Trail Blazers

The new North Riverfront Trail is giving visitors and residents the opportunity to see the other side of the street

The view from the mile-long bridge is magnificent. To the south, in the middle of the wide expanse of the Mississippi, sit small castlelike structures, actually water-intake towers for the St. Louis Water Division. Farther down river is Mosenthein Island, named for former residents. On the horizon, the skyline of downtown St. Louis shimmers in the swelter.

The reopening last month of the 70-year-old old Chain of Rocks Bridge, fresh from a $4 million restoration that turned part of the celebrated Route 66 into a pedestrian thoroughfare, is a linchpin in a large and ambitious development called the Confluence Greenway, a long-overdue riverfront park spanning both sides of the Mississippi. When the Greenway is completed in 2004, at an estimated cost of $25 million, its trail-tendrils will stretch from downtown St. Louis northward beyond Chain of Rocks and up to the Columbia Bottoms, skirting the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi, on up to Alton and back down on the Illinois side.

Right now, the only completed portion of the project is the North Riverfront Trail, 12 miles of asphalt ribbon extending from Laclede's Landing north to the old Chain of Rocks Bridge. Backers of the trail hope it will become a magnet for walkers, bicyclists and in-line skaters seeking a change of scenery from Forest Park, Queeny Park, Shaw Park and what have you.

"It's a fabulous attraction," says Ted Curtis, director of Trailnet, one of many organizations involved in developing the trail. "I think this region for so long has turned its back on the river. It's about time people got down there and took a look at their heritage."

From the heavily industrialized sections east of Hall Street to the tawny prairie to the north, the North Riverfront Trail travels along the edges of old St. Louis neighborhoods — Murphy-Blair, Hyde Park, College Hill, Baden. It's not the scenic Katy Trail, though there are some wide-open greenspaces. Instead, it's a city experience, a gritty, up-close look at scrapyards and coalyards, the rolling river, people fishing. Trail users may see trains on one side, tugs on the other; barges being loaded; barge handlers barking orders. Check out the Merchants Bridge and the McKinley Bridge; the funky smell of river muck; native grasses and wildflowers; hawks circling overhead; deer gathered at the river shore, poised to flee at the approach of human beings.

People are going to fall off their bicycles and scrape their knees. They will get a flat, forget to bring water, handle a rabid skunk or have some other kind of crisis. Enter a good-Samaritan bicycle patrol, the Trail Rangers.

Byron Miller, 26, and his cousin Robert Branom, 27, are momentarily stopped, sitting astride factory-new 21-speed Roadmaster bicycles, chugging water from plastic containers. Sporting bright-yellow T-shirts and spiffy Speed Racer-type helmets, the pair are among the 10 paid part-time rangers who have been assigned to patrol the North Riverfront Trail and who, according to a pamphlet, will "assist visitors by providing tourist information, directions, security and first aid."

Rosalyn Moss, 46, another newly minted ranger, is nearby, passing out maps of the trail. "When I first heard of a "trail ranger,' I imagined he looked like one of those Park Service guys down at the Arch with the uniform and mountie hat," she says, chuckling. "But now I know it's nothing so authoritarian-looking." The rangers' presence, says Moss, "provides visual security so people on the trail know that if something does arise there'll be someone around to help out."

The bikes are equipped with saddlebags containing water, air pumps and patch kits for bicycle-tire repair, and cell phones with which to summon help. The rangers are certified in first aid, including CPR. Will the safety-conscious rangers tell people without helmets to get off the trail? "We will stress that the helmet is the safest way to ride," says Moss. "We will go through bicycle-safety rules."

This summer, the rangers are patrolling the trail on weekends and evenings. Some are free-roaming; others cover specific areas — the starting point north of the Landing, North Riverfront Park, the old Chain of Rocks Bridge. The trail and the Confluence Greenway are funded through a collaborative effort of government agencies and nonprofit organizations. One nonprofit, the Grace Hill Neighborhood Association, has taken the lead in the Trail Ranger program.

The program gives young urban adults such as Miller and Branom the chance to see something beyond the streets. "The exposure to people of various professions, the ecology, leadership experience — we want the rangers to build on their experiences and go on to something in the mainstream," says Doug Eller, program director with the Grace Hill Neighborhood Association, which also served as a focal site for the AmeriCorps program, whose workers' efforts helped build and maintain the trail. There is a notable feeling of community investment in the project. "We look at Riverfront Trail to be an anchor for North St. Louis," says Eller, who lives and works in North City. "It seems the only impression we get of North St. Louis is what you read in the paper, people committing some kind of crime. It's true that North St. Louis is disadvantaged — there's not much coming in, and too often you have to go out to get basic goods — but the trail will be a metrowide connector. People from West, South and North County can come and have a positive experience in North St. Louis. They can enjoy the same thing together."

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