May Theilgaard Watts

Since I’m back in Chicago this week for work, it seems fitting to follow up my post about Prairie Trail with May Theilgaard Watts, whose 1963 letter to the Chicago Tribune editor is credited with initiating the rails-to-trails movement.

May was a naturalist for the Morton Arboretum in Illinois, a teacher, scientist, newspaper columnist, local public TV personality, and the author of popular tree and flower identification guides. Out walking in her neighborhood, she observed the overgrown Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railway corridor, and got the idea that the unused strip could become a walking path! This had never happened before — rail travel was declining, but the railroads retained right-of-way to the corridors even as the land lay unused, and cities vied to use the land as parking spaces. Her ideas eventually led to the creation of the Illinois Prairie Path, the very first public-use recreational rail-trail. (Despite the similarity of names, the Prairie Path is not identical with the Prairie Trail I rode. The Prairie Path is an east-west trail that intersects the Fox River Trail, a southern extension of “my” north-south Prairie Trail, and they’re all rail-trails.)

Here is her entire letter:

We are human beings. We are able to walk upright on two feet. We need a footpath. Right now there is a chance for Chicago and its suburbs to have a footpath, a long one.

The right-of-way of the Aurora electric road lies waiting. If we have courage and foresight, such as made possible the Long Trail in Vermont and the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, and the network of public footpaths in Britain, then we can create from this strip a proud resource.

Look ahead some years into the future. Imagine yourself going for a walk on an autumn day. Choose some part of the famed Illinois footpath. Where the highway crosses it, you enter over a stile. The path lies ahead, curving around a hawthorn tree, then proceeding under the shade of a forest of sugar maple trees, dipping into a hollow with ferns, then skirting a thicket of wild plum, to straighten out for a long stretch of prairie, tall grass prairie, with big blue stem and blazing star and silphium and goldenrod.

You must go over a stile again, to cross a highway to another stile. This section is different. The grass is cut and garden flowers bloom in great beds. This part, you may learn, is maintained by the Chicago Horticultural Society. Beyond the garden you enter a forest again, maintained by the Morton Arboretum. At its edge begins a long stretch of water with mud banks, maintained for water birds and waders, by the Chicago Ornithological Society. You notice an abundance of red-fruited shrubs. The birds have the Audubon Societies to thank for those. You rest on one of the stout benches provided by the Prairie Club, beside a thicket of wild crab apple trees planted by the Garden Club of Illinois.

Then you walk through prairie again. Four Boy Scouts pass. They are hiking the entire length of the trail. This fulfills a requirement for some merit badge. A troop of Scouts is planting acorns in a grove of cottonwood trees. Most of the time you find yourself in prairie or woodland of native Illinois plants. These stretches of trail need little or no upkeep. You come to one stretch, a long stretch, where nothing at all has been done. But university students are identifying and listing plants. The University of Chicago ecology department is in charge of this strip. They are watching to see what time and nature will do.

You catch occasional glimpses of bicycles flying past, along one side. The bicycles entered through a special stile admitting them to the bicycle strip. They cannot enter the path where you walk, but they can ride far and fast without being endangered by cars, and without endangering those who walk.

That is all in the future, the possible future. Right now the right-of-way lies waiting, and many hands are itching for it. Many bulldozers are drooling.

-MAY THEILGAARD WATTS, letter to the editor, Chicago Tribune, September 25, 1963.


Illinois Prarie Path in 2010 (

Despite the dated language and old-lady-ish-ness of the letter, I admire, especially, its technique of persuasion. May knew how to paint a picture! Too often when I’ve tried to make change (like at work — but that’s another story!), my vision has seemed so obvious to me that I’ve failed to give the details that would capture the imagination of others. May’s letter is a great lesson.

So many of the trails I use now are rail-trails, and what was once only an idea in one woman’s head is reality (except for her separate corridor for bikes, which would be nice; instead, the trails are multi-use, meaning everyone is irritated with everyone else, and someday I’ll either be bitten by, or run over, a small dog). Today in this country there are now 19,000 miles of over 1,600 rail-trails! It’s amazing and heartening to realize that something any of us could do — advocate for a future in a simple letter — could change reality in a big, tangible way.