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A 50th anniversary story of trails, nature and collaboration— as told by former Park Board President Bob Schillerstrom

Trails continue to be one of the most treasured assets in our community. Looking back over the past 50 years in the Naperville Park District’s history, it’s clear that the Park District has played an important role in the development of trails in Naperville, together with our city, counties, forest preserve districts, and others.

Many individuals helped transform the dream of a regional trail system into a reality. Several months ago I had the opportunity to speak with one of the key leaders in forging one of the early trail agreements and in the movement to conserve land for public parks—Mr. Robert (Bob) Schillerstrom, who now serves as Chairman of the Illinois Toll Highway Authority Board and as a partner with Ice Miller Legal Counsel, Public Affairs Group.

Dedication of Segment 1 of the DuPage River Trail, 2002, L to R: County Board Member Jim Healy, former Mayor A. George Pradel, former County Board Chairman Bob Schillerstrom, and former Park Commissioner Sally Kirk. Photo courtesy of the City of Naperville.

Mr. Schillerstrom was a Naperville Park District commissioner from 1983-1987 (and Board president from 1985-1987)  and went on to serve as a commissioner with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, president of The Conservation Foundation, and chairman of the DuPage County Board. In all of those positions, he continued to work on the goal of conserving open space and creating a regional trail system by facilitating collaboration among local governments and organizations.

“Run through the ribbon” dedication of Segment 4 of the DuPage River Trail at Knoch Knolls Park, 2010.
Photo courtesy of the City of Naperville.

Pursuing an early passion for open space

Bob Schillerstrom’s story actually begins in his childhood, growing up in Naperville.  In his words, “it was a small town with wide open spaces, great forests, and a nice river. Naperville was growing so rapidly, with nice parcels going under the bulldozer. I didn’t want to lose that.  My feeling was that as the town grew, we needed more and more parks and to preserve open spaces. That’s what got me involved in public service, (and kept me moving) from one office to another.”

Map of a more rural Naperville in 1965; included in the 1965 Naperville Community High School Yearbook that was
found in the Barn’s time capsule.

 Engaging the Park District and other local governments

When Mr. Schillerstrom became a Park District commissioner in 1983, the Riverwalk was two years old, and the Park District managed approximately 880 acres of park land. (In 2016 the District manages more than 2,400 acres.)

Knoch Knolls Park in the 1980s

“The land dedication ordinance was in place, but we needed to make sure that developers were giving us good land to use for parks,” explained Mr. Schillerstrom. 

“The vision was to connect parks up and down the river, to protect the river and make it a part of the focus of Naperville.   The construction of the Riverwalk was pivotal for Naperville, allowing the downtown to grow as a destination.  It was exciting to see Naperville embrace the river.”

 

Naperville Riverwalk

Slowly but surely, the Naperville Park District began purchasing key properties as parks along the river. The District bought the southern part of Knoch Knolls Park while Bob Schillerstrom was park board president, which included the confluence of the East and West Branches of the DuPage River.

 

Confluence of the East and West Branches of the DuPage River at Knoch Knolls Park

When the Park District did not have the funds to purchase the Netzley quarry property, Schillerstrom called the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County for assistance. However, there was no interest in purchasing the property, as the Forest Preserve District only had acquired large parcels up to that point.

Forging an agreement to create the DuPage River Trail

With a vision to promote intergovernmental cooperation to preserve land and protect the river, Schillerstrom ran for and was elected as a commissioner with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County in 1986. For part of a year, he served both on the Park Board and on the Forest Preserve Commission, leaving the Naperville Park District in 1987 to serve as a commissioner with the Forest Preserve District until 1992.

In 1987, the Forest Preserve District issued $100 million in bonds to allow the purchase of additional open space as well as parcels along the DuPage River. Schillerstrom then began working to create a tri-party agreement among the City of Naperville, Naperville Park District and Forest Preserve District of DuPage County for the construction of the DuPage River Trail through Naperville. In the agreement, which was executed in January 1992, the Forest Preserve District would purchase the necessary land, the City and Forest Preserve District would construct the trail and the Park District would maintain the trail.

Dedication of the DuPage River Trail at Wil-o-Way Commons, 2012

Transitioning to another role in preserving land for the community, Bob Schillerstrom served as president of The Conservation Foundation from 1992-1994 and then from 1994-1998. In 1997, The Conservation Foundation helped the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County pass a referendum for $75 million for land acquisition. Then, as DuPage County Board Chairman from 1998-2010, Schillerstrom continued to advocate for land preservation and started the County’s environmental committee.

A happy ending…and looking to the future

“It all started with the Park District,” said Schillerstrom. “We have transformed the West Branch of the DuPage River and we have a tremendous park system. Governments working together bring the biggest bank for the buck to taxpayers.  If we preserve open space and the local government owns it, it will be there forever.  Parks such as Knoch Knolls Park give kids the opportunity to be out in nature like we were when Naperville was a small town. This will create a love of nature for them. It’s a great opportunity for Naperville, to bring up more people who are conservationists.”

Kids can engage with nature in summer camps and year-round programs at Knoch Knolls Nature Center

Enjoy the DuPage River Trail

Today, thousands of bicyclists, walkers and runners enjoy the wonderful DuPage River Trail,  that includes long, off-road segments as well as street connections marked with the DuPage River Trail signs. Trail users now can travel safely under Washington Street and 75th Street on the south route to Knoch Knolls Park and beyond, with a view of the West Branch of the DuPage River.

The DuPage River Trail at Dorothea Weigand Riverfront Park


The newest segment connecting Knoch Knolls Park to the 95th Street Bridge is now under construction in collaboration with the Forest Preserve District of Will County. 

Groundbreaking for Segment 5 of the DuPage River Trail, May 2016.
Photo courtesy of the Forest Preserve District of Will County.

And, to the north, bicyclists and pedestrians can travel safely under the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad bridge and under Ogden Avenue to reach McDowell Grove Forest Preserve. 

 

DuPage River Trail from Wil-O-Way Commons to McDowell Grove -
Looking south from the underpass under the railroad bridge

 Entrance to McDowell Grove Forest Preserve

“The 1992 Tri-Party Agreement was the document that laid the foundation for intergovernmental cooperation to create the open space corridor and complete the regional trail system that we have today,” said Schillerstrom. “And we are preserving and cleaning up the river. These are the exciting things.”

 

Learn more about the DuPage River and its history and benefits by visiting Knoch Knolls Nature Center.  And if you can, ride or walk along the scenic DuPage River Trail to get there.

Knoch Knolls Nature Center


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