1st Step to History

The Dawes County Travel Board awards $50k grant to Game and Parks Commission for Cowboy Trail project 

“Having these volunteers is really significant,” Dawes County Travel Board member George Ledbetter said. “The road of 1,000 miles or in this case 320 miles, starts with the first step, and this is it.”

Bailey Broderick, left, 20, sophomore of Rapid City, South Dakota, and Teren Hanson, 22, senior of Casper, Wyoming, put an old railroad tie in a pile during The Big Event for Discover NW Nebraska Saturday. - Photo by Sara Tweet

Bailey Broderick, left, 20, sophomore of Rapid City, South Dakota, and Teren Hanson, 22, senior of Casper, Wyoming, put an old railroad tie in a pile during The Big Event for Discover NW Nebraska Saturday. – Photo by Sara Tweet

The Big Event volunteers including CSC’s track and field team, Xi Delta Zeta sorority, and Omega Phi Ro fraternity, helped clear old railroad ties from the Cowboy Trail as the first step to completing a section of what will be the longest rail to trail conversion in the United States on Saturday. Director of College Relations Alex Helmbrecht, HPER instructor Brittany Helmbrecht, and Discover Northwest Nebraska Director of Tourism Kristina Harter were job site leaders at the Cowboy Trail. Ledbetter was the job site supervisor and he helped with the cleanup.

The national Rails to Trails Conservancy purchased the Cowboy Trail nearly 25 years ago when the Chicago and NorthWestern Railroad abandoned it. The trail runs from Chadron to Norfolk, a total of 321 miles.

The Dawes County Travel Board approved a $50,000 grant with a vote of 5-1 to be given to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to work on the Cowboy Trail during the next two years. This grant will match funds for future grants to continue the Cowboy Trail project. The grant funds are coming out of the Dawes County Improvement Fund which is collected from lodging taxes.

The portion of the Cowboy Trail from Norfolk to Valentine has been hard surfaced with crushed limestone, which costs about $40,000 per mile. No other sections of the trail had been improved due to funding issues until last year when a portion of the trail between Gordon and Rushville was hard surfaced and bridges were built through a partnership between the Game and Parks Commission and a group of private Sheridan County citizens.

“I’m glad fellow board members saw the potential tourism value of this project,” Dawes County Travel Board Chairman Justin Haag said in a press release. “This section of the Cowboy Trail goes through the beautiful Pine Ridge and is situated in an area known for mountain biking, which will give it added value.”

Cowboy Trail

Cowboy Trail

The fourth annual The Big Event volunteers helps clean up the Cowboy Trail, Saturday, which when finished will be the longest rail-to-trail conversion in the United States

During The Big Event, students from CSC’s track and field team, Xi Delta Zeta sorority, and Omega Phi Rho fraternity cleared old railroad ties from an undeveloped section of the Cowboy Trail, Saturday, for Discover NW Nebraska.

Right: Director of College Relations and job site leader Alex Helmbrecht carries a railroad tie to the pile while cleaning up the Cowboy Trail at The Big Event Saturday. - Photo by Justine Stone

Right: Director of College Relations and job site leader Alex Helmbrecht carries a railroad tie to the pile while cleaning up the Cowboy Trail at The Big Event Saturday. – Photo by Justine Stone

The students were split into two groups in order to cover more ground. The site was supervised by Alex Helmbrecht, director of college relations; Brittany Helmbrecht, HPER instructor; and Discover Northwest Nebraska Director of Tourism Kristina Harter. George Ledbetter of the Dawes County Travel Board supervised and assisted students with clearing ties from the sides of the trail, which would then enable the Nebraska Game and Parks Department to mow the area around it.

Ledbetter explained that the purpose of cleaning up along this trail was to increase tourism in Dawes County. The Nebraska Game and Parks Department and Discover NW Nebraska hope to turn the former rail line into a scenic biking, pedestrian, and equestrian open trail from Valentine to Chadron, continuing the already developed trail located between Norfolk and Valentine. After the railroad ties are cleared, the next step is clearing the gravel along the side of the trail. Finally, the trail would be covered with a bed of crushed limestone.

The Cowboy Trail was formerly a section of the Chicago and Northwestern Railway, originally built in 1885, known as the Cowboy Line. The line expanding from Norfolk to Chadron was abandoned in 1992, according to Abandonedrails.com. The Rails to Trails Conservancy bought the land and gave it to the Nebraska Games and Parks Department, but also didn’t give any money to develop the land. The department had people come along the trail to collect the ties.

“The Big Event means a lot to us,” Ledbetter said. “Not only for the labor involved, but because clearing ties is the first step to get the Cowboy Trail open.”

The trail itself will be 321 miles long after the completion of the section between Valentine and Chadron. Once it is completed, it will be the longest rail-to-trail conversion in the United States.

Tori Stepp, left, 20, sophomore of Box Elder, South Dakota, and Mary Johnson, 20, sophomore of Rapid City, South Dakota, carry a large log, during The Big Event for Discover NW Nebraska Saturday. - Photo by Sara Tweet

Tori Stepp, left, 20, sophomore of Box Elder, South Dakota, and Mary Johnson, 20, sophomore of Rapid City, South Dakota, carry a large log, during The Big Event for Discover NW Nebraska Saturday. – Photo by Sara Tweet

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