Looking ahead: The recently renovated gatehouse at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College will eventually serve as a trailhead for an extension of the National Road Heritage Trail, connecting the campus to West Terre Haute. Susan Dolle is a member of the U.S. 40 National Road Bicycle Club and the Riverscape trails committee, which is involved in planning for the trail extension. Staff photo by Mark Bennett
Looking ahead: The recently renovated gatehouse at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College will eventually serve as a trailhead for an extension of the National Road Heritage Trail, connecting the campus to West Terre Haute. Susan Dolle is a member of the U.S. 40 National Road Bicycle Club and the Riverscape trails committee, which is involved in planning for the trail extension. Staff photo by Mark Bennett
Standing beside her bicycle, Susan Dolle looked westward toward LeFer Lake and the tree-lined scenery of the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College campus and beyond.

The recently renovated gatehouse at the campus’ entrance stood behind her.

Someday, a gradual stream of bicyclists, joggers and hikers could pass through the spot. Trails advocates, such as Dolle and many others, envision the site as a trail-head for a pedestrian trail connecting the college to the nearby town of West Terre Haute.

That approximately five-mile course also would someday connect to the National Road Heritage Trail, which will expand from Terre Haute to West Terre Haute next year with a pedestrian walkway adjacent to the south side of U.S. 150 as it passes through the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area.

And, that stretch of the National Road Heritage Trail could connect with other stretches that reach the Indiana State University and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology campuses.

And, the Heritage  Trail — which currently winds for 30 miles through Vigo County — could connect with trails in neighboring Vermillion and Parke counties to the north and further west to Illinois.

“Hopefully, in 10 or 20 years, things connect and we’ll have this triangle,” Dolle said of the multi-county trail configuration.

Plans for the broader vision and the smaller proposed segments have been ongoing through the 21st century, involving groups such as Wabash Valley Riverscape, West Central Indiana Economic Development District and others. Riverscape’s trails committee and trails groups from the region discussed the possibilities in recent weeks, too.

The intended extension of the Heritage Trail from West Terre Haute’s downtown to SMWC has been a focal point. Its value will be enhanced by next year’s scheduled completion of the 1.17-mile pedestrian walkway beside U.S. 150.

That concrete path will eliminate the perilous practice of pedestrians and bike riders crossing “the grade” on the highway between West Terre Haute and Terre Haute, which has only a marginal shoulder. The $7.4-million project — with federal funds for traffic mitigation and better air quality covering 80% of the cost — also will provide a crucial missing link in extending the Heritage Trail west of the Wabash River to Dewey Point, the trail-head for the Wabashiki Trail.

Cyclists and pedestrians could continue north from West Terre Haute to the SMWC campus, with that trail extension.

“It’s been a long-term goal of the college and Riverscape to get a bike connector from downtown West Terre Haute to [Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College],” said Daniel Bradley, chairman of the Riverscape trails committee and the former ISU president. “It’s now a priority point for Riverscape.”

Of course, funding possibilities must be explored, Bradley said, as well as the various pathways from West Terre Haute to the college.

“It’s gaining some traction,” said Dolle, who serves as director of grants development at SMWC. “It’s not a new idea. It’s, ‘How do we get here?’ People are seeing the value of trails.”

The 180-year-old college would itself be a unique destination to cyclists, runners and walkers. The campuses of the college and adjoining Sisters of Providence congregation feature a series of small scenic trails, including the nature trail around Saint Joseph Lake, Lake LeFer Trail and a two-mile trail along the campuses’ perimeter.

Nature and wildlife in western Vigo County provide attractive scenery for trail aficionados. “There are some really nice bike rides out here,” Dolle said, before pedaling her bicycle back to her home. She’s toured several stretches of Hoosier countryside as a member of the U.S. 40 National Road Bicycle Club.

A West Terre Haute-to-SMWC segment of the National Road amounts to a linchpin in developing a multiple-county trails connection, Bradley said. The most likely short-term version of the western trail would involve designated bicycle space on existing roads, an option that could be completing within a few years, he figures.

“The all-road route could happen pretty quickly,” Bradley said. “The off-road route would take longer, maybe a decade or more.”

He added, “None of this stuff happens quickly.”

Indeed, the western Vigo trail is one of several prospective paths cited in the West Central Indiana Economic Development District’s 2011 “Trail and Greenway Plan.” Also included are trails linking ISU, Rose-Hulman, SMWC and Ivy Tech Community College in southern Vigo County.

Still, as both Bradley and Dolle emphasized, the methodical planning continues and there are new possibilities, such as the western Vigo trail extension, as well as envisioned connections with Parke, Vermillion and eventually Sullivan counties’ trails.

“I think there’s pretty exciting stuff going on,” Bradley said.

Progress on trails and outdoors opportunities surrounding the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area — a nature preserve in the Wabash River wetlands, set aside by former Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2010 — will be highlighted in an event scheduled for next month.

Wabashiki Day is planned for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10, centered at Dewey Point on West Terre Haute’s east edge. Stations will be set up at various points of interest to allow social distancing space for attendees, including the Wabashiki Trail’s trail-head on the south end of the Dresser community. Cyclists can ride on Wabashiki Trail, too.

“We want people to realize what wonderful things are there already,” Bradley said, “and open eyes to what is planned to be there.”

While emphasizing that it’s important to maintain the county’s existing trails, Riverscape president Michael Shaw also pointed out that progress continues. He said the importance of the Heritage Trail has been illuminated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has prompted people to find outdoors activities while indoors routines are disrupted.

“I think [the trails] are getting good use, especially through the COVID-19 pandemic,” Shaw said. “We’ve seen a real demand for outdoors outlets, and they’re getting used.”
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