Fairfield’s Loop Trail | The Manifest Destiny of Jefferson County’s Walking/Biking Pathway

The 16-mile Loop Trail allows hikers to completely circle the city.

IT TOOK 15 YEARS OF intractable persistance to build Fairfield’s “emerald necklace,” the 16-mile Loop Trail that connects all of the city’s major green areas with some of the county’s major parks. Obstacles arose, as they are wont to do in any great undertaking, yet the abiding feeling was that the trail wanted to be built and we were there to make it happen. As one of the main custodians of this project, I’d like to share some highlights of the story.

The initial impulse came from our County Conservation Board, which saw a need for more trails. As former Board Chair Ron Meyers so memorably put it, “Our trails are being used every day of the year, by every age and economic group . . . the only equipment needed is a pair of shoes.”

Egalitarian. Democratic. Universal. I was hooked.

Our newly formed organization, the Jefferson County Trails Council, was created to help expand the existing trail system, but we hankered for a larger challenge. That opportunity arrived in short order.

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Aerial view of the bridge over the BNSF tracks.

Iowa Department of Transportation personnel were finalizing their design plans for the Highway 34 bypass on Fairfield’s southern boundary. Through fortuitous timing, the availability of federal trail funds, and a helpful DOT district office, the initial five miles of the Loop Trail were designed to reside alongside the upcoming bypass.

Later in the process, I sat in a conference room with grizzled DOT veterans who brought to my attention the fact that fully circling Fairfield would necessitate crossing the heavily used BNSF railroad tracks—not once, but twice. How did we plan to accomplish that nearly impossible task, they wondered out loud? I don’t remember my answer but do recall abundant eye-rolling and unmasked skepticism.

In the end, even the omnipresent coal trains of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe yielded to the Loop Trail’s manifest destiny. A magnificent bridge spanning the tracks, replete with public art, and a track crossing allowed the trail to complete its circumambulation of Fairfield.

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Grandfather and grandaughter volunteer together to build the bridge.

There were some seeming villains involved as well: staunch private-property advocates and a money-grasping landowner or two. But whenever one door closed, another often better option presented itself.

Kent Rice, a local professional engineer, was a key player with the Trails Council from its inception. Quietly, adroitly, and mostly behind the scenes, he allowed me to hound him with hundreds of emails over a decade and a half, helping us clear hurdles such as working on bridge permits, interacting with contractors, and designing two bridges as a volunteer. 

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New pavers surround railroad tracks on the Cedar View Trail bridge.

And speaking of volunteers, there were a dozen key helpers and another hundred  I-can-help-when-you-need-me types who grubbed, bushwhacked, lent their power tools, and built a dozen bridges over the course of 15 years, providing almost $2 million in sweat equity.

Geniuses routinely appeared to move the process forward. Local contractor Greg Vorhies could be called upon to solve the most perplexing challenges, through invention, fabrication, or sheer muscular force. Forgive me, Greg, for revealing any trade secrets, but you swear in the most creative manner I’ve ever heard and made it a joy to work with you.

Artist Judy Bales and I teamed up to overcome arcane and stupefying federal-compliance application regulations and won three National Endowment for the Arts awards, allowing our team to integrate knock-your-socks-off public art. Judy’s visual nuance never ceased to amaze me.

Two officers and group stalwarts were Jeff Fitz-Randolph and Bob Hunerdosse. Jeff taught himself web design and managed to cobble together, then refine, an award-winning website (jeffersoncountytrails.org). Bob kept our books in order, calibrated his bike to assure our trail distances down to the millimeter, and still runs or walks the trail daily, keeping an eye out for anything remotely untoward.

Also unfailingly available were two generations of beat-up pickup trucks via veterinarian Bill Pollak, legal expertise from attorney Bob Rutt, and all-time-anytime help from volunteer champion Chris Hallinger.

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Ron Blair on the new bridge for the Rock Island Railroad segment, which crosses Highway 1 just north of the university.

I fell in love with local government over the 15 years, another byproduct of Loop Trail magic. The reality is that local government works! There are no corporate lobbyists, no one selling their soul to get re-elected—just honest folks wanting to give back to their community. City Hall, Parks & Rec, and Public Works personnel are like family. The County Engineer, Assessor, Auditor, and Supervisors were just as supportive. A breath of fresh air, to be sure.

The entire local trail system has roughly 100,000 uses per year. Fun, solitude, recreation, exercise, and communion with nature are the main reasons people use this linear parkway. In the end, it was hard work, extraordinary timing, and just the right amount of magic that made the Loop Trail happen. Use once or twice per day and good health is guaranteed!