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Trail Highlight: Yellowstone Trail

By Scott Tedrick, President, Yellowstone Trail Alliance of Western Minnesota

Trail development has struggled to gain traction in the rural communities of southwest Minnesota. Ironically, it is the legacy of a man without hands nor legs that may serve to remind these communities of their value.

There are numerous studies detailing the positive impact of trails to communities. In southwest Minnesota, however, efforts to build such infrastructure has been met with opposition driven by a general skepticism and inability to recognize the benefit of the connection between communities.

The emergence of a recent trail effort geared around the revitalization of the Yellowstone Trail is hoping to reorientate hearts and minds and remind them that greatest strengths between rural communities is their ability to work together. Fortuitously, nobody expressed this better than the Yellowstone Trail’s greatest champion, Minnesota’s own Michael J. Dowling.

Trail beginnings
The Yellowstone Trail is the first transcontinental auto route through the northern tier of states. In 1912 it was initiated by a conference of businessman in Ipswich, S.D., under the leadership of Joseph Parmley. The group wanted to build a better road between Ipswich and Aberdeen 26 miles away. The endeavor began the Yellowstone Trail, which would soon stretch coast-to-coast, from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound. It thrived because of the cooperation of thousands of grassroots supporters.

With government slow to support roads, private “trail” groups like the Yellowstone Trail Association (YTA) formed to develop the roads between communities. The YTA charged membership dues, handed out maps and newsletters, held fun “Trail Days”, auto races and guided tourists.

In Minnesota, the Yellowstone Trail roughly follows Highway 212.

By the early 1930s the Depression and aggressive state and federal government efforts to assume road building and route marking responsibility caused the YTA to fade and, over time, be forgotten.

Around 1999, however, a number of local historians, several retired university professors, and representatives of the tourism industry, individually and then collectively, began attempts to revitalize the Yellowstone Trail and its brand by spreading the word about its historical significance, tourism potential, and ‘just plain fun’ to be found along the route.

Michael J. Dowling
Minnesotan Michael J. Dowling is perhaps the premier champion of the Yellowstone Trail. A resident of Granite Falls, Renville and Olivia Yellowstone Trail (or HWY 212) communities, Dowling was the first YTA President (from 1917-1919) after founder Parmley.

Dowling is a prominent figure in Minnesota history books. At age 14 he was caught outdoors in the blizzard of 1880 and subsequently had to have both of his legs, one arm and all but the stub of a thumb on his other hand amputated

Nevertheless, Dowling shrugged off these disabilities to become a teacher, newspaper owner/editor, bank owner, mayor, Justice of the Peace, auto salesman, Great Lakes and St. Lawrence tidewater commissioner, inspirational speaker for maimed World War I veterans, Speaker of the Minnesota Legislature, congressional and gubernatorial candidate and friend of U.S. Presidents. Additionally, he led the first legislative effort to provide state aid to children with disabilities and founded a school in Minneapolis for physically handicap children.

Following the formation of the YTA, Dowling immediately saw the value in the organization and a connected trail system. In 1913, he led a three car motorcade that “blazed” the Yellowstone Trail from St. Paul to Yellowstone Park. Later, he completed the eastern portion of the route from Buffalo, New York to Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts.

In 1917, Dowling was elected President of the YTA and is credited with reshaping it into what some called the best organized road association in America. As a result of his leadership:

  • The motto “A Good Road from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound” was officially adopted as the trail slogan.
  • Trail headquarters was moved from South Dakota to the Andrus Building in downtown Minneapolis and his friend H.O. Cooley was installed as general manager.
  • Tours of the Trail were planned for governors, magazine writers and other guests.
  • A network of free tourist information bureaus was planned and first opened in Chicago, then Minneapolis, Miles City and Seattle.
  • Huge quantities of touring maps and literature printed and distributed to auto clubs and motoring enthusiasts.

According to the book “We Blazed the Trail,” Dowling declared to the YTA members that the Yellowstone Trail would one day bring a “Golden Stream” of tourism to all the communities along its route.

Exactly 100 years after this declaration, the Yellowstone Trail Alliance of Western Minnesota (YTAWMN) believed it has formed to see this legacy fulfilled in full.

Yellowstone Trail Alliance of Western Minnesota
In January 2018, the newly formed YTAWMN began meeting as organizational corridor of eight communities running from Granite Falls to Buffalo Lake that seeks to align arts, historic, cultural and recreational assets using the Yellowstone Trail as the connecting thread and the legacy of Michael Dowling as its spirit of inspiration.

The fact that all eight communities, including Granite Falls, Sacred Heart, Renville, Danube, Olivia, Bird Island, Hector and Buffalo Lake, is an example of how effortlessly the initiative has snowballed and been embraced by community members and organizations. On Nov. 9, 2018, YTAWMN held its first corridor conference: Designing Destination Communities, which featured keynote presentations from former Lanesboro Arts Director John Davis, Minnesota Main Street Program Coordinator Sarina Otaibi and rural revitalization specialist and Obama Fellowship recipient, Ashley Hanson. The event highlighted the importance trails, amidst other assets, as primary drivers of community revitalization. It was well attended by key stakeholders from all eight communities.

Looking ahead to 2019, YTAWMN is presently working to develop a Cultural Heritage Tourism plan between the YTAWMN communities, marketing materials and visitor guides as well as a corridor-wide event. Additionally, YTAWMN is working with the national YTA to establish a state chapter of the Yellowstone Trail preceding a statewide summit tentatively planned for the fall of this year.

Olivia trail efforts
Of the eight YTAWMN member communities, the City of Olivia, which is also the burial place of Dowling, appears to be leading the way both on trail development within the community and with respect to the Yellowstone Trail.

Olivia has worked with stakeholders, businesses and area residents to establish various foundational documents are guiding Olivia’s efforts, including: Safe Routes to School Plan, Active Living Plan, Complete Streets Policy, and a long-term infrastructure replacement and enhancement plan that will ensure efforts started can be maintained for future generations.

At present, the City of Olivia is set to undertake first phase of Safe Routes to School plan that will develop a trail system improving connection points to existing trails within the community geared around BOLD High School’s campus and the need for safer and better access to the school and other area points of interest.

The city has received $200,000 for this first phase of the project, which is slated to break ground in the spring of 2020. Concomitantly, the city is also seeking $350,000 in trail grants to complete phase 2 of the trail system, which further integrates the Phase 1 plans into the trail system and providing additional safe and convenient pedestrian and bike connections to points of interest and destination in the community.  Of particular focus with this latest effort is a goal of providing a safer place for pedestrians to cross Highway 71 in order to bring neighborhoods separated by a highway closer together.  Expectations are at that the Phase 2 project can occur in 2022 or 2023, which is the same time period that MnDOT is scheduled to perform road surface and safety improvements along the same segment of Highway 71.

The Olivia Park Board has started preliminary discussions as well about updating and showcasing the sidewalk that runs adjacent to Depue Avenue, the community’s original “Main Street,” which was also part of the original Yellowstone Trail route through the city. The Park Board is working on the premise that the reconstruction of Depue Avenue in 2020-21 will provide an opportunity to showcase the city’s Yellowstone Trail historical roots and weave a bit of history and education into an otherwise run-of-the-mill street reconstruction project.

In a world where perception becomes reality, Michael J. Dowling championed the idea that success was predicated upon doing the most with what one has and not sitting around and worrying about what one lacks. In southwest Minnesota, this legacy of the Yellowstone Trail is encouraging communities to take stock of their resources and remember what they can accomplish when they all work together.