Paul Bunyan Trail - The History of A Great American Rail-Trail

Paul Bunyan Trail Visionary, Advocate Dies

Terry McGaughey, the visionary and driving force behind the Paul Bunyan Trail, died Wednesday, July 21, 2010. Terry dedicated over 25 years to creating, promoting and advocating for the trail. Big Paul, the Trail Communities, and Trail Businesses are thankful for Terry's commitment to the Paul Bunyan Trail and are honored to be a part of his legacy.

From Rails to Trails:  Building the Paul Bunyan Trail

"It will never happen." "We have enough trails already." "We can't afford to maintain the ones we have, and we certainly don't need another 100-mile trail."

These were the words of a top Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) official faced in 1988 by Terry McGaughey, founder of the Paul Bunyan Trail Task Force and Association and originator of the concept for the trail. McGaughey predicted that it was not for the DNR alone to decide if the trail would become a reality. It was up to the people of the state of Minnesota, he maintained, and if they wanted it, they would authorize it through the Legislature, fund it, and give the marching orders to have it built.

Today, one of Minnesota's most scenic railroad-conversion recreational corridor trails - and its longest -- is nearly complete. Open for snowmobiling since winter 1992-93, its history began well over a decade ago, in a small town located about one-third of the way north from the trailhead in Brainerd-Baxter....

The End of an Era

By the mid-1970s, most of the vitality was gone from the railroad shipping industry in Minnesota. Many large manufacturers were finding it more profitable and convenient to use land transportation to move their raw goods and finished products. The condition of the railroad bed was also deteriorating: a 10-mile per hour speed limit was imposed on most sections of the 210-mile Burlington-Northern Railroad between Brainerd and International Falls. The logging town of Pine River still received daily shipments of western lumber to help feed its primary manufacturer, a small wood products plant that had been in existence since 1940. This plant was a major employer in the town, with a payroll of about 150 local residents at its peak, and it manufactured products such as wood pallets and large wooden spools for the cable and rope industries. The plant received about four boxcars of lumber daily, and shipped out the same number of boxcars filled with its "knock-down" wood products. Road transportation would not be as feasible for importing the raw lumber the plant required.

In the early 1980s, Burlington-Northern announced the closing of the Pine River Railroad Depot. The owner of the wood products manufacturer put up a strong legal battle to try to keep the depot open, but the effort failed and the depot was closed. Local residents surmised that it was only a matter of time before the railroad would be abandoned altogether in the region. Section crew workers who had maintained the line for years and frequented Pine River's inns and diners also foretold its inevitable demise.

Terry McGaughey, a local real estate broker, envisioned a way to create something positive for the town and the region out of this impending economic adversity. He began researching the idea of converting the abandoned railbed into a recreational trail that could be used year-round by bicyclists, hikers and snowmobilers. His idea garnered lukewarm interest at first; most people did not fully understand what trails could mean to communities such as Pine River.

In 1983, McGaughey went to the Pine River Chamber of Commerce armed with copious statistics and information about the benefits of trails to communities in other parts of the country as well as in Minnesota. Years earlier, the state had built a 27-mile recreational trail on an abandoned railroad from Walker to Park Rapids that sustained moderate year-round usage. After hearing his proposal, the Pine River Chamber of Commerce and City Council were the first formal bodies to author resolutions supporting the concept of converting the future abandoned railroad into a recreational trail.

The following year, a state senator who had been instrumental in the establishment of the Walker-to-Park Rapids trail in 1975 swept through Pine River with the governor's campaign. The senator was certain that if McGaughey could secure constituency support of all the communities up and down the line, the state Legislature would authorize the funding of the trail.

August 15, 1985 brought the end of railroad days in Pine River and dozens of other small towns in the heartland of the state. But the vision of a recreational trail corridor in its place now had a plan. And a captain. McGaughey prepared a slide presentation of statistics, maps and photographs about the development of other trails and their positive impacts on communities. He visited the 16 communities along the potential trail, countering people's early fears about the influx of "hoodlums, bandits and outlaws" with hard facts and infectious enthusiasm. His policy was to speak to "any group of one or more any time and any where." In the process, he found some ardent supporters of the idea. These people shared his vision for a recreational trail, and became the nucleus for a task force that eventually brought about vast public support.

Some communities held out, citing plans for other kinds of commercial expansion on the land occupied by the abandoned rail lines. While McGaughey moved on with the formidable task of seeking the support of other, unified communities, members of the task force worked locally to replace obstructive city council members with supporters of the trail. It only took a couple of years before previously opposed communities voted overwhelmingly to support the trail. The local task force had been successful.

From 1983 to 1988, McGaughey and the Paul Bunyan Trail Task Force built a strong coalition of support up and down the line of the trail-to-be. With hundreds of letters of support and dozens of resolutions from local governing bodies, the project was ready to make its legislative debut.

A Grassroots Effort

Throughout the project, the efforts of the Task Force were backed by the stalwart support of local community members and businesses. This core of community support was essential to the success of the project.

