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."

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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