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Lehigh Portland trail complex draws rave reviews

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aturday’s dedication of a new hiking and biking trail south of Iola included a lesson on the value of perseverance.

John McRae, former Iola mayor and on the board of Iola Industries, told a gathering of about 125 that when the Lehigh Portland cement plant south of Iola closed almost 50 years ago, local officials struggled to find a suitable replacement not only in terms of jobs lost but also as a site. 

Eventually, Gates Corporation was built on one portion of the land, with other smaller industries scattered about, including D of K Vaults and T&E Company. 

But a large swath of the land was considered pretty much inacessible because of its hilly terrain, and “we wondered what could possibly happen to it that would be good,” McRae said of Iola Industries, which owns the land.

For more than 40 years, “there was nothing,” in terms of interest or viable ideas.

And then along came Thrive Allen County two years ago, with an idea.

The wooded terrain carried value in that it had a spectacular view of Elm Creek and the nearby Elks Lake (formerly the Lehigh quarry.)

After two years of almost non-stop work — almost all by volunteers — the former piece of seemingly useless property has been converted into one of the state’s pre-eminent hiking and biking trails, the Lehigh Portland Trail system, featuring 7 miles of single-track or limestone-crushed surface suitable for users of all ages and skill sets.

The trail complex was unveiled officially to the community Saturday. A crowd gathered for opening remarks from David Toland, Thrive executive director, Allen County Commissioner Jerry Daniels, McRae and Mike Goodwin of the Kansas Trails Council.

They also were on hand for a ribbon-cutting on the former Sinclair-Hegwald bridge, which was relocated from Owl Creek west of Humboldt to the trail, and placed earlier this spring.

“We’re learning that there are new ways to address economic development,” McRae said. “This is certainly one of them. It’s good for Iola and will bring folks to town who would probably have never come.”

 

TOLAND lauded the volunteers who made it happen, starting “with the guy who was out on parole and needed community service time. He was the one who cut the first part of the trail, the first 100 yards.”

Others, including students from the University of Kansas, Iolan Jeff Dieker, Tim McDermeit, Ryan Sparks and Job Springer helped with the early stages.

Lorenzo Jensen of J&J Construction, Joe Works of B&W Trailer Hitches and others from Nelson Quarries, Payless Concrete and Monarch Cement all played vital roles as well, Toland said.

John Sager brought expertise on converting a former railroad corridor to a recreational trail, while his nephew, Alec Sager, built a shelter along the trail that overlooks Elks Lake; Tim and Liz Cox were “stalwart” volunteers; and Joy Westervelt was a key in allowing the trail to cross her property to connect Lehigh Portland with the Southwind Rail Trail to the west.

Toland singled out five who served as the nucleus and “heart and soul of this project” — David and Lisa Fontaine, David Riebel, Don Burns and Randy Rasa.

“I have no idea how many hundreds, probably thousands, of hours of volunteer time these people have put in,” Toland said. “They put in blood, sweat and tears so that this could happen. Without them, it would not have happened.”

 

DANIELS, in his remarks, pointed to a phrase that befits Thrive Allen County and the Lehigh Portland effort.

“Do not go where there is a path,” Daniels said. “Instead, go where there’s no path, and leave a trail.

“That’s what Thrive has done,” he said.

Goodwin, meanwhile, spoke about the Kansas Trail Council, which manages about 300 miles of trails across the state.

About the time Lehigh Portland effort got underway, KTC had brainstormed about ways to get other trails built in the area.

They came up with a “Trail In a Box,” a trailer filled with equipment such as chainsaws, brush cutters and pulaski axes.

“Just add volunteers,” Goodwin said, “and you have a trail.”

The Kansas Trails Council loans out the trailers across the state, and did so for Thrive.

“We think of you guys as the gold standard of the ‘Trail In A Box’ project,” Goodwin said.

That said, Goodwin said the Trails Council decided to donate the trailer to Thrive Allen County, with the hopes that Thrive will encourage and work with neighbors in southeast Kansas to develop even more recreational trails.

Toland heartily accepted the gift.

 

“We want to be a resource to our neighbors, not only in Allen County but in the region,” Toland said. “This is a great way to be able to do that.”

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