In preparation for the 1988 legislative session, McGaughey arranged for key legislative leaders to visit the area on an overnight fact-finding tour, and rallied local resort conference centers, vendors, and community members to provide accommodations, meals, informational materials and support. The legislators walked along the railroad ties at the site of the envisioned trail, and attended meetings where they heard testimonies from citizens and community leaders supporting the concept.

Following this critical "hands-on" introduction, the Paul Bunyan Trail Task Force reinforced its message by attended the reception of the 1988 Minnesota Parks & Trails Council annual legislative dinner. Circulating themselves among the many legislators in attendance, Task Force members spread the word about the trail and passed out lapel buttons that proclaimed, "I support the Paul Bunyan Trail!" Such appearances and mementos contributed to the name recognition and lasting impression the Task Force made on behalf of the Trail project.

These outreach efforts paid off in the most satisfying way possible. There was a growing statewide community of trail supporters, and the 1988 Legislature authorized the creation of the Paul Bunyan Trail and provided the first funding for the State to enter a lease agreement with the Burlington Northern Railroad.

Uphill Climb

The 1989 legislative session found the Paul Bunyan Trail Task Force as a lobbyist once again. By now the coalition had developed good working ties with the DNR. The two organizations - with the support of the same DNR official who had originally decried that the trail would ever be a reality -- worked jointly on the lobbying effort. The 1989 session provided $1.2 million in an emergency bonding bill for two new state trails, with $300,000 earmarked for the Paul Bunyan Trail project for appraisal, preliminary engineering, and the beginning of acquisition proceedings for the right-of-way.

The third step in realizing the vision of a completed trail began with the 1990 legislative session. Paul Bunyan Trail supporters were hoping to obtain the funds for the State to purchase the 100 miles of railroad right-of-way from Brainerd-Baxter to Bemidji. McGaughey estimated it would take about $10,000 to pay for the mailings and out-of-pocket expenses involved in the lobbying effort for these funds.

Once again, the budgetless, volunteer task force found an innovative way to achieve their goal. McGaughey started a "buy-a-mile" subscription campaign to raise the money for the lobbying effort for this important stage of the project. With donated materials and labor, 100 individually numbered plaques representing the 100 miles of the trail right-of-way were created. These limited-edition plaques were sold to individuals, Chambers of Commerce, cities and counties. Word of mouth spread quickly, and the personalized plaques sold briskly and were in high demand, with many more interested buyers than there were plaques. Within two weeks all the plaques had been sold, and the Task Force was poised for their difficult work at the Capitol.

Joined by a strong coalition of other organizations, including the Minnesota Parks & Trails Council, the Minnesota United Snowmobiling Association, the Minnesota Horse Council and other groups, the Paul Bunyan Trail Task Force successfully secured $1.5 million in a bonding bill for acquisition of the right-of-way. Trail supporters breathed a sigh of relief; the State would soon own the land, and it was designated for the creation of the Paul Bunyan Recreational Trail. But there was still a long way to go before bicycles, in-line skaters, snowmobilers and hikers would travel the route from Brainerd to Bemidji.

Breaking  Ground

The Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCMR) - made up of 8 senators, 8 house representatives, and 11 citizens appointed by the governor - oversees and administers the environmental trust fund dollars for the state. These funds are gleaned from 40% of the net lottery proceeds and a 2%-per-pack cigarette tax. In 1991, the LCMR recommended $720,000 for additional acquisition funds for the Paul Bunyan Trail, and this amount was approved by the Legislature. The following year, $333,000 in capital bonding was provided for the remaining acquisition and beginning of development of the Trail.

In 1992 the DNR trail planning staff also began preparing the master plan for the Paul Bunyan Trail. Numerous public hearings were involved in the drafting of this plan. Meanwhile, temporary bridges were being placed over rivers at four locations to provide contiguous trail access. That winter, under an interim management plan, the Paul Bunyan Trail was officially opened for snowmobiling.

In 1993 the LCMR again recommended the appropriation of $609,000, which was approved by the Legislature. These funds made possible the construction of four steel single-span bridges at mile numbers 28 and 30 (the Pine River), mile 69 (Benedict Creek), and mile 70 (the Kabekona River). These funds also provided for some initial development work, including the removal of hazards along the railbed, grading, and signage.

______________________________________________________________________ Team Paul Bunyan

By 1988 the Paul Bunyan Trail Task Force had grown to over 125 people. A newsletter was created to link supporters living in communities often miles apart. Office resources and staff support were provided by the Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. The diligent Task Force members worked independently, eschewing meetings and instead gathering to celebrate the various successes along the way.

