Monday, January 19, 2009

Monticello Bike Trail (Monticello, Florida)

Unless you live in Monticello, Florida, you probably don't know about the Monticello Bike Trail. You may have noticed it if you've run in the Melon Run 5K, or if you've driven through Monticello on US Highway 90 and were particularly alert to the scenery. The Florida Office of Greenways and Trails doesn't list the Monticello Bike Trail on their website, nor does the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

And the Monticello Bike Trail is a rail-trail, but the railroad has been gone for a good long time--over seventy years. After being passed over by the east-west Jacksonville-to-Pensacola line in the 1850s, Monticello beat out Tallahassee for a north-south connection to Georgia around 1900. For a time, Monticello was directly on a rail line that ran from Chicago, Illinois to Tampa, Florida. Later, the Atlantic Coast line straightened the route, taking it west of town. Monticello citizens consoled themselves by noting that the old tracks still ran through town and connected with the main line. But during the 1930s, railroad workers crept into town one night and removed the tracks under cover of darkness. The next morning the people of Monticello woke up without a railroad. Legal action was threatened and may have even been taken, but the rails never came back. Only the name of Railroad Street hinted that trains had ever come through town. Somehow, though, over seven decades the right-of-way stayed open enough that in 2006 Monticello was able to dedicate a bike trail on part of the old railbed.

The Monticello Bike Trail runs north-south, with its north end on Cypress Street at the intersection with Mamie Scott Drive. This is just across Cypress from Jefferson County Elementary School, which must certainly contribute traffic to the trail on school days. Catty-corner from this end of the trail is an old, wooden schoolhouse--the Howard Academy High School building, which was being restored for use by the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Big Bend when I visited. Just off the trail at this end are some attractive benches, useful for anyone who needs to take a breather after reaching the end of the trail. From here the trail heads south, going past the kind of warehouses and factory sites that you'd expect to find along a rail corridor. The trail crosses some small streets on this stretch starting with York Street and Pearl Street. At Dogwood Street some arrows appear on the trail's pavement; this is where the course of the annual Melon Run 5K joins the trail. Just after Dogwood is the first stop sign on the trail, just over 0.4 miles from the north end. This is the intersection with Washington Street, aka US Highway 90. Crossing the highway, you find another set of benches and a bronze plaque. The plaque reads: "DEDICATED IN HONOR OF ISHAM L. 'IKE' ANDERSON 'MAYOR EMERITUS' OF MONTICELLO AND AVID BIKE ENTHUSIAST. DEDICATED 2006." Included is a drawing of a heavy man wearing a cowboy hat on a cruiser bike, the same picture that appears on all the trail signs.

South of US 90, the trail continues south into residential areas, with houses and the more-than-occasional church to each side. For half a mile, the trail resembles a sidewalk for South Railroad Street on your left. Around 0.7 miles, the houses on the right give way to an old pecan orchard. Just past a mile Railroad Street ends, the course of the Melon Run leaves the trail, and the trail crosses Chase Drive. Beyond Chase Drive the left of the trail is a woods of planted pines, while to the right is Clifford Brown Memorial Park. Past the park, the right of the trail is another old pecan orchard, which is becoming the Pecan Hills subdivision. Where houses have already been built some ornamental trees have been planted along the trail.

The stretch south of Chase Drive is unbroken by street crossings for over half a mile, all the way to the south end of the trail at Martin Road. There are plans to extend the trail another half a mile to Nacoosa Road. In fact, beyond the current end of the trail you can see an unpaved road (blocked by a chain) that continues along the old rail route. Perhaps this is the future south end of the trail. For now the total length of the trail is about 8100 feet, or just over 1-1/2 miles.

At a mile-and-a-half (or a future two miles), not a lot of fitness buffs or eco-tourists are going to be traveling to Monticello to take in this trail. Even though it's not an engine for generating tourist dollars, local use more than justifies its existence. On my one visit, I saw plenty of walkers and a few cyclists and runners out on the trail. No one was walking their dog on the trail, but there was plenty of evidence that dogs had been there. As Pecan Hill expands, even more people are going to be living near the trail and find it a convenient place to exercise or to stroll to downtown Monticello. The Monticello Bike Trail isn't one of the long trails on which you can stage a bike tour or a backpacking trip, but it's a community asset, valuable and useful to the folks who paid for it, the people of Monticello.