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B-Line Rail-Trail Helps Pull Downtown Bloomington, Ind., Together

By Herb Hiller

Where a rail line once poured raw materials into downtown Bloomington, Ind., a trail now pours cyclists. From downtown, same as ever, finished goods roll out and into the world. What used to be furniture and cut limestone have become college grads testing their futures. What else might you expect from Bloomington, a city of 80,000, where more than half the population are the students, scholars and staff at the main campus of Indiana University?

Each year during Move-in Week, some 10,000 freshmen file in, fanning out with their ambitions four years later. Except that not all 10,000 a year leave.

Many of those who stay in Bloomington embrace a civic outlook that ties quality of life to economic development. They see a city government that values the benefits of trails--trails that supply safe paths to school and family fitness, trails that rank high when the time comes to acquire a new place to live. In Bloomington, when trails go in, houses follow. A few corn silos and barns remain at the last close-in farms, giving way to subdivision houses with paths that drop from hillside doors to rail-replacing trail.

Bloomington trails mostly date from 2000. The Wapehani Mountain Bike Trail offers five miles of single-track adventure six miles southwest of town. A mile of rail-with-trail connects affordable student housing to campus. Newest is the .6-mile Jackson Creek Trail that links two eastside schools.

What Bloomington Mayor Mark Kruzan calls the "most significant economic development project on the city's agenda. . . monumental in its scope and importance," is the multi-modal, 12-foot-wide B-Line Trail. Starting at little more than a half-mile three years ago, the B-Line's latest extension, completed September this year, carries the trail a total of 3.1 miles.

The trail juxtaposes city and country. It's textured with bridges and interpretive signs that spool our way through time. So much that everyone likes about this city happened along this route. No matter how smooth your tires, history rumbles beneath.

Bike and trail culture flourish. The Oscar-winning Breaking Away from 1979 endowed Bloomington as a nationally iconic cycling city. Bloomington Velo News blogs about re-showings as well as about Bike Week in May, the Hilly Hundred in fall, the annual downtown criterium and regional tournaments hosted by the Bike Polo Club. Two or three downtown shops rent bikes. The Little 500 is the biggest intramural event on the IU campus, and America's largest collegiate bike race.

Look through trail master plans of the city and surrounding Monroe County and you find trails extending big loops to the northeast, to the south and shafts of trail across county lines You grasp how Mayor Kruzan's vision suffuses an entire county's outlook. A hundred additional trail miles will help renew rural towns and capture new green tourists.

Two sections of trail linger moist in memory. The B-Line first slopes south with a mile banked on either side by outcroppings of limestone, mornings slick with dewy grass. Maple forest shadows the way. Locomotive engineers would have gently braked their way down, likely long and fondly remembering this sylvan grade. 

Limestone mills that clustered along the tracks are gone, but hardly the limestone. Chunks lie in a remaining yard as they once did at almost a dozen mills ready for loading onto freight cars bound far and wide. Demand followed the Chicago Fire of 1871 that made flame-scorning limestone the choice for monumental structures--over time for the National Cathedral, the Empire State Building and the Pentagon, while also advancing Beaux Arts style in America. The Campus as a Work of Art by author Thomas Gaines 20 years ago named the limestone-prevalent IU campus "one of the five most beautiful in America." Downtown that once clamored with citizen-annoying stone-cutting machines has given way to student-pleasing finished stone seating (as well as iron street furniture) for trailside socializing.

Here you feel the city-anchoring power of this trail. A small downtown cabinet business less than a century ago grew to boast itself the largest furniture company in the world. The Showers Brothers Company factory's pinnacled roof today houses trailside offices of Bloomington and Monroe County. Bloomingfoods has opened its third natural foods market a block south.

Fountain Square surrounds the old county courthouse, its perimeter shops almost all mom-and-pops, including Book Corner with its 5,000 magazines, and several of Bloomington's nearly 100 distinct restaurants. IU student-pianist Hoagy Carmichael and touring cornet legend-in-the-making Bix Beiderbecke made 1924 jazz history by performing together here and on campus.

An historical sign a block off the trail marks the 1820 site of Indiana Seminary that became IU. 

Art shows up everywhere trailside. Fanciful oversized cut metal fish flash their colors atop trailside poles; cafes alongside display their menus on colorfully chalked boards. Custom-designed bike racks show the B-Line logo, and there's the art-splashed WonderLab Science Museum for kids. A heavy iron trestle, topped by stunning blue geometric superstructure, carries the trail from downtown over four traffic lanes.

A roundabout at the B-Line's south end connects with the 2.3-mile Clear Creek Trail that heads north-northwest to a trailhead alongside a busy road. The trail meanders out in the open among subdivisions and still-open fields, so that anyone who rides outbound from town will also want to ride both back again to savor the B-Line's rich palette the other way.

South across Country Club Road, finely crushed gravel composes the second memorable section of trail, easy to ride on all but the thinnest tires. Its some two miles channel through forest that comfortably shades the trail where even summer afternoon temperatures drop a cooling eight to 10 degrees. Cyclists appearing around curves hear the phantom squeal of steel wheels against steel track. Clear Creek itself dribbles south from the roundabout beneath the old Harris Ford Suspension Bridge, relocated here after 113 years of service nearby.

For a mile, the trail continues rideable though narrowing path. The way stays wet after rain. Roots and flinty outcroppings turn the path slick and dangerous, enough to turn anyone back. That's not to say you can't--or won't--return.

Herb Hiller is at work on a book on unmarketed travel, of which Bloomington will serve as a chapter. He is Florida's Trail Advocate of the Year.  

Photos (top to bottom, left to right): downtown Bloomington, courtesy of the city of Bloomington; the B-Line Trail, courtesy of the city of Bloomington; the B-Line Trail, by Herb Hiller; art along the trail, by Herb Hiller; new B-Line Bridge over Grimes Lane. 


Posted Tue, Oct 18 2011 1:10 PM by Karl Wirsing (RTC)

Comments

Nancy Hiller wrote re: B-Line Rail-Trail Helps Pull Downtown Bloomington, Ind., Together
on Wed, Oct 19 2011 2:55 PM

Lovely coverage of a Bloomington treasure. Thank you.

Raymond Hess wrote re: B-Line Rail-Trail Helps Pull Downtown Bloomington, Ind., Together
on Wed, Oct 19 2011 3:38 PM

Wonderful!

Chris wrote re: B-Line Rail-Trail Helps Pull Downtown Bloomington, Ind., Together
on Thu, Oct 20 2011 9:18 AM

Too bad your initial photo isn't from one of the trails.  It's merely a sidewalk shot.  Seems with all the new trails in Bloomington you shouldn't of had to resort to just a generic sidewalk photo, but could have just used shots of/from the trails.

Chris wrote re: B-Line Rail-Trail Helps Pull Downtown Bloomington, Ind., Together
on Thu, Oct 20 2011 9:23 AM

Here's a link to a timelapse video I made on the Clear Creek->Rail Trail->B Line.  I walked it and took 1000 pictures (every ten seconds) and assembled into a video.

www.youtube.com/watch

Karl Wirsing (RTC) wrote re: B-Line Rail-Trail Helps Pull Downtown Bloomington, Ind., Together
on Thu, Oct 20 2011 9:55 AM

Fair point, Chris, but part of the story was also about downtown Bloomington, and the city provided this image as an establishing shot to give readers an overall sense of setting. I do agree, though, that you can never show too many trail photos!

 

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