The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has obtained the exclusive right and option to purchase the former Minnesota Zephyr railroad line. The department intends to convert the line to a 6.5-mile recreational trail that would connect downtown Stillwater to the Gateway State Trail.
Until its last run on Dec. 31, 2008, the Minnesota Zephyr dinner train was a presence in Stillwater for more than 20 years, carrying more than a million passengers and becoming one of the community's top attractions.
Zephyr owner David Paradeau approached the DNR in 2006 about selling the rail corridor to the state for a future recreational trail. In 2007, the Minnesota Legislature designated the corridor as the potential site of the Browns Creek State Trail, a segment of the Willard Munger State Trail, which paved the way for the DNR to obtain the right to purchase the property.
"Mr. Paradeau is to be commended for his patience and willingness to help make possible this very unique project. It is a great opportunity to connect the city of Stillwater with the Gateway segment of the Willard Munger State Trail and the regional trail system," said DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten.
"Obtaining the exclusive right to purchase this property is a significant next step toward making the Browns Creek State Trail a reality," he added "We don't have all of the funding we need yet, but we're very confident we'll be able to come up with the rest."
The proposed Browns Creek State Trail would run parallel to Highway 95, then it would turn west and run parallel to highways 96 and 64, passing through stretches of scenic woods and preserving the area around Browns Creek, one of the few designated trout streams in the metropolitan area. It would connect to the Gateway State Trail in the city of Grant on the eastern fringe of the Twin Cities urban core within west central Washington County. Because the trail would be constructed on a former railroad grade, it would be generally level and accessible to users of all abilities.
Partial funding for the project is available from the Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund, administered by the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). Washington County has also offered support for the project.
"Washington County is very excited to partner with the DNR to bring this project forward," said Washington County Commissioner Gary Kriesel. "We anticipate it to be heavily used and to be of great benefit to the city of Stillwater."
The city of Stillwater also has long expressed support for the development of the Browns Creek State Trail.
"We're very pleased that the DNR followed through and took steps toward making this trail a reality," said Larry Hansen, city administrator for the city of Stillwater. "It will be a huge asset to the community."
Given its proximity to an urban center with a population of 3.5 million people, the economic benefit of the trail could be considerable. In 2008 recreational trail users contributed $2.4 billion in total spending and $206 million in state and local taxes and accounted for 31,000 jobs in Minnesota.
The DNR's acquisition would not include the Minnesota Zephyr train or the Stillwater Grill.