Mark Bennett: 'Destination route' comes to life along Wabash River

·5 min read

Sep. 23—On a cold day in January, Les Zimmerman, Tom Milligan and 40 other volunteers worked to create a path through the Vermillion County wilderness.

Young people toiled alongside retirees. Adults distributed cookies and drinks. The task was one piece of a puzzle that will continue for years and many miles.

"We did a lot of clearing. We brought kids in. And there was a bunch of old guys with chainsaws," Zimmerman recalled Wednesday morning. "It was one of those days when you say, 'This is really cool.'"

Their inspiring tenacity has paid off.

Four years worth of exertion, patience and determination resulted in a new pedestrian trail. The 3/4-mile path gets officially unveiled in a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 9 a.m. Saturday, hosted by the Vermillion Trails Alliance and Parke Trails Alliance.

The trail follows the old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad bed west from the Montezuma pedestrian bridge over the Wabash River. That bridge, formerly the 1895-era B&O Railroad bridge, was abandoned in 2001, but then converted to a pedestrian crossing in 2017, thanks to a Parke County project. The bridge's east end connected to the outskirts of Montezuma, a small town with streets, sidewalks, parks and shops on the Parke County side. The bridge's west end, though, stopped there, at the forested Vermillion County line.

Now, hikers and bicyclists can continue into Vermillion County on a solid, white-rock based path with picnic tables, birdhouses and rural scenery. There's more to come. Within the next three years, the trail will extend a mile further toward the county's small towns of Hillsdale and Alta.

"A lot of people worked a lot of time to make this happen," Milligan said Wednesday as he and Zimmerman walked the trail.

Milligan, Zimmerman and others form the Vermillion Trails Alliance. The nonprofit group landed a $150,000 grant from the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Fund, a state entity funded by royalties from oil extracted from a Gibson County riverbed and overseen by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. The grant required local matching funds of 20% of its total for the new 3/4-mile trail, which visitors began using in January. The upcoming 1.1-mile extension deeper into Vermillion County will be funded by a $1.1-million grant from the state Next Level Trails initiative, which uses American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The newly completed project required hours and hours of problem-solving, and navigating details like town board meetings, state and federal criteria, land acquisition, permits, titles, public forums and other twists. A few obstacles seemed mountainous. Tenacity helped overcame those, said Zimmerman, 74, and Milligan, 69 — both retired farmers.

When volunteers initially walked the old railroad bed through the woods west of the Montezuma pedestrian bridge, they came to an area where a 440-foot long wooden trestle once spanned Little Raccoon Creek, which empties into the Wabash River near the bridge. The trails group thought the path would continue on the trestle to go over the creek valley.

"We got out here, and [the trestle] was gone," Milligan said. "And we said, 'How do we get around that?'"

Trail organizers pondered continuing the trail through the valley, but it would face frequent flooding. So, they figured a way to divert the path from the railroad bed onto an adjacent levee, for a short distance, and then reconnect it to the railroad bed. "It seemed like the impossible thing," Milligan said. "And we said, 'Let's do something different.'"

It worked. The trail's short curve atop the levee means it won't get flooded, except perhaps in extreme cases, Zimmerman said. Bainbridge excavating contractor Shannon McCullough competed the finely crushed-stone trail — built atop the aggregate of the old B&O Railroad bed — and suggested cost-saving measures along the way, helping maximize the project's funds, Milligan said. Support from the Vermillion County commissioners was crucial, too.

For now, the new trail stops at the CSX railroad tracks. The $1.1-million Next Level Trails grant, though, should help trail organizers build a pedestrian bridge over Little Raccoon, allowing the path to extend to a public crossing of the railroad tracks. The Trails Alliance plans to create a trailhead at South County Road 400 East, with amenities like a bike repair station, Zimmerman said.

Like almost every public trail project, the new Vermillion trail plans elicited some fears that it would invite crime and illegal dumping along its route, and lower property vales. "We overcame a lot of that," Zimmerman said. History has shown trails don't increase crime, and often reduce it, and they generally deliver a positive effect on property values. Studies from IUPUI and Texas A&M University researchers, among others, reflect those conclusions.

As Zimmerman and Milligan walked the trail back to the Montezuma bridge, they envisioned the new path's upsides. Families picnicking. Running events. Hiking and bicycling groups passing through. A future connection to Indianapolis' B&O Trail, Terre Haute's Heritage Trail and those in multiple west-central Indiana counties and onto Illinois. Visitors and Vermillion County residents will see portions of the county's quiet countryside that few have ever glimpsed.

"We look at this as a destination route," Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman, whose family climbs mountains — literally, plans to use the trail often himself. "While I'm still alive, I'd like to ride my bicycle from my house [in central Vermillion County] to Tasty Freeze in Montezuma," he said.

Three years from now, if all goes as planned, he'll get that chance.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or