One such celebration took place at the conclusion of the successful 1988 legislative session. McGaughey invited all the key people who had been part of the effort to a victory celebration hosted by a local supper club. That evening, the official Paul Bunyan Trail Logo, designed by a local graphic artist, was unveiled. Personalized, engraved wooden plaques were awarded to each member of the task force and other individuals who had participated in the successful launch of the project. The plaques themselves were representative of the collaborative efforts of trail supporters: the wood was donated by a local lumber supplier, trimmed and routed by a local high school shop class, silkscreened with the trail logo by a local silkscreen company, and the personalized brass bases were engraved by a local jeweler. This celebration and others McGaughey organized helped keep the Task Force and community supporters energized about the project and ready to take on the next task: securing funding for rehabilitation and construction of the trail on the railbed.  ______________________________________________________________________

The climate at the State Capitol was troubling during the 1993-94 session. Policy committees were out of sync with appropriations committees. The pace was torrential. Relations between people were strained with contentiousness. The House of Representatives' bonding bill, typically far more generous than the Senate's, recommended no money for trail projects. The Senate's version of the bill included $5.5 million for trails. Additionally, the House approved only $17.5 million for total DNR bonding projects, while the Senate had earmarked about $64 million.

With no money in the House and no compromise imminent, it seemed unlikely that the Paul Bunyan Trail would receive any of the $3 million it needed to complete the development phase. If this happened, the trial project would be stalled.

After nerve-wracking weeks, a conference committee eventually discarded the House bill altogether, and sufficient funds were appropriated for acquisition, development, and rehabilitation of State trails. Part of these funds provided for the construction of two highway bridge crossings along the route of the Paul Bunyan Trail.

In May 1994, the DNR's master plan for the Paul Bunyan Trail was adopted by the state, and the following year a 10-foot-wide bituminous tread way was paved for use by bicyclists, in-line skaters, and hikers.

Ripple Effects

Today, at 210 miles, the adjoining Paul Bunyan and Blue Ox (Bemidji to International Falls) Trails form one of the longest contiguous railroad bed conversion trails in the nation. And one of the most scenic. It is easy to understand the appeal of the Paul Bunyan Trail. Its 100 miles wind around the shores of 21 lakes and over 9 rivers or streams. Very little of the trail crosses open fields or immediately borders highways; most of the route snakes through gently rolling landscape covered in stately pine forests and populated by an abundance of diverse flora and fauna. Towns are situated at comfortable 8-10 mile intervals, with state parks at both the north and south ends of the trail. The Paul Bunyan Trail intersects with several planned or proposed connecting trail routes, including a network of over 1,200 miles of snowmobile trails.

The Paul Bunyan is one of the most popular trails in the state. In the opening 1992-93 snowmobiling season, counters were placed along the trail to record the number of visitor occasions. Local citizens and trail supporters were astonished at the numbers. The subsequent volume of use has generated significant economic impact on the trail's bordering communities.

Numerous new businesses have resulted directly from the creation of the Paul Bunyan Trail. The community of Pine River is a notable example. The Trailside Inn, a 30-unit motel, added a health and fitness center in anticipation of trail traffic. The Dairy Queen store in that town built an entirely new facility on its existing site. A new gas and convenience store has been constructed close to the trail on the outskirts of town. In nearby Merrifield, the Trail's Edge motel was built at the intersection of the Paul Bunyan Trail and a cross trail. These are only a few examples of business ventures in the private sector that together exceed the total amount invested so far by the State for the entire trail. This economic resurgence is mirrored in other communities along the trail route, adding to local tax bases and providing new jobs in an area that, since the death of the railroad, has depended largely on tourism for its livelihood.


How the Paul Bunyan Trail Was Named

The name chosen for the trail resonates with strong local significance. Paul Bunyan is a legendary logger who has lived in print form since the early 1900s. Both Brainerd-Baxter and Bemidji, the communities that cap the trail at the south and north ends, have well known tourist attractions with prominent Paul Bunyan themes. In each town stands a giant statue of the mighty logger. Initially, the idea of the trail seemed as much of a tall tale as Paul himself, and supporters knew it would take a Paul-sized effort to achieve it. ______________________________________________________________________

Terry McGaughey Terry McGaughey has been the volunteer coordinator for the Paul Bunyan Trail Task Force since originating the idea in 1983. A citizen activist and lobbyist at the state Legislature since the early 1960s, he helped establish the Minnesota Canoe Association, co-founded an Audubon chapter, and was a member of the original governing board of Deep Portage Conservation Reserve in northern Cass County, Minnesota. Born in the Twin Cities, he has lived in the Brainerd Lakes area since 1968 as an avid outdoor recreationalist. McGaughey has canoed over 20 rivers in Minnesota, including the entire northern border of the state. He is a frequent visitor to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and has journeyed by water to Hudson Bay.

In addition to administering the Paul Bunyan Trail Association, a non-profit organization that promotes the Paul Bunyan Trail and surrounding region, McGaughey also consults with other communities to develop connecting trail routes. He envisions that the concerted efforts of trail supporters will result in a superior statewide network of recreational trails unsurpassed anywhere in the world, bringing vitality and livelihood to people and communities well into the future.

by Jill McGaughey June 30, 1999