Rails, Trails, and Sorrow

My park-related reading and the death of an important Minnesotan converged last week.

I was reading Peter Harnik’s From Rails to Trails: The Making of America’s Active Transportation Network due to my interest in the movement that led to the creation of the Cedar Lake Trail and the conversion of the Stone Arch Bridge into a pedestrian and bicycle trail. Reading about converting railroad tracks to trails took me back to one of my favorite books this year, Escape Artist: The Nine Lives of Harry Perry Robinson by Joseph McAleer. Harry Robinson, among several lifetimes (nine!) worth of accomplishments, was an advocate for creating all those railroads in the late 1800s.

Stone Arch Bridge in 2004. Converting the railroad bridge to a pedestrian and bicycle path helped revitalize the Minneapolis riverfront which was once dominated by railroads.

As I was contemplating the efforts to create, then repurpose railroads, I saw the obituary for John Helland and an accompanying tribute to him by Dennis Anderson in the StarTribune . Helland was a retired research and policy analyst for the Minnesota Legislature. What McAleer, Harnik and Helland have in common — superficially, at least — is that I met them through these pages. Rich compensation for work that is otherwise not remunerated. They all wrote to me with questions or comments on my posts here, some of which were public and attributed, others exchanged privately in-person or by email.

I wrote a few months ago that I looked forward to reading McAleer’s biography of Harry Robinson, an Englishman who put his stamp on Minneapolis in the 1880s as a journalist, friend to the powerful, and son-in-law of one of Minneapolis’s most influential men, Thomas Lowry. The book lived up to my expectations as it unfolded the story of Robinson’s journey from itinerant Oxford grad to gold prospector to journalist who was knighted for reporting from the trenches of World War I to spokesman for the expedition that discovered and opened King Tut’s tomb. Robinson had more adventures than you or I and he also wrote brilliantly about those adventures, other pressing issues, and the sometimes unsettling prejudices of his time. McAleer chose wisely in sharing freely with his readers the power and wit of Robinson’s own writing through frequent quotations and excerpts from Robinson’s journalism, correspondence, and fiction. Robinson’s considerable influence was due to his writing skill and it is appropriate that his biographer gives us the flavor of that writing.

It was Robinson’s role of railroad advocate — he founded The Northwestern Railroader, a Minneapolis-based magazine in the 1880s and was later the editor of the Chicago-based Railway Age — that resonated as I read Harnik’s book. Harnik was the cofounder of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which advocates converting abandoned railroads to recreation trails. He tells the story of the movement to repurpose an asset at one stage of our history into a quite different asset in a quite different time. Among the projects he mentions are not only the Stone Arch Bridge and Cedar Lake Trail in Minneapolis but also the Cannon Valley Trail in southeastern Minnesota. Harry Robinson was a champion of clearing the land and laying the track, Harnik was a champion of acquiring those same ribbons of land when they no longer carried trains and resurfacing them for recreational use. Both saw value in those strips of land that crisscrossed nearly every county in the country.

Of particular note was that Robinson and Harnik both recognized the necessity of grass roots activism to achieve their objectives. Robinson helped organize “railroad men” into local clubs that largely supported railroad management and their preferred political candidates. Robinson claimed the clubs he helped organize were non-partisan but they generally served Republican interests. After McKinley defeated Bryant in the 1896 presidential election, the new President personally thanked Robinson for his support and organizing efforts on his behalf.

Harnik’s conservancy also recognized the necessity of local champions of rail trails and also asserted its non-partisan nature — more accurately so than Robinson. He cites many examples of cooperation from both sides of the political fence. As different as their objectives appear to have been, I think its fair to say that Robinson and Harnik believed they worked for a common good and both sought allies on carefully targeted issues rather than broader ideological causes.

I was also struck by Robinson’s observations of Americans from his privileged position in English society. McAleer writes, “The American character and can-do spirit had impressed him [Harry] deeply. Twenty years later, Harry reflected on ‘the notion that every American is, without any special training, by mere gift of birthright, competent to any task that may be set him.'”

While our history carries ample warnings of the dangers of an over-zealous belief in American exceptionalism, Harry Robinson’s observations seem corroborated by Peter Harnik’s accounts. He cites many examples of people without prior qualifications taking it upon themselves to organize, plan and execute efforts to secure old railroad beds, tunnels and bridges for public use. In many cases they stood against the formidable might of railroad corporations and at times intransigent public and private bureaucracies. Harnik’s heroes come from all corners of private and public life, from those who had profit and non-profit motives as well as those who really didn’t care much about motives but saw something they thought needed doing and, as Harry Robinson would have appreciated, thought they could do.

As I consumed this stew of railroads and trails, non-partisan commitment to service, and the constantly evolving notion of the public good — against a backdrop of great adventures — came the news that John Helland had died. Dennis Anderson laid out the details of Helland’s service to Minnesota as the legislative staff person responsible for writing many of the state’s environmental and conservation laws. Anderson noted that Helland “and others like him in government, are the dutiful — and smart — ones who write the laws and policies that legislators oftentimes can only imagine.” Anderson also applauded Helland’s professional non-partisanship.

I was especially pleased that Anderson included “smart” in his description of Helland and others like him in government. From my own service in the federal government and from working closely with people in local government service, from municipal to park to library employees, I have enormous respect for employees in the public sector. Their work is in many respects more difficult than work in the private sector because they work for so many bosses and must serve, or at least consider, so many competing agendas. Yet they accomplish so much with intelligence and grace. As did John Helland.

Sir Harry Perry Robinson’s life, apart from adventure and glamor, is at its core a worthwhile jumping off point for consideration of so many pertinent contemporary issues: economics, politics and government, heritage, journalism, relations among nations, and more. Whether we agree or not with his views today, they are threads in the tapestry we have become. McAleer’s book about a man and Harnik’s book about a movement compel us to think about how we define and balance private gain and public good. Helland’s legacy, perhaps even more than the natural resources he helped conserve, is his example of how to pursue that balance.

4 comments so far

  1. Joan Pudvan on

    Your pursuit of “the balance” was a great read…thanks, David.

  2. Tom Balcom on

    David – I knew John Helland well during my years at DNR. Dennis Anderson’s tribute to John was great and very well deserved. We went out to dinner as couples just a few weeks before he died. I was really shocked and sad and will miss him a lot.

    • David C. Smith on

      Thanks for adding your voice, Tom. As I recall, John told me that you were the one who first directed him to this blog. Thanks for that, too.


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