Advocates anticipate growth with development of Rock Island Trail
WINDSOR — Kim Henderson tidies up four modest log cabins tucked a few blocks behind Main Street in this small town 90 minutes southeast of Kansas City.
“I’ve told people so many times — and I still mean it — I did the cabins more for Windsor than I did for myself,” Henderson said.
Windsor, with a population of about 2,900, is where the Katy Trail and the 47 miles of existing Rock Island Trail meet. Both are two former railroad corridors. One is now a world-famous outdoor recreation attraction. The other is only one-fourth completed.
Henderson, now a small business owner, has lived in Windsor for more than 30 years. She’s seen the benefits the Katy Trail has delivered to her community.
“It brings people here that never would have come to Windsor, Missouri,” Henderson said.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources officially acquired the 144 remaining miles of undeveloped Rock Island corridor in 2021. The plan for the trail has been in motion for much longer. Henderson eagerly awaited the creation of the Rock Island Trail and has followed the outlining maps in anticipation.
“I watched the dotted line of the 47 miles for 15 years,” Henderson said. “I watched that dotted line ... and I waited.”
When former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon made the commitment to finish the first 47 miles of Rock Island Trail before he left office, Henderson bought two plots of land near where it intersects with the Katy Trail. She began renting out her first cabin in 2015.
“My first guests weren’t even cyclists,” Henderson said.
A local Amish carpenter built two more cabins for Henderson two years later. She furnished them with items from the family-owned furniture store in Windsor. In 2018 the fourth cabin was installed, and Henderson quit her full-time job as city administrator.
“Kim’s Cabins” are often booked solid. She estimates about half her guests are cyclists. The rest are families visiting Windsor for funerals or weddings, traveling nurses, vendors of the Missouri State Fair, construction workers and folks traveling through mid-Missouri.
“I put these in thinking cyclists,” Henderson said. “... I never imagined how many people I would have that come for every other reason now, because the cabins are here.”
$69 million to zero
This spring Gov. Mike Parson announced a historic investment for the Rock Island corridor: $69 million to convert another 78-mile section into trail. He planned to use money from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.
If and when the trail is complete, due to its intersection with the Katy Trail in Windsor, it would become the longest rails-to-trails path in the world.
But Parson’s plan didn’t survive the legislative session. The Senate brought the Rock Island budget down to $0.
Legislators cited the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ backlog of deferred maintenance in other state parks and concerns from landowners along the corridor as their reasons for cutting the money.
Communities along the trail are forging ahead despite the absence of legislative support.
Mac McNally leads the volunteers who make up the Missouri Rock Island Trail group. He said lawmakers’ decision to cut funding was disheartening but by no means the end of the road.
“We’ve faced challenges before,” McNally said. “We’re going to continue to try to help source funding to get the trail built.”
The group comprises local public officials, business owners, bike and pedestrian advocates, and anyone who cares about the completion of the trail. They’re motivated by the growth they’ve seen the 240-mile Katy Trail bring to adjacent communities. A 2012 report, the latest DNR analysis, found the trail brought more than $18 million into the state of Missouri.
“It can mean a huge amount of economic stimulus for the small communities that have kind of been left by the wayside after the railroads stopped operating 30-plus years ago,” McNally said.
It’s not just local volunteers looking for funding. Representatives from the DNR and the National Parks Service have stepped in to help connect communities to grants to complete their section of trail.
“The National Park Service is proud to be a partner on this and to serve Missourians in this way,” Ashley Newson said. She works for the National Parks Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program.
Newson spent the summer helping interested communities along the trail hold meetings, identify grants and design trailheads. She said constructing portions of the trail is a great way to build momentum for the project.
Eventually each section of the trail will need to be connected. But Newson said the piece-by-piece approach shows commitment.
“That’s an important component for getting that grassroots support to then show the county or the state, like, hey, we’ve got it developed through all of our towns. Now we just need it to connect through these areas,” Newson said.
Potential to rejuvenate rural communities
Kelly Thompson describes the used book collection at her shop in downtown Windsor.
“I’m pretty heavy in the classics. I think you can’t always please everybody when they come in to get books,” Thompson said, “but if you have classics, there’s a common ground.”
Thompson moved to Windsor two years ago. Her husband, Donavan, followed a year later. Native to Southern California, they’ve lived and worked in Nevada and Saline County, Missouri.
“We’re Missourians by heart,” Donavan Thompson said.
The Thompsons opened their new shop, The Pour Poet, last month. They sell coffee, tea, pastries, used books and antiques. Kelly Thompson explains the eclectic mix.
“All of these are my passions. Everything that I have in here is my passion.”
The Thompsons bought numerous properties in Windsor, and they plan to renovate and restore all of them. Some of the properties have been vacant so long that they found newspapers from the 1940s and ’50s littered about.
Donavan Thompson had a career in construction and does all the renovations. Several people wondered: Why bother?
“Everybody tells me it was derelict and it needs to be tore down,” he said.
The back corner of one building collapsed a few months ago. Thompson took it in stride. He cleaned it up then built a new foundation and wall.
“I’m gonna fight to save it.”
Kelly Thompson said the trail was a huge factor in their decision to relocate and open small businesses in Windsor. She found a ton of information about the trail while researching the area.
“And the only place they meet is in Windsor, Missouri,” Kelly Thompson said. “That went ding, ding, ding, ding. You got a winner there.”
The Thompsons have plans for a small inn, a restoration shop and office space for the remaining properties.
“There’s a lot of plans. It’s going to take some time,” Kelly Thompson said, “but we’re not going anywhere.”
As Amish buggies roll down Main Street just outside The Pour Poet’s front windows, the Thompsons explain how they fell in love with the people and character of Windsor, and they know others will, too. They believe the Rock Island Trail expansion can breathe life into other small towns along the route.
“There’s so much heart in this town. There’s a lot of pride. There’s a lot of history,” Kelly Thompson said. “And honestly, it’s really about bringing it back.”
The end, for now
The existing Rock Island Trail meets a paved road behind the Windsor City Park and stops. Across the road is a former railroad corridor so overgrown with brush and weeds you can barely see past the first dozen feet.
Henderson is passionate that the trail is the next chapter for Rock Island towns. Trains haven’t come through for 40 years, and without access to the interstate, reusing the corridor in this way is Windsor’s best bet.
“We’re not going to have big industry again, so small towns have to think outside the box,” Henderson said.
Henderson and other trail advocates are adamant that a trail improves quality of life not only for travelers but also for residents of the small towns they bisect. Henderson can attest to the demand for lodging and thinks the intersecting trail would attract more amenities to Windsor.
“I mean it’s just a huge opportunity because we are the crossroads,” Henderson said.
Henderson’s advocacy for the trails led her to become vice president of the Missouri Rock Island Trail group. She said small towns can’t go extinct because they are “where family and friends come back to.”
After seeing the success of the Katy Trail firsthand, Henderson hopes there is more to come.
“I’ve watched the trails for so long, and known what it can do for for small towns.”
This article is part of the series, Forging Ahead, which examines stories of four communities along the Rock Island rail corridor and how they are working to develop small sections of a trail.
Forging Ahead was produced by the Missouri News Network through a project, funded by the Stanton Foundation, that explores the impact of state government on Missouri residents.
More coverage on the Rock Island Trail below.