off in April. The recreational trail will be owned by the City of Merrill and the volunteers will continue to raise funds for the actual construction of the trail.
Larry Hampel, who will chair the foundation’s construction committee, said the property purchase is the “first giant step” of the project.
“We’ll be continuing with fund raising. We still have a ways to go. We’re shooting for one million and we’ve got about $300,000,” Hampel said.
Planning and fund raising will continue through the winter in the hopes that construction can get underway next year, Hampel added.
City Administrator Dave Johnson agreed that the project has reached a significant milestone. “Now that we have the property, we will be working with the foundation to move forward with the trail. I can’t wait for it to be done. It will be a nice asset for the city,” he said.
As an organization, the foundation can’t get grants or purchase property, but will fund the project.
“There should be no taxpayer money used for this project,” Hampel said.
The trail will be 10-foot wide, paved and shouldered, with some bump outs for benches at scenic views.
The property purchased from Canadian National begins on the east end behind the Cosmo Theatre, runs behind Weinbrenner Shoe Company, along Stange Street, crosses West Main Street and dead ends near the Lincoln Wood Products property. The property purchase includes about 1.2 miles of railroad right of way, ranging from 25 to 100 feet wide, totaling about 13 acres.
The railroad bed from West Main Street to Lincoln Wood won’t be immediately developed, however. The plan is to route the trail onto Cottage Street and then Grand Avenue to reach the Merrill Area Recreation Complex and Council Grounds beyond.
The foundation has done well to raise the money needed to purchase the trail, and members expect enthusiasm for the project to spread now that the land is in the city’s hands.
“I think people may have been hesitant that we were really going to do this,” said Foundation member Mike Willman. “There may be people waiting in the wings who now see that it’s going to happen.”
“We now have something tangible to show them,” Hampel added.
Wisconsin has been a national leader in the rails-to-trails initiative. The Elroy-Sparta Trail, developed in the early 1970s, was the first in the nation. There are now 63 trails in Wisconsin.
Art Spiros, real estate consultant for Canadian National Railroad, said the land sale in Merrill is somewhat unusual, as the buyer is a local municipality. Most railroad right of way purchases for recreational trails go through the Wisconsin DNR.
“This case is unique,” Spiros said. “The DNR is very aggressive in purchasing a lot of abandoned right of way.”
Since 1987, Canadian National Railway and its subsidiary Wisconsin Central Ltd. have sold several hundred miles of abandoned right of way for recreational trails.
The right of way now owned by the city of Merrill had been in the hands of the railroad for well over 100 years, dating back to the Milwaukee Road. Known as the New Wood Line, the railroad connected Merrill to the Northwoods. The majority of the line was abandoned in the 1940s, with just the southern end at Merrill remaining. The tracks in the city were pulled out two years ago.