Photo by Connor Cummiskey

Jack Edmunds, left, and Princeton Community Development Director Stephanie Hillesheim discuss one of the gaps in the Great Northern Trail during a June 16 public engagement event in the Great Northern Depot Museum.

Public weighed in on how to fully connect the Great Northern Trail between Milaca, Elk River

by Connor Cummiskey

APG of East Central Minnesota

The public weighed in on the Great Northern Trail, a recreational trail running from Elk River to Milaca.

Dozens of people visited the Great Northern Depot Museum in Princeton June 16 to view options for the new trail.

The 30-mile trail, which has been in the works for over 30 years, is already paved from Elk River up to Zimmerman. It runs along the former bed of the Great Northern Railroad — a transcontinental track running from St. Paul to Seattle, Washington, that later merged to form the Burlington Northern Railroad.

After the track was abandoned, Burlington Northern Rail sold off the land to adjacent property owners after offering it to local municipalities, according to Dave Anderson, a longtime member of the Elk River Parks and Recreation Board.

Now there are 13 gaps in the portion of the railroad grade that is publicly owned between Zimmerman and Milaca. The June 16 event, along with a virtual survey, sought feedback from the public on the options for bridging these gaps.

“We really want the communities’ input on how to get around the gaps in the ownership of the trail corridor so that we can successfully extend the Great Northern Trail on the full extent of the historic bed,” Sherburne County Parks Coordinator Gina Hugo said.

During the event, visitors could view a series of boards that displayed each gap in the line and what options were available.

Mary and Harold Steward, of Elk River, said they enjoyed the trail because it feels safer to ride on than a road and offers a scenic view to cyclists. Harold said he wondered about some of the options that would keep the route close to the downtowns of cities it passed through.

He said it would probably be good for business, but wondered if it would take longer and cost more than the routes that ran closer to the outskirts of each city.

Guests were invited to vote on the alignment of their choice by sticking a green dot on their preference and use sticky notes to voice concerns and comments.

This event was the result of decades of work by dedicated individuals. In the early 1990s the Sherburne County Park Committee met for the first time, which is when Anderson said he first floated the idea of turning the whole railroad grade into a recreational trail.

In 1999 the Railroad Trail Task Force, a subcommittee of the park commission, met for the first time, according to member Ron Burley. Members of the task force, including Burley and Wanda Thoreson, who was president of the task force for years, examined the route of the former railroad to find the adjacent properties.

The task force sought out the parcels of private property that were adjacent to the former railroad and began floating the idea of the trail to those property owners, according to Burley.

While some liked the idea, many property owners were indifferent or opposed the idea, according to Burley. Anderson and Burley both credit former Sherburne County Sheriff Bruce Anderson, who was retired at the time, with convincing many of the property owners to allow the trail to reach Zimmerman.

Motorized use

During the event the public also voted on how much of the trail would be available to motorized vehicles. Three options were presented: no motorized use at all, motorized use allowed between Princeton and Milaca or motorized use allowed between Princeton and Pease.

Most votes, eight total, were cast for no motorized use at all. Two votes were cast for motorized use between Princeton and Milaca and no votes were cast for use between Princeton and Pease.

The next step is to begin planning for phased construction as well as how to garner the funding for the project, according to Sherburne County Parks Coordinator Gina Hugo.

Read more about the gaps here..

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