Cowboy Trail

A sign and bench mark the new Cowboy Trail section at Gordon. The benches were made with leftover material from bridge construction and pieces of rail from the old railroad line. The Game and Parks this month allocated funding to surface another seven miles of the trail, completing the segment from Gordon to Rushville.

Photo by Justin Haag/ NEBRASKAland Magazine, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

Hikers, joggers, bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts will soon have a few more miles of completed trails to enjoy in western Nebraska.

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission this month formally allocated $248,000 surface nearly seven miles of the Cowboy Trail. The project will pay for crushed limestone on the portion of the trail from Clinton to Rushville.

“That will complete the trail from Gordon to Rushville,” said Kris Ferguson, a member of the Cowboy Trail West, Inc., group who in recent years has partnered with the Game and Parks to reinvigorate work on the trail.

The Cowboy Trail spans 321 miles from Norfolk to Chadron, the largest Rails-to-Trails conversion project in the country. The recreational trail follows the path of a rail line originally constructed by the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad in the late 1800s; it later became the Chicago & North Western Railway. C&NW, which abandoned the line in 1992, dubbed the rail line as the “Cowboy Line.”

After it was abandoned, the railroad’s right-of-way was purchased by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and donated to the State of Nebraska. The Game and Parks is responsible for development and maintenance of the trail; the Norfolk to Valentine segment of the trail was completed in 2009.

Until recently, the rest of the trail remained untouched.

A 2011 bike accident that left Ferguson injured along the highway prompted her to rally the community to lobby for completion of the Cowboy Trail in Sheridan County. Cowboy Trail West, Inc., was formed in 2012 and eventually reached an agreement with Game and Parks to provide labor to prepare and maintain the trail and build the necessary bridges.

Eight miles of trail has been completed to date, including the surface of crushed limestone.

“Six years in, we’re really happy with what we’ve accomplished. It takes time and it’s a lot of money,” Ferguson said.

The funding allocated for the project this month comes from the Recreational Trails Program, said Michelle Stryker, the planning and programming administrator for the Game and Parks. It’s a follow-up to an RTP grant the agency received last year to complete the first eight miles in Sheridan County.

Game and Parks is currently conducting an environmental review, and as soon as that is approved the new segment will be put out to bid.

“Our hope is to have it done by the end of the year, but it may be spring of next year,” Stryker said. Grants through the RTP generally must be completed within two years. The engineering and design of the segment from Clinton to Rushville has already been completed, and the trail is prepped.

“It is just the limestone (that must be laid) so it should go quickly,” Stryker said.

While Game and Parks applied for the RTP grant, Cowboy Trail West, Inc., also received a Rails-to-Trails Conservancy grant in the amount of $5,000 that was considered as matching funds for the RTP award.

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“We’re pretty excited about it,” Ferguson said of the grant and the trail’s completion from Gordon to Rushville. “It’s a big accomplishment for our organization, for the Game and Parks and for Nebraska.”

Neither Cowboy Trail West or the Game and Parks has a firm idea of what the future holds for the rest of the unfinished trail, however.

A budget shortfall is expected to impact every agency in the state, including the Game and Parks, Stryker said. Cowboy Trail West was instrumental in jumpstarting the work in Sheridan County and providing a cost-savings to the state.

“It takes a tremendous amount of money to maintain the approximately 205 miles of trail (after the Sheridan County portion is complete),” Styker said, and as budgets are slashed decisions on priorities in the future are hard to determine today.

The Cowboy Trail West group will continue its commitment to maintenance of the Sheridan County portion, including mowing and spraying, but has made no decision on how it will proceed beyond that in the future, Ferguson said.

“All of us our trail lovers. We’d love to see it continue, but we need help,” she said. “There are a number of factors that will be involved in that decision.”

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