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Eller says the planners have made sure that the trail is not sheltered from the various bordering neighborhoods. "We have tried wherever feasible to connect these neighborhoods to access points along the trail."
For example, Byron Miller lives in the Murphy-Blair neighborhood; the trail is virtually in his backyard. As an AmeriCorps worker, he has led students from Branch School to the Riverfront Trail for nature study. On a good day, you can see deer, raccoon, hawks, herons and, in the winter months, eagles. "They didn't know that trail existed," says Miller of his young charges. "They see an eagle so close to their home, it really changes their outlook on life."
Some of the rangers have come from backgrounds of poverty, disenfranchisement and street gangs. Miller understands the significance of the trail as it pertains to his younger counterparts from the Murphy-Blair neighborhood. "We're showing them the other side of the streets," he says, "something worthwhile instead of just hanging around, because we'll have an event kite-flying or fishing kids will come, and at the end of the day they don't even want to go back home. You look at a child's face and know that he just sees all this and starts wondering about his life, how he fits in. I ask them what they're thinking about. I know those kids got dreams, to go out and be successful."
In addition to Miller, several other Trail Rangers helped develop the trail through AmeriCorps. Most AmeriCorps programs are school-oriented, but the Grace Hill-based program was environmental. Over the course of five years, starting in 1994, about 30 AmeriCorps workers toiled on the trail project, doing prairie restoration, building asphalt shoulders, starting a wildflower garden. With help from Mallinckrodt Inc., the workers conducted a massive cleanup after the 1993 flood. "They put time and energy in it," says Eller of the AmeriCorps workers, "so there's some pretty strong ownership in the neighborhood about it."
The Trail Rangers see themselves as stewards of the trail. In addition to aiding sojourners, they offer the occasional tour to schoolchildren and senior citizens, showing off the natural history of the area. When they're not busy with their other duties, they police the trail, pick up litter.
Sometimes a chance encounter with a pedestrian leaves a lasting impression on both parties. Recalls Miller, "I was putting up some plaques on the trail and this elderly man, he was riding along and he asked me to take his picture. He told me his age, 88, and he said he hoped I live to see 88. That was really nice, because I was kind of tired and something that he said, how he used to drive on parts of the trail and he liked what was happening with it, that made me feel good just to work on something that people like, something that's going to build St. Louis up."
Though most of the Riverfront Trail has yet to be completed, one day it will reach Alton and make its way to St. Charles County and the Katy Trail. That connection is still years away, but the walking or cycling enthusiast may eventually be able to start at the Arch and travel across the state. And what calves he or she will have at the end of that trip.
The old Chain of Rocks Bridge is open to pedestrians and bikers on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
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