John Wayne Trail

A sign for Iron Horse State Park and the John Wayne Trail in Ellensburg on Thursday. Washington State Parks is considering renaming the trail. (Joanna Markell, Daily Record)

Washington State Parks is discussing whether to rename the Iron Horse State Park-John Wayne Pioneer trail.

The possibility of renaming the trail came up at a Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission meeting last week. Randy Kline, statewide trail coordinator for Washington State Parks, said one of the biggest reasons for the proposed renaming is the current names cause a lot of confusion among recreationists.

“The implication is that the Iron Horse Trail is on the west side of the Columbia and the John Wayne Pioneer Trail is on the east side of the Columbia, when in fact they’re one single trail,” Kline said. “When we have people come from out of state or other areas, they don’t really get that subtle distinction that even though they have different names, it’s all the same trail.”

The Iron Horse State Park Trail includes the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, according to information given to the commission last week.

The trail follows the former Milwaukee Railroad bed for 285 miles across two-thirds of the state of Washington, from the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains to the Idaho border. It was designated a National Recreation Trail in 2002. Though there are gaps along the trail, it is one single trail, Kline said.

Finding a new name will involve a dedicated web page, notification to the Iron Horse State Park mail and email lists and outreach on social media, according to information given to the commission.

“The first step as we begin the public process is coming forward with the names that we are proposing,” Kline said. “What we are likely going to do is provide four to six names for public comment.”

The state purchased the former Milwaukee Road corridor in 1981, and controversy soon arose over how it should be used. According to the Friends of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail website, horseman and outdoor enthusiast Chic Hollenbeck envisioned its use as a multi-use trail, and lobbied hard to make it a reality. The trail was named the John Wayne Pioneer Trail for Hollenbeck’s admiration for the cowboy actor. Hollenbeck was the founder of the John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders, a group that has organized an annual ride across Washington on the trail since 1981.

Washington State Parks generally tries to avoid naming trails after individuals, instead focusing on geographical location, geology, archaeology or site history. The 1985 naming was a compromise, Kline said.

“It was a way for those who wanted to see this turn into a trail get the attention of legislators, of users, because they just saw the John Wayne name symbolized the West,” Kline said.

Other names considered in 1985 included the Milwaukee Road Trail, Iron Horse Recreational Trail, Great-Walk-of-Washington and the Upper Yakima River Trail.

John Wayne never spent any significant time in Eastern Washington, nor did he have a historical connection to the area, Kline said.

Minutes from the commission’s 1985 meeting about the name said the John Wayne Pioneer Trail had considerable support from the Backcountry Horsemen and the John Wayne Pioneer Trail Wagons and Riders Club. The groups pointed out that John Wayne loved the Northwest and spent time in the Puget Sound area, and made several movies here. Michael Wayne, John Wayne’s son, granted permission to use his name.

The 1985 minutes also said staff felt the name wasn’t appropriate because John Wayne wasn’t from Washington.

Information that went to the commission last week said the John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders group, which supported the name in the past, has indicated it is open to exploring other names.

The name Iron Horse, a generic railroad reference, also is vague and confusing, Kline said.

The name “Iron Horse” has been used in at least six other trails in North America, and does not offer a unique distinction, according to a post on the Friends of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail website this week about the proposed name change.

Jack Price of Easton, who was involved in efforts to establish the trail, has been a part of cross-state rides for years.

“Why in the world would anyone want to rename the John Wayne Pioneer Trail?” he asked.

Price said people today might not understand or appreciate the history or significance of the trail, or how much work has gone into creating and maintaining it.

“We called it the John Wayne Pioneer Trail because we were able to invite people from all over the world,” Price said. “Now, I personally invited the people from England, France, Germany, China, all of these people were invited to come to the United States of America and go on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail.

“We created this trail to help people come together.”

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