By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
MADRID, Iowa, Aug. 5, 2014 — U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, who is retiring early next year after 40 years in Congress, said here Tuesday he’s “got my retirement plans figured out now. I’m going to get on my bicycle and take a tour of Iowa’s recreational trails.”
By directing federal funds, Harkin has helped build a number of the trails over the years, including a project he’ll always be known for — the extremely popular, 25-mile High Trestle Trail between Woodward and Ankeny. Specifically, the senator in 2006 found $5.5 million to help build the half-mile long, 140-feet high “art bridge” over the Des Moines River valley just west of Madrid.
That bridge, lighted at night with blue LED lights and other illumination, was designed by acclaimed Des Moines sculptor David Dahlquist to salute the coal mining heritage of the region. When you ride under its rusted steel “cribs,” which are like tilted square support beams, it’s like you are entering the shaft of a coal mine. The sensation is very effective, so much so that the bridge has become a veritable tourism magnet — attracting more than 20,000 visitors per month in the summer and early fall.
That traffic has inspired new restaurants, bars, a bicycle rental business, B&Bs, rental cabins and a camping resort.
Since its completion in the spring of 2011, the High Trestle Trail has become an economic engine driving real growth in Madrid, Woodward, Slater, Sheldahl, Ankeny and other communities near the trail. You have a hard time now finding anybody in the area who doesn’t think the federal investment in the trail project was a good use of taxpayers’ money.
Tuesday morning, this person probably most responsible for making the trail a reality got to see it for the first time. Senator Harkin is indeed 74 years old now, but you could see the kid in him when he pulled on a helmet, jumped on a bicycle he rented and led a contingent of trail builders and advocates on a cruise from Madrid out across the iconic trail bridge and back. He stopped frequently to ask questions, take photographs of what he was seeing, and greet dozens of other people who were biking, walking and running the trail.
U.S. Senator Tom Harkin is welcomed to the High Trestle Trail by Mark Ackelson, to the right in a white cycling jersey, the former president of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, one of the organizations that led the development of the central Iowa trail.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am finally to get to see this trail and bridge,” Harkin said. “I’m so happy that we were able to help get this built. This is really something, you know? I just wish Richard Bender could be here with us today. He was the member of my staff who really did the work on this.” Bender, who was Harkin’s legislative assistant for 35 years, retired in the spring of 2013.
But several other people who played major roles in the development of the High Trestle Trail did join the senator on the ride Tuesday — artist Dahlquist; key Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation staffers Mark Ackelson and Lisa Hein; trail engineer Rich Volker of Snyder & Associates; former Polk County Conservation director Pat Boddy, now stewardship director at RDG Design, and others. You’ll see a lot of them in the photos accompanying this story.
Meanwhile, plans are underway now to build a 9-mile-long connector trail from Woodward west to Perry, which would link the High Trestle Trail to the 89-mile Raccoon River Valley Trail — one of the longest paved trails in the nation.
Then Senator Harkin will have even more miles to ride when he starts that retirement tour of Iowa’s recreational trails.
The Harkin entourage stops enroute to the bridge on the High Trestle Trail so sculptor David Dahlquist, right, who turned the bridge into a huge public art installation, could answer questions for the senator.
With the famous High Trestle Trail bridge behind them, here are four key players who made that bridge happen — artist David Dahlquist, Lisa Hein of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, and Pat Boddy who was Polk County Conservation director and is now director of stewardship for RDG Design, the same company in which Dahlquist is a partner.
Rich Volker, left, who did much of the engineering on the High Trestle Trail for Snyder & Associates, here shows Senator Harkin the interpretive panels that explain the bridge’s history and construction. Lisa Hein is partially hidden between them.
Here Senator Harkin stops at one of the pillars on each end of the High Trestle Trail bridge to ask questions of artist David Dahlquist. In the foreground is engineer Rich Volker. The dark ceramic pieces on the pillar represent the seams of coal that were found in the bedrock of this area along the Des Moines River valley. This is about 30 miles north of Des Moines.
Senator Harkin chatting with Lisa Hein and community leaders from the Madrid area while overlooking the High Trestle Trail bridge.
As Senator Harkin was riding on the High Trestle Trail, another rider Marlyn Fisher, foreground, of Madrid, pedaled up and said he wanted to say hello. He explained his brother Ron Fisher had been Harkin’s roommate when they were Iowa State University students decades ago. Harkin fondly remembered Ron Fisher and they chatted a couple minutes. “My brother has always said that there isn’t another politician who’s as honest as you are,” Marlyn said. “And I’m not just blowing smoke up your butt, either – that’s what he’s always said.”
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