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50 trailblazing years: Prairie Path reaches half a century

The Illinois Prairie Path is turning 50 years old, and its supporters are hosting a birthday party.

“Use the Illinois Prairie Path Days” will take place Sept. 28 through 30.

“We want people to walk, jog, paint a picture, listen to music, whatever they want to do,” said Bob Sobie, president of the Illinois Prairie Path nonprofit corporation. “We know it’s such a great resource.”

Sobie said that the nonprofit, which helps fund path amenities such as garbage cans and benches, will show its appreciation to users on the Sept. 28 and 29.

Members of the Prairie Path Board of Directors will hand out bottles of water to those using the path from 10 a.m. until around noon at Mile Marker zero near Wheaton.

The path, the official birthday of which is Sept. 30, stretches nearly 62 miles across DuPage, Cook and Will counties.

It has served as both a recreational and a commuter resource ever since Naperville resident May Watts wrote a letter to the Chicago Tribune, suggesting the abandoned tracks from the Chicago and Elgin electric railroads be converted into a path for residents to enjoy, Sobie said.

The Prairie Path construction initiated the “rails to trails” movement, Sobie said, which now boasts similar trails across the world and includes a national nonprofit serving more than 20,000 miles of trails throughout the country, according to the organization’s website.

The Prairie Path corporation is currently in the midst of a three month survey to determine how many people use the path, what they use it for and how much money is spent alongside it.

“We feel that not only is the Prairie Path helpful to people’s health and to their mental state, but it’s also helpful to the community as an economic engine,” Sobie said.

Financial benefits provided by proximity to the Prairie Path include everything from increased bike and running shoe purchases to added value to nearby residential properties. Wheaton’s newest apartment complex, Wheaton 121, relies on its proximity to the path as a major selling point, according to Sobie.

Wheaton Mayor Mike Gresk said the city would incorporate the path, which is located near downtown Wheaton, into its future business plan.

“People biking that path will make use of our Wheaton recreational and business options,” he said. “It will bring people to Wheaton.”

Gresk said that the city plans to post signs advertising Wheaton bike shops, restaurants and other amenities along the path in the coming years.

DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin called the path a “jewel and an asset” to the county. Cronin said he lives less than a block away from the path and has enjoyed it his entire life.

“I ride bikes on there with my children. I’ve ridden to the county, to my office. I used to run when my knees were a little younger,” he said. “It’s just a fabulous part of DuPage County’s experience and quality of life.”

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