It feels a bit death-defying when a flatlander from a place called Champaign — which literally means “open, level countryside” — crosses a long bridge over a valley about 90 feet above the trees, brush, marshland and muddy Middle Fork of the Vermilion River.
There are no long, tall bridges in Champaign County. There are no nearly century-old former railroad bridges here that give you a queasy feeling when you peer below. There are no 10-foot-wide rail trail decks that allow you to race on foot or on a bike a quarter-mile from one side of a river valley to another.
Vermilion County’s got it. Vermilion County has topography; Champaign County has champaigns.
About 30 miles east of Champaign-
Urbana — or 3 miles east of Oakwood — is what is known to locals as the Possum Trot Bridge. A bridge has stood on that site over the Middle Fork since about 1868, when the Indianapolis, Bloomington & Western Railroad laid the first tracks between Danville and C-U. Around 1923, a sturdier bridge was built by the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway using the same footings and foundation.
(There also was a parallel interurban railway bridge to the south, close to what is now U.S. 150, that was much lower and much less spectacular.)
Blueprints of what was officially called the Vermilion River Viaduct, obtained by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which owns and helped pay for the repurposed structure, show that its steel came from the Fort Pitt Bridge Works outside of Pittsburgh.
That’s the same place that provided the steel for railroad and street bridges all over the country, including Chicago’s Wells Street Bridge, plus structures including the Jefferson Memorial.
More than 1,300 tons of steel was required to rebuild the Possum Trot Bridge. Trains trudged across the structure for what had to have been heart-stopping moments until the 1990s, when the rail line was abandoned by Conrail.
After decades of negotiations, design, planning and construction, a 3-mile segment of the Kickapoo Rail Trail, using the old railroad right of way, opened last month for recreation between Oakwood and a short distance past the Possum Trot Bridge.
Atop the solid guts of the bridge is a solid surface. It’s made of Ipe, a South American hardwood that is resistant to rot. A sturdy wood-and-metal fence about 5 feet high provides a sense of security on both sides of the deck.
Any comparison between the Champaign County portion of the trail — the 6.7-mile segment between Urbana and St. Joseph — and the Vermilion County section is one-sided. God blessed Champaign County with an outstanding farming environment. Vermilion County got the scenery.
The bike ride from Oakwood to the bridge features a gentle grade, a deep forest, a variety of wildflowers and, until recently, the buzz of cicadas.
Eventually, the two segments of the Kickapoo Rail Trail will connect to make a 24.5-mile trail linking Urbana with Kickapoo State Park. Those with a greater vision see the trail eventually extending into Champaign.
But this rail trail is not like a skyscraper or most other developments. The best part is not to come; it’s already here.
Tom Kacich’s column appears on Sundays in The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.