After about three years of intense work, a plan has emerged to extend Duluth's Western Waterfront Trail via a rail corridor, while still maintaining a scenic train service that would continue to use the same route.
"The goal has been unchanged all along. We've sought a win-win-win whereby we could simultaneously preserve cultural resources, provide ADA-accessible no-cost access to the public riverfront and further advance restoration of the river," said Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of public administration.
"All that has changed is the progress of our efforts to find a way to do that in the face of significant tensions between those goals," he said.
Filby Williams noted that when the process began, the cost of extending the Western Waterfront Trail alongside an operating railway — the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad — was projected to be about $22 million.
"If we were going to build it the way others had done it, there was no question that that was prohibitively expensive. So, at that time, retention of the rail appeared to be prohibitive of providing much-improved access to the river," he said.
But Filby Williams said a group of 39 stakeholders was assembled and "worked this problem ingeniously and persistently."
"Step by step, they brought the cost down so that we could afford plausibly rail with trail," he said.
The redesigned project would cost an anticipated $4.9 million to complete, but Filby Williams said: "We should be able to leverage federal and state support for a good deal of that."
Given the magnitude of the project, it will need to proceed in phases and could easily take up to a decade to complete. It will also be complicated by the fact that the trail passes through the former site of the U.S. Steel plant, which awaits a massive Superfund cleanup. That work also will likely disrupt the LS&M Railroad's operations for a couple of years.
Assistant Parks and Recreation Manager Lisa Luokkola said: "We are trying to find that balance between accessibility, restoration and cultural resource preservation. And I feel like the folks who have been with us right along the way have kind of seen the story unfold. We've done so much investigation and study. We've also brought in various experts in various areas to provide context and clarity. So, this final recommendation has been fairly well received."
The LS & M Railroad began operating in 1870, bringing rail service to the city of Duluth for the first time and fueling the city's growth. Years later, after it ceased operations, ownership of the rail corridor was transferred to the city of Duluth, and a group of volunteers started a nonprofit seasonal excursion rail service that now operates between June and October. Earlier this year, the Duluth Heritage Preservation Commission designated the railway a historic local landmark.
LS & M Railroad President Joel Mann described the development of the proposed plan as "an extremely long process."
"But I'm happy that at least it's heading in the direction we had hoped it would. We were nervous there for a while," he said.
The Duluth Parks and Recreation Commission will take up the proposed plan when it next meets on Wednesday, Nov. 13. If the commission recommends approval, the plan then will advance to the Duluth City Council for consideration.
The proposed plan would stretch the existing 3.3-mile Western Waterfront Trail another 7 miles southward, connecting it to trails running through Jay Cooke State Park. When complete, users will have access to a continuous path running clear from the North Shore's Gitchi-Gami Trail to Jay Cooke, with additional connections via the Lakewalk and Cross City Trail.
The new multi-use trail would be 8 feet wide with 1-foot shoulders on both sides for a combined 10-foot breadth. It would be covered with crushed rock and would be open to pedestrians, bicyclists, cross-country skiers and snowshoers. The path would not accommodate equestrians or motorized vehicles.
The proposed project also includes improved public water access for kayakers and canoeists.
In places, the proposed shared corridor is not wide enough for rail and trail to coexist, particularly on sections of causeway bordered by wetlands and/or open water. In those locations, the trail would need to be routed inland.
Where the rail and trail are located side by side, the path would be positioned 15 feet away from the centerline of the tracks for most of the way. But at a few squeeze points, the distance between trail and rail centerline would need to shrink, drawing them to within 4.5 feet of one another at the narrowest point.
At that section of constriction, the LS&M Railroad has agreed to stop the train and send someone ahead on foot to make sure trail users and the train don't conflict with one another.
"It's really a testament to the railroad line leadership that they're willing to make those significant operational adjustments to improve trail access. Everybody had to give a little bit to align these values and enable us to achieve this," Filby Williams said.
LS&M RR members fully understood the importance of cooperation, according to Mann, who said: "Through this whole process, we've been supportive of rail and trail."
"We conveyed to the city that we would be more than willing to do what we needed to do to make this trail work, and certainly going into this, we knew that modifying our operations may be a possibility. We don't really have a problem with that when we're operating at 10 mph and stopping for wildlife already," said Mann, noting that the train regularly yields to waterfowl on the tracks.
The trail could open new opportunities for the LS&M Railroad to attract bikers and paddlers shuttling to and from one end of the line to the other with their gear, Filby Williams said.
Mann agreed, saying, "It will make it a little more complicated, but we're excited about the potential."
New name honors indigenous history
Representatives of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa have been involved in developing the proposed plan for the Western Waterfront Trail all along the way, said Assistant Parks and Recreation Manager Lisa Luokkola. She noted that band members also played an important role in determining an appropriate new name for the path.
Luokkola said the city spent the last couple of months consulting with the band, in recognition of the fact that indigenous people have lived along the banks of the St. Louis River for nearly 14,000 years. Band representatives proposed the favored future name of the trail "Waabizheshikana" — pronounced: waa-bah-zhay-kuh-nuh — meaning "Marten way, path or road." The name pays tribute to the Ojibwe Marten Clan, which settled in the area, developing a network of paths and portages.
Alicia Kozlowski, a community relations officer for the city of Duluth who is of Ojibwe-Anishinaabe heritage, said the proposed new trail name builds on the renaming of Lake Place Park earlier this year. That park in downtown Duluth is now known as Gichi-ode' Akiing, meaning "grand heart place," earlier this year.
"There was nothing that says indigenous people were here before or that we're even here now. That is, until the park naming of Gichi-ode' Akiing," she said.
"We want to change that. We are actively changing that erasure and invisibility," Kozlowski said, adding: "Names matter."