Old Plank Road Trail turns 25

The first section of this former trail line opened July 19, 1997

|  Story by Cindy Cain |

7/15/2022

The Old Plank Road Trail, the first rails-to-trails conversion project in Will County, is turning 25 this month.

The first section of the trail, which stretched from Western Avenue in Park Forest to Hickory Creek Preserve in Mokena, opened July 19, 1997.

The path took years to plan and involved many people and organizations to make it a reality, said Ralph Schultz, the Forest Preserve District’s executive director.

"The OPRT was our first rail-trail conversion and would not have been possible without local advocates and volunteers as well as the commitment of our municipal partners in preserving the corridor and funding the development and maintenance of the trail,” he said. “The OPRT also was our first regional trail and our first project funded with federal transportation funding.”

The original route dates to the 1800s when Native Americans, explorers and fur traders used the corridor to travel locally, regionally and to Canada, according to the OPRT website. Later, European settlers used the route as they searched for land. The corridor became a plank road from Plainfield to Joliet and was later converted into a rail line.

When the Forest Preserve learned that Penn Central Railroad was abandoning the route in 1976, an idea sprouted to convert the rail line into a trail. Rail-to-trail conversions made sense because the routes were already flat, the property rights were secured and there was often shade or a scenic view along the line.

A coalition formed to purchase the property and make the trail a reality. And Illinois Bicycle Path grants were obtained to make the path financially feasible.

Since the grand opening in 1997, the trail has been extended west to Washington Street in Joliet and east to Chicago Heights, where it joins Thorn Creek Trail in Cook County.

The OPRT was the first, but not the last, of rail line conversions in Will County. The Forest Preserve went on to convert two other former rail lines into the Wauponsee Glacial Trail and the Joliet Junction Trail.

Schultz, who oversaw the design and construction of the first phase of the OPRT through the mid-1990s, said the Wauponsee and Joliet Junction trails each provide unique experiences for trail users, but they both are patterned off the OPRT.

“We believe that these trails are part of the fabric of the communities they serve and offer users a safe way to exercise their mind and body and experience a little bit of the nature around them,” Schultz said. “The Forest Preserve will continue to look for opportunities to connect our forest preserves and communities in the future to replicate the utility and opportunity that regional trails like the OPRT offer.”

(Photos by Glenn P. Knoblock)

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