ELDON — Matt Davis gets excited when he pulls out a map of this Miller County town and imagines how to help it make the transition to a more bike-friendly environment.
Davis, superintendent of the Eldon School District, traces his fingers across the map to show the different streets that would be good for children to ride their bikes. On each quadrant of the map, he’s jotted down the number of kids from that area who ride the bus to school.
Developing the Rock Island Trail through town, he said, would give children direct bike routes to the district’s elementary and middle schools. Davis and City Administrator Donald Smith said one could bike from one side of Eldon to the other in about five minutes without breaking a sweat.
Eldon began pushing to become a more physically active community in 2013, when Capital Region Medical Center gave the town a $500,000 grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health to reduce childhood obesity by 5% over five years. Miller County at the time had one of the highest obesity rates in the state.
Davis said encouraging kids to get out in the sun and exercise can help with both physical and mental health.
“That trail just adds that extra component,” Davis said, explaining that when outsiders come to use the trail, locals likely would take notice and think: “Wow! They drove from the lake to come up here to ride, and we have it right here. Why don’t we do it?”
Building up the trail
Eldon’s push to develop the Rock Island Trail through the middle of town — and to reinvent parts of the city that surround the former rail corridor — also began in 2013. That’s when the St. Louis Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects granted Eldon’s application to develop a trail master plan in cooperation with the National Park Service.
Designers at the time realized the potential statewide reach of the trail, given Eldon’s proximity to the Lake of the Ozarks and Jefferson City. Eldon and other communities along the old Rock Island railway then petitioned AmerenUE to donate the property as a rails-to-trails venture.
Eldon has continued to work with landscape architects, the EPA, the Project for Public Spaces and the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute to establish Eldon as “Missouri’s Trail Town” and to create a master plan for how to make the city of 5,000 more friendly for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Fast forward to this year, when Gov. Mike Parson asked the legislature to include $69 million in the budget for fiscal 2023 to further develop the Rock Island Trail. The Missouri Senate killed the funding.
Davis said the legislature’s position is clear: It’s not opposed to helping with the trail if communities can amass “a ton” of private donations. “But right now they don’t want to put any dollars to it.”
Just like other towns along the former rail bed, Eldon isn’t letting the legislature stop the trail. Last year, it raised $200,000 to rebuild the old train station and make it the centerpiece of the main trailhead. High school students in a skilled-trades class did the renovation work on the building, which is now the Eldon Depot Museum & Visitors’ Center Trailhead.
“We want to be the signature trailhead for the entire Rock Island Trail. It’s right in the center,” Smith said. “Our residents will be able to use it continuously and then gradually branch out and go further away from town as their fitness improves.”
The building has become home to the Eldon Chamber of Commerce, and work continues on developing a museum related to the history of the former railroad, the surrounding area and the trail.
“We’re in the process of revitalizing this view from the train station looking up toward Maple Street. ... The buildings and a lot of businesses are still there from that era,” Smith said.
Remnants of the old rail bed remain behind the trailhead and are lined by woods on both sides. Smith envisions putting down concrete, since it’s all-weather.
If Eldon gets a Recreational Trail Program grant from the Missouri Division of State Parks in the fall, it will match 28% of the $300,000 cost of completing the trail. Construction of a 1-mile trail would begin in the spring and be done by fall 2023. The goal is to eventually get 2 miles of the trail built.
Smith also envisions converting an old railroad maintenance building near the rail corridor into an electric bike shop. Right now, it’s a metal box with a rusted roof and a wooden porch. The town is applying to have it recognized as a building of historical significance.
Smith said his first step would be to build a wrap-around deck equipped with a ramp to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. He’d also like to add electric bike-charging stations and a bench for bike repairs.
“I want to try to move Eldon to the e-bike capital in Missouri,” he said, adding that he’d like to preserve the feel of the building while also making it a cool place to stop.
Like Rock Island Trail advocates in other communities, those in Eldon believe it would provide an economic boost in a town where small businesses are key.
“Eldon is kind of a little hidden gem, and it’s really on the rise; everybody is working together,” said Cliff Simmons, co-owner of Serendipity Coffee. “The small local businesses, in my estimation, is what’s really making a difference in our area.”
Jennifer Hart, owner of Historic Randles Court, bought the motel a few blocks from the trail with the idea that she could provide lodging to visitors and a feel for the town’s history. Each room has a different historical theme, and most of the furniture and art are local. Much of it has been donated or was left behind on the property.
Recently, a local restaurant burned down. It was a service station when it was built in 1931. After the fire, Hart dedicated Room 10 to it, decorating it with old ads for the station.
Hart said one Eldon couple met at the service station.
“Last summer their son shows up with this blown-up picture of the service station and said: ‘I literally wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for this place,’ ” Hart said. “Then they come back this summer, and they brought me all these pictures and this.”
Hart holds up a blanket with a tag sewn in by her grandmother that reads: “Donated by Jackie Brave.” Brave’s mother made it from scraps back when she worked at the pants factory in town.
Hart said many of her customers are folks visiting their families in Eldon. “And that’s exciting because that wasn’t an avenue that I even realized would help sustain us.”
The Rock Island Trail will provide more opportunity. “We’ll be able to reach new travelers from all over that may have never found us otherwise.”
Simmons said Eldon has grown a lot in the two years he’s been there, but he wants people to view it as something more than just a town to pass through.
“It’s somewhere you could go and get ice cream and go walk on the street.” he said, “and I envision this whole Maple Street eventually just having all kinds of businesses and stuff on it.”
Smith wants to establish an annual festival where local and visiting bicyclists can come and experience the trail.
“I think that’s the big thing we have going is do something like that,” Smith said. “Let it grow and become a cultural event.”