Bike trails' popularity belie early opposition

·4 min read

Jul. 24—Take a bike ride or walk on The Red Jacket Trail, Sakatah Singing Hills or any of the others in a growing network of trails, and you see more users in the baby boomer or older category than ever before.

There are plenty of younger users, too, which is a good sign, but the ranks of the salt-and-pepper to gray-haired users keep growing. The pandemic pushed up all sorts of outdoor activities, one of the few benefits of our trying couple of years.

But the number of bikers has been steadily growing for years. Fifteen years ago about 39 million people in the U.S. biked, with the number rising to nearly 53 million in 2020. That at a time the country's growth was nearly flatlined.

More baby boomers want to do things that keep them active and healthier, but the fact that bicycling is a larger share of their activity is due to the inevitable progression of age.

The creaks and pops that can emanate from baby boomers' knees after years of running, skiing or simply because of age, has many turning to biking and its less straining impact on knees.

The phenomenon has especially propelled the sale of electric bikes where we older riders can get a little propulsion up the hills.

The two main local trails — Sakatah and Red Jacket — rival any in the state and are a joy to ride for a relaxing short trip or a long trek. The frequent shade from canopies of ash, maple, black aspen and willow are a respite on hot days. Stretches of rolling prairie and lush corn and soybean fields, marshes full of red-winged blackbirds and cormorants, bridges over creeks, all offer places to pause and reflect.

Even with roads nearby, most of the trail system provides a quiet refuge from the noise and bustle of life. It's impossible to not feel rejuvenated and happy after a ride, the rewarding feeling of exertion leaving you satisfied you did something good for your muscles, body and mind.

Those in their 40s or younger who enjoy hitting the scenic Red Jacket Trail and seeing the steady flow of people enjoying it probably don't know there was a mighty effort to prevent it from being built in the late 1980s and early '90s.

After the Milwaukee Road abandoned the railroad line that ran from Mankato to Rapidan, a group of citizens proposed development of the Red Jacket Trail. The opposition was quick and fierce with some landowners along the route saying their property values would decline and that trail users would trespass, litter and cause other mischief if a trail were built.

The Department of Natural Resources and county quickly lost interest, but a private group working with Mankato bought a portion of the railroad right-of-way from West High School to the southern city limits, creating a trail that was added to the city's park system.

By the early 1990s, a group of citizens formed a task force and pushed the county to finish the trail, including restoring and using the old Red Jacket train trestle. The county secured a grant and about one-third of landowners donated their railbed land to the county.

The rest of the landowners dug in, filed lawsuits and worked to block the trail, including tearing down a small bridge. The County Board eventually moved to acquire the rest of the land through eminent domain, a process that long dragged out in court.

In the end, the citizens group raised $54,000 in cash, $80,000 in donated lands and $11,000 in donated material, with the county highway department providing labor and equipment to develop the trail.

The trail's name is a unique footnote of history. In 1866 a flour mill was built near the junction of the Le Sueur and Blue Earth rivers. The owner painted the mill red and dubbed it "Red Jacket Mill."

The hallmark trestle crossing on the trail almost came to an end in 2010 when flooding forced the county to remove the trestle. State historic preservation officials eventually approved the county's plan to rebuild the trestle and the Federal Emergency Management Agency funded 80% of the cost, with the state funding the final $650,000 for the project.

After all of the initial opposition, it turns out the trail, and others like it, have generally increased the value and desirability of properties along them.

Tim Krohn can be contacted at tkrohn@mankatofreepress.com or 507-720-1300.