Beatrice City Engineer Rex Behrends wanted to install swing gates before announcing the official opening of the last stretch of the Homestead Trail.

Bicyclists, with the urge to explore new trails, had other ideas. They've been riding the 9-mile stretch between the villages of Cortland and Pickrell for weeks.

"As soon as the limestone went down, they figured we were open for business," Behrends said with a laugh.

Swing gates are used to keep motorized vehicles such as  ATVs from driving on trails. Behrends said the gates should be installed by Aug. 9 and that's when the Cortland-to-Pickrell stretch will open officially. A grand opening celebration will be at a later date.

"We will basically be done," Behrends said.

Done means bicyclists now can ride the Homestead Trail, where it begins just south of about 24th Street and Saltillo Road in southwest Lincoln, all the way to Beatrice, a distance of about 40 miles.

The Homestead Trail, a former railroad corridor owned by Union Pacific, has been in the works for more than a decade. UP abandoned the right-of-way in 2000.

The Nebraska Trails Foundation, with help from local governments and trail groups, paid the railroad $500,000 for the right-of-way in February 2001.

The foundation, in partnership with the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District, the city of Beatrice and community leaders in Marysville, Kan., have built various segments of the 60-mile trail.

All that is left to finish is a 19-mile stretch from Beatrice to the Nebraska-Kansas border. The foundation is working with the Lower Big Blue Natural Resources District to complete that segment, Behrends said.

The Cortland-Pickrell stretch has 18 bridges, including a 120-foot-long steel bridge across Indian Creek, about a mile north of Pickrell. Most of the trail is lined with trees, which provide a shady canopy.

The city of Beatrice has spent about $1 million on its portion of the Homestead Trail, with 80 percent of the money coming from the federal government. Behrends said the city contributed engineering work and some land.

Residents from Beatrice, Pickrell and Cortland have been using the trail. Behrends expects to see more riders from Lincoln now that the Cortland-Pickrell stretch is done.

"I think the usage is going to be pretty decent," he said.

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

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