May Watts

May Watts' Letter to The Chicago Tribune, 1963

This letter to the editor is credited with starting the rails to trails conversion movement first in DuPage County and then across North America. Originally published in the Chicago Tribune Letters to the Editor
Naperville, Sept. 25, 1963. We are human beings. We are able to walk upright on two feet. We need a footpath. Right now there is a chance for Chicago and its suburbs to have a footpath, a long one.

The right-of-way of the Aurora electric road lies waiting. If we have the courage and foresight, such as made possible the Long trail in Vermont, and the Appalachian trail from Maine to Georgia, and the network of public footpaths in Britain, then we can create from this strip a proud resource.

Look ahead some years into the future. Imagine yourself going for a walk on an autumn day. Choose some part of the famed Illinois footpath. Where the highway crosses it, you enter over a stile. The path lies ahead, curving around a hawthorn tree, then proceeding under the shade of a forest of sugar maple trees, dipping into a hollow with ferns, then skirting a thicket of wild plum, to straighten out for a long stretch of prairie, tall grass prairie, with big blue stem and blazing star and silphium and goldenrod.

You must go over a stile again, to cross a highway to another stile. This section is different. The grass is cut and garden flowers bloom in great beds. This part you may learn, is maintained by the Chicago Horticultural society. Beyond the garden you enter a forest again, maintained by the Morton arboretum. At its edge begins a long stretch of water with mud banks, maintained for water birds and waders, by the Chicago Ornithological society. You notice an abundance of red-fruited shrubs. The birds have the Audubon societies to thank for those. You rest on one of the stout benches provided by the Prairie club, beside a thicket of wild crab apple trees planted by the Garden Club of Illinois.

Then you walk through prairie again. Four Boy Scouts pass. They are hiking the entire length of the trail. This fulfills a requirement for some merit badge. A troop of Scouts is planting acorns in a grove of cottonwood trees. Most of the time you find yourself in prairie or woodland of native Illinois plants. These stretches of the trail need little or no upkeep. You come to one stretch, a long stretch, where nothing at all has been done. But university students are identifying and listing plants. The University of Chicago ecology department is in charge of this strip. They are watching to see what time and nature will do.

You catch occasional glimpses of bicycles flying past, along one side. The bicycles entered thru a special stile admitting them to the bicycle strip. They cannot enter the path where you walk, but can ride far and fast without being endangered by cars, and without endangering those who walk.

That is all in the future, the possible future. Right now the right of way lies waiting, and many hand are itching for it. Many bulldozers are drooling.

- May Theilgaard Watts