Maxine Witte is an ardent supporter of the Katy Trail even though, at age 84, her bike riding days are over. That’s why she jumped at the chance to use a new vehicle to explore the scenery of the Missouri River Valley.
Witte sat on the front bench seat of a tram that pulled out of Rhineland City Park on a brilliant fall day on its way 10.9 miles west through Bluffton to Portland on Katy Trail State Park.
Witte, who is from Rhineland, wore a quiet smile and a Katy Trail volunteer sweatshirt as she took in the familiar landmarks. The covered tram, pulled along at 12 mph by a Chevy Tahoe, creaked passed harvested bottomland fields, river bluffs so close you could almost touch them and tidy German farms.
“See that scraggly old tree out there in the field?” Witte said. “We rented a two-story farmhouse by it when we came here in 1953 - paid $20 a month.”
Missouri State Parks has offered fall tours of the Katy Trail for several years, using a tram borrowed from a county electrical cooperative. Thanks to the generosity of a Kansas City couple’s gift targeted for seniors, the private Missouri Parks Association purchased a tram and gave it to the park system this summer.
“The purpose is to get more seniors out to state parks,” said Melanie Smith, Katy Trail coordinator.
Six tours covered different sections of the Katy Trail on Tuesdays through September and October, climaxed by the annual fall color tours on Oct. 26-27. The tours are free, and the tram can hold up to 30 riders.
“We kind of targeted 55 and older for the tram tours,” Smith said. “But we will accommodate anybody who wants to get out on the trail and is not able to ride a bike or walk long distances.”
“We chose Tuesdays because it’s a lower usage day on the trail; you encounter less bicycle and walking traffic. We don’t want to compete with our other users.”
As the tram crossed Quick Creek on a rusted bridge, a passenger asked how the creek got its name.
“It’s named for the family that lived along it,” Witte said.
Expanding the Tram Tours
During Tuesday tram rides, signs are posted at either end that caution walkers and riders to watch for the approaching tram. As it worked out, the bikers and hikers merely moved to the side of the trail, and waved at the seniors on the tram.
At the halfway point – on this ride it was Portland – the passengers disembarked for a short bathroom and water break while the tram turned around for the return trip.
The riders were told to bring cushions for the aluminum seats and sunglasses for the dust. The trip took about two hours, and was offered at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Reservations were required. Visit katytrailstatepark.com for information on the fall color tours.
Now that the parks system has its own tram, Smith said, its list of scheduled adventures will be expanded.
“It may be used for Tuesday tours in the spring, it could be eagle watching along the trail this winter,” she said. “There are a lot of possibilities.
“The reaction has been wonderful. It allows people to still enjoy the same places they’ve always enjoyed.”
History Along the Way
Megan Kelly, an employee of state parks, sat up front on the tram with a microphone and gave a rolling history lesson. She talked about the churches and businesses along the way, the development of the trail and the history of the small railroad towns.
As the tram pulled out of Rhineland, Kelly noted that the town was flooded four times during the Great Flood of 1993. The village’s 157 residents decided to move their homes from the bottoms to the bluffs. Thirty-two of the town’s 52 homes were picked up and hauled out of harm’s way.
Witte and her family already lived on the higher ground.
“Yep, I saw it all through my kitchen window,” Witte said. “Everybody would say, ‘Here comes another house’.”
Kelly told the passengers that the linear Katy Trail State Park now stretched 240 miles, from Machens on the east to Clinton on the west. The flat, gravel trail follows a route abandoned by the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, and is the country’s longest rails-to-trails project.
The Flood of 1993 delayed development of the trail, and it was opened from St. Charles to Sedalia in 1996. In the 25 years since, the trees along the trail have grown to form a green canopy of sun-dappled shade.
“I was one of the few people in favor of it in the early days,” Witte said. “I stood still and kept my mouth shut. Now, everybody loves it. I always have to visit with the bikers. Last week, I met a couple from British Columbia.”
Witte brought a few of her lady friends on the tram ride, including one who has failing vision.
“See that white-haired lady; she can barely see,” Witte said. “But she told me she enjoyed coming out and listening to the wind rustling the tree leaves. She said it reminds her of fall.”