It was in 1976 that Forest Preserve staff learned that Penn Central Railroad was to abandon the use of one of its rail lines. Because the rail line ran through many small towns and villages, in close proximity to schools, parks and forest preserves, the public and local municipalities quickly embraced the idea of creating a regional trail. A coalition of groups, including the Forest Preserve District, Openlands Project (now Openlands), the Illinois Department of Conservation (today’s Illinois Department of Natural Resources), Rich Township and the villages of Park Forest, Matteson and Frankfort, formed to purchase the property.
Ralph Schultz, chief operating officer for the Forest Preserve District, said that staff viewed the Old Plank Road Trail as a gateway to future trail development. “The Forest Preserve’s early trail planning efforts envisioned a network of trails along abandoned railways and greenways that crisscrossed the county, connecting our communities and open spaces,” he explained. “The Old Plank Road Trail was an integral part of those plans.”
Abandoned rail lines were perfect for this kind of conversion. All earth work had already been done by the railroads when they created the rail line, providing a flat, largely linear rail bed. These rail lines also included the property rights-of-way, which often had been left with trees and other vegetation to provide shade and a scenic nature backdrop for trail users.
Sixteen years after the trail opened, the Conservancy selected the Old Plank Road Trail as its “Trail of the Month” for October 2013. The national organization’s website ran an article that detailed the two decades-long effort to convert the abandoned rail line to a recreational trail, described the features along the trail and recounted the creation of the Old Plank Road Trail Management Commission, a cooperative, government agency comprised of the communities involved in the trail’s development.
The vision for the project was to create a 21-mile-long recreational trail from the Village of Park Forest in Cook County to Washington Street in Joliet. The Old Plank Road Management Commission was formed in 1988 from six different agencies: the Forest Preserve District of Will County; the villages of Park Forest, Matteson and Frankfort; Rich Township; and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Each would have jurisdiction over segments of the trail, with the Forest Preserve managing more than 12 miles total.
Critical to making the Old Plank Road Trail a reality was outside funding. The Illinois Bicycle Path Grant Program at that time provided matching grants to local government agencies to buy and develop bicycle trails. In October 1992, the Forest Preserve District was awarded just over $1.01 million to buy 11.6 miles of the rail line, while Rich Township and the villages of Frankfort, Matteson and Park Forest received $651,000 in total to purchase 7.5 miles of the rail line.
With the completion of the final two sections, which extended the trail westward from the Forest Preserve’s Hickory Creek Preserve – Hickory Creek Junction access in Mokena to Washington Street in Joliet, residents of Chicago Heights, Park Forest, Richton Park, Matteson, Frankfort, New Lenox and Joliet were provided with a 10-foot wide, asphalt trail that joined these communities together.