The Raccoon River Valley Trail uses the former right-of-way of a railroad built in the 1870s and early ’80s to connect the city of Des Moines with the Iowa Great Lakes region in the northwest part of the state.
The first passengers saw spectacular greenbelts as the trains crossed the North Raccoon River just east of Adel and south of Jefferson, and ran alongside the Middle Raccoon River for several miles between Panora and Redfield. There were great stretches of prairie between the rivers, much of it being broken for the first time by newly-arriving settlers building farms.
The first rail company involved was the Des Moines Western Railroad Company, which became part of the Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific Railroad. The line opened in 1881 as a narrow-gauge railroad. But a decade later, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad – known in short form as the “Milwaukee Road” – had taken it over and widened it to standard gauge.
For more than 50 years, it was a popular rail line, taking many vacationers from central Iowa right to the shores of Storm Lake, the Okobojis and Big Spirit Lake. In addition, hundreds of Des Moines Register newspaper carriers would ride the train into the capital city for the annual “Register Carrier Day” parade, picnic and free-for-all at the Riverview Amusement Park
By 1952, however, when the easy availability of automobiles had changed the public’s preference in traveling, passenger service on the Milwaukee Road was discontinued. The line was used by freight trains another 35 years. In 1982, it was purchased by the Chicago and Northwestern Transportation Company, but the farm crisis in the mid 1980s led to a discontinuation of any rail service on the route. When the Chicago & Northwestern began considering abandoning the route, the Central Iowa Energy Cooperative (CIECO), an affiliate of the Central Iowa Power Cooperative, purchased the right-of-way in late 1987.
Its new life as a recreational trail was about to begin.
CIECO, the Iowa Trails Council, and the Conservation Boards from Dallas and Guthrie Counties came to an agreement in late ’87 to allow the development of a multi-use trail on the right-of-way. Initially the idea was that the power company could reclaim the route for development of a new railroad, should a need develop for a new power plant to be built along the right-of-way in west central Iowa. Until there was such a need, the conservation boards and other trails advocates were authorized to develop the trail.
The first section of the Raccoon River Valley Trail opened on Oct. 7, 1989, with a 34-mile route completed in 1990 from Waukee to Yale. A 12-mile addition from Jefferson south to Herndon was completed in 1997, with Greene County Conservation becoming part of the consortium owning and operating the RRVT. In 1999, a five-mile extension was completed east from Waukee to connect with the Green Belt Trail in the Des Moines suburb of Clive, and another five miles of trail was completed to link Herndon and Yale in northern Guthrie County.
In 2001, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, one of the state’s premier trail-developing organizations, helped the counties’ Conservation Boards complete the purchase of the right-of-way from CIECO. The purchase was made possible by an Iowa Trails Grant from the Iowa Department of Transportation.
The Natural Heritage Foundation’s Lisa Hein estimated, in 2005, that if the 56-mile route of the RRVT just became available from a railroad now, and if it were developed all at once, the cost in 2005 dollars would be $11.2 million!
Also in 2005, Cheri Ure, of rural Jefferson, an instructor in the Iowa State University College of Design, committed her senior-level design class to spend a full semester designing and planning a whole new signage system for the RRVT. Twelve students and Ure spent hundreds of hours on the project, part of which included the basic design of this Internet site. Most of that new signage system is now installed, after $50,000 was raised to cover the costs.
Meanwhile, the former railroad right-of-way on which a 33-mile “north loop” of the RRVT that was completed in 2013, was purchased in late 2007 from the Union Pacific Railroad. It runs northwest from Waukee through Dallas Center and Minburn to Perry, then swings west through Dawson and Jamaica before it intersects again with the RRVT in the unincorporated town of Herndon. The railroad removed the rails and ties on that route in late 2005.
The paved surface of the RRVT includes both asphalt and concrete. It is asphalt from Waukee west to Adel and on north to Linden; concrete from Linden through Panora to Yale; asphalt from Yale north to Winkleman Switch, and then concrete for the north four miles into Jefferson. The entire north loop is concrete. The original 34 miles of asphalt trail in Dallas and Guthrie Counties required resurfacing by the time it was 12 to 15 years old. The 24 miles in Dallas County were resurfaced in 2004 and ’05. The trail between Linden and Yale was resurfaced with concrete, starting in 2007 and being completed in 2010.
While the great stretches of prairie that enchanted railroad passengers in the 1880s are now long-gone, there are still prairie remnants visible along the RRVT. Trail users encounter all kinds of wildlife, farm animals and birds along the way, too. They also go right through new retail shopping developments in Waukee, past the booming brickyards of Adel and within two blocks of the gorgeous “French castle” Dallas County Courthouse in Adel. They go past several sites of mills and livestock shipping terminals that operated in pioneer times. They can see beautiful Lake Panorama from the trail just north of Panora. North of Cooper, they can look to the north horizon and see seven huge new wind turbines generating electricity at a “wind farm” north of Jefferson. Then, still south of Jefferson, trail users go back into dense woods, and cross a 600-foot-long railroad trestle bridge over the North Raccoon River. Then they arrive in Jefferson to hear the bells playing atop the 162-foot-tall Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower on the Greene County Courthouse Square.
Bicyclists, joggers, walkers, skaters, campers, cross-country skiers, birdwatchers, hunters, fishermen, naturalists and snowmobilers all use the RRVT, or at least those portions of the trail that are opened to specific uses.
In recent years, the Conservation Board directors, citing the reports from electrical counters along the trail, have estimated that more than 350,000 people per year are using the RRVT. With a 9-mile "connector" trail now planned between the RRVT and the popular High Trestle Trail, the number of users on both trails is expected to mushroom in the years ahead.
And that promises to bring new economic opportunities and vitality to the communities along the trail, as was the case when the railroad began bringing passengers through, nearly 140 years ago.